Why don’t you like modern art?

October 2, 2017
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I’ve done a couple of posts on modern art over at Econlog, so I thought I’d try to avoid wearing out my welcome by doing the third over here.  It seems to me that people in the comment section object to modern art for two reasons; it’s ugly and it’s difficult.  Actually, lots of modern art is not ugly, but they especially don’t like the ugly stuff.

I tried to defend modern art, although even I don’t like most of it.  Recall that all art was once modern art, and most of the art from any period has not stood the test of time.  Museums are full of mediocre baroque history paintings and bland 18th century portraits.  Heck, former President Bush’s recent portraits of soldiers are better than half the portraits of colonial aristocrats you see in American museums.  And Bush’s work is somewhat “modern“. (Is Bush also a pretentious cosmopolitan phony?)

I’m going to try to get you to avoid being turned off by ugly and difficult.  Let’s start with two paintings that I regard as somewhat ugly.  Here’s Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas”:

Almost everyone, regardless of their views on modern art, would regard Titian as one of the all-time greatest painters.  And this painting, showing someone being skinned alive, is one of his very best works.  But I don’t think anyone would say it’s a pretty picture.

Nor is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon:

Also note that Picasso’s painting is an example of the “ugly” modern art that people dislike, whereas Titian’s is an “old master”.  The average philistine may not want the Titian hanging in their bedroom (and even I’d prefer one of his nudes), but they’d show a grudging respect.  But if you are going to reject works that are ugly, why is the Titian not equally objectionable as the Picasso?

OK, so let’s say that great works of art can be ugly, and move on to “difficult”.  The Picasso is in some ways more difficult than the Titian, and that difficulty is in part do to stylistic innovations that can be traced back to Cezanne.  Here’s a picture I took of a Cezanne that hangs over the fireplace in my bedroom), which is anything but “ugly”:

On the other hand, this picture by Thomas Kinkade is even prettier:

So why do I have a Cezanne in my bedroom, and not a Kinkade?  Let’s use an analogy from music, which most people understand better than painting (I’m the reverse.)  The Kinkade is like that catchy by annoyingly manipulative and sentimental pop song that you can’t get out of your head, perhaps sung by Celine Dion.  The Cezanne is like a tune by Radiohead, which seems difficult to follow, but grows with repeated listening.

Here’s the problem. Most people walk into a modern art museum, spend 10 seconds looking at each work (or even less) and then never again revisit these paintings. They think that a painting can be grasped in a quick glance, whereas music requires sustain concentration, but this is an illusion.

You may say that you “like” the Cezanne but don’t “like” abstract art like this Kandinsky:

Actually, if you don’t like abstract art then it’s very unlikely that you truly appreciate what makes the Cezanne so much greater than the Kinkade.  Indeed you probably don’t fully appreciate even old masters like Titian.  Don’t feel bad, I find even the greatest works of classical music, say the Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, to be exceedingly difficult.  You can almost certainly appreciate them better than I can.  But my failure to fully appreciate these masterpieces doesn’t in any way make me think that those who do are simply being pretentious.

I’m not saying you should try to appreciate modern art.  Rather I’m saying you should try to appreciate people who appreciate modern art.

PS.  Technological progress in art reproduction has been impressive.  The Cezanne might sell for $200 million at auction, and I bought a very good reproduction and had it shipped from the UK for a little over $200 (half of which was shipping). I feel like a billionaire!  It uses giclee printing to achieve pretty good color fidelity, and is printed on canvas and then put in a tasteful and simple black wood frame.  (My photo doesn’t do justice to the reproduction’s quality.) When I was younger the available paper reproductions of paintings were so bad that it was pointless to put that sort of print on your wall.

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