What Modern Art Taught Me

The good, the bad and the ugly

The other day I went to a popular art museum in Pasadena. I went there by myself to journal about my feelings, like the pretentious old soul I am. Growing up, the little art gallery in my hometown library was my sanctuary. The halls of this museum, filled with classical paintings and sculptures, made me feel like I was right at home.

Or at least, I did until I had an encounter that made my blood boil.

In the featured gallery exhibit downstairs, the hall was barren save for two blank panels: one white and one blue.

Aw man, I said to myself. I missed the exhibit. They were clearly almost done taking everything down.

“Excuse me,” I said to the guard in the fancy suit, “When did the exhibit get taken down?”

“Miss,” he said, gesturing to the two canvases on the wall, “this is the exhibit.”

This was an entire room dedicated to one giant blue panel with a white one overlapping. At the very corner of one of the panels—a plaque. “White Over Blue” by Ellsworth Kelly. Creative.

The guard saw my unimpressed look. He said, “Oh, you’re one of those, aren’t you?”

One of those? I thought. Please. All that tells me is that I’m not alone in my sentiments.

“I could recreate this exhibit by spending less than $20 at a craft store,” I said. “I just don’t think this is good.

The guard looked at me strangely. “Well, what is good art?” he asked. “What’s good to you might be bad to me. If you look at it that way, there’s no such thing as bad art.”

Okay, okay. I get where he’s coming from. It may come down to a matter of differing taste. If you ask most people, they will probably tell you that art is subjective. But what separates “White Over Blue” from the two random panels hanging in the hallway of my dentist’s office?

Commercial portrait photographer Christine Lee Smith said that to her, the difference is intention.

“Something can be beautiful without being art,” Smith said. “Or it can be downright ugly, and it can be art. Inherently it will have a meaning to the artist, and hopefully, that meaning will be conveyed to the spectator.”

That’s fine, but what about artists like Ellsworth Kelly, who apparently “isn’t interested in assigning meaning to his works”?

Charity Capili, a visual artist and graphic design professor, said that the very nature of my response is proof that the piece is working.

“You don’t have to necessarily like it, but you were influenced by it,” she said. “You left the room because you didn’t like the piece. You’re writing an entire article in response to it. It changed your trajectory in some way, whether from the love or the hate of it, so that means it’s influenced you.”

Okay, point. But when did art become less about skill and craft and more about concept?

The ancient Greek philosophers pursued the good above all else. They held that beauty, truth and goodness were wrapped up together, so to them, beauty is the physical manifestation of the invisible good. Aristotle defines art as a “realization in external form of a true idea, and is traced back to that natural love of imitation which characterizes humans, and to the pleasure which we feel in recognizing likenesses.”

That’s why representational artstraightforward art that looks like its subject—was so popular throughout most of history.

Smith said that in classical, representational art, form led the concept. Modern art is conceptual, so the idea is led by the form, and the process is more important than the outcome.

Formalism is the study of art based solely on an analysis of its form–the way it is made and what it looks like. The layperson, i.e. me, will usually take a formal approach to viewing art and judging whether it is “good” or “bad.”

The typical modern artist, however, places the objective value on authenticity rather than aesthetics.

In a Medium response , the author writes, “Art that we consider art, whether from a classical perspective or a contemporary perspective, is about something more…there is bad art everywhere. There are well crafted representational works that are as vapid as the trendiest contemporary. I disagree that well crafted is better than nothing.”

Capili identified that “something more” as soul.

“I agree art should be connected to some kind of goodness or truth, but to me, that’s the soul of the artist,” she said. “And how do you quantify a soul?”So maybe there is bad art out there—but even in a classical definition, there’s room for art to be Good.

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