Modern Art

Modern art.

The phrase conjures up visions of splats of unknown substances on walls, or sculptures that look suspiciously like scrap metal bought from the karang guni man. All done under the pretext of “art with a deeper message”, or perhaps “art that spurs a higher level of thinking”. It’s art, perhaps, but I don’t think that it’s good art. Most would agree (if they weren’t afraid of being labeled cultural Neanderthals, that is). But why? I believe the problem lies with understanding.

Take a fistful of peas, randomly flung off a table by a baby in a fit of colicky rage. Proponents of the hard-to-understand-art movement will no doubt answer with a resounding “yes”. Look, they say, can’t you see how subversive it is? This is clearly an expression of the artist’s desire to move beyond the restrictions that society imposes on him. People like me, however, would reply “no, I don’t see how this mess is artistic. Now stop babbling and help me pick the peas up.”

It’s perfectly fine to do whatever you want and call it art if you create art only for yourself. However, in most cases the art has an audience. After all, a word cannot be defined by one person only: To be called ‘art’, the work must be accepted by a substantial amount of people as such. But therein lies the problem with a lot of modern art: It’s impossible to understsand!

The first step in getting others to recognize your work as art is by letting them understand what it means. Take these two pieces:

image  image

Most would immediately classify the Mona Lisa as art, while Lavender Mist might take a while before shuffling over to join the Mona Lisa.

Why is this so? Both images are famous (the Mona Lisa far more so, but still…) and both are most definitely great artworks. But to the man-on-the-street the realization that Lavender Mist is a piece of art might take some time. Upon seeing the Mona Lisa one thinks “I see a woman smiling at me”. Lavender Mist [or at least a scaled-down printout of it; the actual work is another matter] produces a rather different response: “Er, okay, I see a lot of paint splotches.”

Understanding is the key difference between Pollock’s Lavender Mist and something a bored kindergartener would do on a Monday afternoon. Viewing the actual work would stir something within me – perhaps because of the grand scale, or the sheer energy contained within it. This communication with the viewer on the most basic level is required for something to be considered art. Whereas if I were looking at a twisted clothes-hanger on the ground I wouldn’t feel much other than perhaps “who’s the idiot going around littering in museums?”.

Modern art has a bad reputation as being abstract and difficult to understand. People shy away from it simply because it has no meaning for them. Why waste my time looking at dead animals on the ground that “experts” deem art when I can go visit an exhibition on da Vinci instead? At least there I’ll be able to appreciate what I’m seeing.

This problem is amplified by bad wall text. We often look to the wall text for information about the artwork, seeking something that will allow us to establish this connection with the piece. But in today’s modern art scene it would seem as though the era of easy-to-understand wall text is behind us for good.


Part of the wall text for this artwork says that it is “a representation of a palatial post-mortal mansion”. I’m sorry,could I have that again in plain English?

I’m sorry if I lost you halfway through this post. I leave you with this extract:

As Ong Sor Fen succinctly summarized in her 2008 Straits Times column Why I prefer David over spacemen:

[…] art is about communicating. If a work fails to even draw in a viewer, how can it hope to challenge him? And contemporary art, with its intellectual posturings, more often than not, fails to engage on the most basic level. It has become solipsistic, a world governed by its own set of rules and a language incomprehensible to anyone beyond a privileged few clued into the lingo.

If we don’t understand the art, how are we supposed to appreciate and enjoy it? This is something that seems ridiculously simple – yet many artists seem to not understand the idea.

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2 thoughts on “Modern Art

  1. Art represents the here and now of a given moment and moments, the existential residue artists produce, created by the senses of experential beings, individual beings, who, most of the time cannot change modern art by themselves, but collectively when a style or mode of art dictates a moment in the progression of life. Throughout art history, the present social environment, trends, politics, and current history all play a part in the new compositions, the new worlds, the new creations these sensory artists produce. No wonder people view modern art as scary, look at whats going on in the world around you.

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