Diana Probst, Cambridge Artist

On Art and Ignorance II

Detail of colour portrait: left eye

This caption will self-destruct in 10 seconds, if you do not read it.

In the last post I tried to answer one question raised by @davidallengreen in his blog post on Art and Art Exhibitions. Now, I tackle another, and what a humdinger it is.

A quote from him:

And in truth [an exhibit] is only being treated as a work of art just because someone has put it in an art gallery.

This how so many “modern artists” get away with such shoddy charlatanism.

Well, yes. There is a lot of shoddy work in modern art. What I am going to say now is not new, but I think it is right;

There is no such thing as modern art right now. Instead, there is post-modern art. Building on the previous generations’ rebellion against fixity and accepted notions of how to create beauty, modern art exploded onto the scene and then kept on exploding. It became the dominant form, so that students were taught expression of the inner self instead of capturing the outer image. They were taught by implication that anyone could be an artist.

Well, this is true. However, not everyone can be a good artist who supports themselves on their work*. However, the teachers and the judges of modern art continue to think that self-expression is an important part of ‘their’ art. In fact, what is happening is that people are rebelling without having anything against which to rebel any more. When Yves Klein painted so minimalistically that he stopped representing anything but blue, that was interesting – he had taken art’s separation from external image to its logical conclusion. I like International Klein Blue. It’s a pretty colour, and it was an important moment in the development of thought. Alas, it didn’t last. I think that people stopped thinking. Rebellion became the habit instead of a method of change, and now the rebellion against modern art has to be undertaken in large part by those who have been brought up to think in its lexicon; it is difficult to do more than become more extreme.

There is no easy cure for this. Whistler sued for libel when Rusking accused him of asking ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ The criticism was judged honest, but not ‘fair and bona fide’. The damages awarded? One farthing, without costs. Whistler’s work has survived, but Ruskin’s legacy is huge. However, in terms of the judgement of history, Whistler is now considered a famous name, and so the tale is generally told for amusement. The work in question was Nocturne in Black and Gold which was an attempt at painting fireworks. An expert witness called it a failed attempt, but you can judge for yourself.

In fact, that’s a very good idea in general. An artist I respect, Stapleton Kearns, puts it that ‘the purpose of art is that it looks good’. (I cannot find the quote, so here is a link to a post in which he discusses art/craft.) I believe in that. Occasionally, I find a piece of modern art that makes me think really big, deep thoughts. Sometimes, those look good, often they do not. (The Tate Modern had about four last time I went, long ago. As for the rest, I diskard them.) Those pieces are important. Sometimes they change people, sometimes and very occasionally, they change the direction of art development. In general classical art does not do that for me – but then again, this.

Going back to the original quote, I think there are a lot of charlatans in modern art, and a lot of people who genuinely think their works are better than they are. The judgement of ‘better’ I use here is one of an artist with a certain amount of a certain type of training. To a modern art critic, it might be genuine. Remember all those times you have been massively in love with someone you later never wanted to see again? Those feelings were at the time genuine. So are many of the self-supporting notions of modern-style art. I find very very little that is appealing in explorations of space behind the canvas, or a thousand photographs of the same dog. I cannot help but think that other people really do, because they are taught that. If you judge on the merits of what you like, your house will be full of things you like looking at, and those things will be genuine to you.

Is teaching modern art a perpetuation of charlatanism? Well, possibly. Had I the strength of a man, there are some I would whip with scorpions.

*Disclaimer: I cannot support myself on my work. I am trying to. I eat noodles a lot.