How to Appreciate Modern Art

I don’t like modern art. Most people don’t like modern art. Modern art seems banal and stupid to most people, frequently myself included. Modern art includes “blank” white canvases, urinals in the middle of galleries, literal trash, abstract patterns, scribbling with crayons like a child, and so on. Modern art contains a lot of stuff that is simple, which does not take skill with a brush to craft. A frequent criticism of modern art is, “My kid could do that!” The common response is, “But did they?” or “Well you didn’t think of it first,” which is unsatisfying and vague enough to obscure the deeper point. A lot of modern art is about testing the boundaries of what’s considered art, which leads many people to throw their hands up and go, “Well I guess everything’s art! Put it in a gallery, and it’s art.” Or claim it’s an empty label with no real meaning that could include anything (it doesn’t, not everything is art). To some extent, it’s even considered a ploy by rich people to hide money in assets, and drive up the value of those assets in order to increase their overall wealth (which to some extent it is) and it’s also considered a scam by artists to rip off rich people by making them think they’re buying something with a value that the common man can’t see.

So first up, what’s art? I believe art is an expression of creativity intended to appeal to a human aesthetic sense for a non-practical purpose. Is a shovel art? No, it’s a practical device. Can a shovel be designed in an artistic way? Yes, the design of a shovel, car, or other consumer product can be art, if it’s trying to appeal to our aesthetic sense in a way that’s not simply practical. So practicality and art can overlap, but to be art, it needs to be doing something without a practical purpose. It also needs to come from another human, and be received by a human (even if the human is the one who made it), so parts of the natural world may be beautiful, but they can’t be art. A human can select parts of the natural world however, and their selection may be art. Things don’t aspire to be art, they’re flatly in the category or out of it. Some liminal expressions of creativity to rouse the aesthetic sense (acting sexy for your lover) might be considered artistic, but I don’t think they qualify unless you film it or record it in some way, though I admit this is an edge case and there is impermanent performance art that I think qualifies.

This contrasts with a historical definition of art. Art imitated nature. Art was realistic. Art was detailed and took an intense crafting skill to produce. Art appeared to have a progression from simple cave paintings, to beautiful murals like the Sistine Chapel. Then the followup is Modern Art, which seemed to be a regression back into simplicity, then nonsense. The definition of art seemed to change, now instead of making things that were beautiful, art could be anything. Suddenly we had all this ugly art or seemingly non-art that “challenged the idea of what art could be” (correct) in a way similar to putting a bicycle in a car lot, stating it “challenged what a car could be” (incorrect).

The truth is, art is a really REALLY weird category. What we’ve done over time is come to understand the category better, showed what else belongs in it. We’ve moved from understanding that art is a few things that we make that happen to be really beautiful because nature is beautiful, to understanding other types of beauty. Art now illustrates the beauty of raw composition, colors, shapes, patterns, subject matter, behavior, ideas. If a human created it and it’s beautiful for the sake of being beautiful in some way, it’s art.

There’s a big genre of modern art called Conceptual Art, not to be confused with Concept Art. Conceptual Art is essentially the art of Concepts, not things, not depictions, just ideas. Rather than making beautiful objects or depictions of objects, concept art is basically a weird and entertaining idea, “What if we put shit in a can and called it artist’s shit?” The actual can and the actual shit aren’t the art, the idea of them is.

Bits of conceptual art seep into a lot of other modern art. Much of Picasso’s distorted faces are based on the idea of trying to depict all the surfaces of an object simultaneously on the canvas. “Blank” “white” canvases are frequently trying to explore the differences between different shades of “white”, and how they’re slightly blue, or orange, or so on. I saw one which had been painted over with 600 layers of white, the idea being that somehow it could capture the light as it entered the room through this steady process. Many of these canvasses have a unique texture depending on the paints and how it was painted over. Abstract art attempts to find patterns and colors that are visually pleasing, even if they’re non-representational.

The deeper point layered in, “Well you didn’t think of it first” is that the objects used to facilitate the art aren’t the art itself, the idea of it is. Sure, anyone could pick up a urinal, write their name on it, and put it in an art gallery, but it took several thousand years for someone to have the idea of actually doing that. The urinal itself isn’t the art, the idea is. If you did it now that it’s been done, you’re not being creative, you’re copying someone else. On another level, you’d arguably just be creating another installation of that artist’s idea, his art, since the physical thing isn’t the art at all, just a representation of it.

While I’m at it, dadaism is an artistic movement originally intended to mock modern art that eventually just became a part of modern art, because in mocking modern art, it was ironically doing the same exact thing modern art was, creating new valid art.

To better explain Beauty and the Aesthetic Sense before I wrap this up: beauty in the generic artistic sense does not necessarily mean things that are attractive either. A pure expression of ugliness, like a lovingly rendered painting of an ugly face, or a dung pile, can be beautiful in their own way, through the skill and intentionality of the painter. Something can be ugly, but in a beautiful way, like appreciating a gnarled oak tree or a hideous monster.

So not everything is art, but anything can be used in art, anything can be used to express a beautiful idea. That said, I still don’t really like conceptual art or most modern art. I think a lot of the ideas expressed are rather banal, but I begrudgingly accept that they made a point which was important to make, to help illustrate the borders of the Art category, much like musicians making new types of music, such as Jazz, Rock, and Metal, which were initially derided as just being noise, but now we’ve learned to appreciate that style and they’re commonly accepted as music. In a similar way, it’s helpful to understand how someone can appreciate modern art, even if it isn’t your thing personally, because it can give you a deeper understanding of art in general, without the prescriptivist standards enforced by the art styles you prefer.

5 thoughts on “How to Appreciate Modern Art

  1. Yujiri April 23, 2019 / 9:51 pm

    I define art as “the art of encoding emotions or ideas into transferrable perceptions”. (I know I use the word in its definition, but it’s a totally separate idea that just happens to have the same name.) So eg. music, visual art, poetry, stories (this is why I say stories aren’t art until they’re actually encoded into prose or a movie or something; like just summarizing events verbally isn’t a work of fiction). These things would count even if they’re not repeated, because they still COULD be repeated just by repeating the same steps that created the original. (Subject of course to getting bored from listening to the same song over and over, etc.)

    I actually don’t consider games art, since the experiences that actually cause fun are not the ones created by the designer (beating a boss is fun, but the designer didn’t hand-craft your experience of doing so, rather the tools out of which you build this experience for yourself).

    My objections to your definition would be that: 1) it requires a definition of “creativity”; 2) it requires a definition of “non-practical”. What is a “practical” purpose? Obviously a tool a farmer uses to grow food better has a practical purpose: it grows food that nourishes people. But that purpose counts as practical even if people’s lives aren’t at stake from starvation; in other words, if the purpose is simply to improve the quality of life, that’s a practical purpose.

    But isn’t art actually the same thing? It exists to “appeal to the aesthetic sense”, as you called it, in other words to make poeple happy, in other words to improve the quality of life. What’s the actual difference? I’m not comfortable with separating physical and emotional quality of life and making the definition of art hinge on the distinction.

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  2. lilacfortune April 24, 2019 / 11:14 pm

    You’ve said before that you consider ‘cooking’ to be an art. I’d like to hear how this fits your definition of art, since it does serve a practical purpose.

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    • Chris Wagar April 25, 2019 / 2:25 am

      I tried to make it clear in the article that practical objects like a shovel or car can be artistic too, if they express a nonpractical style.

      Cooking has a practical purpose: give you calories and nutrients. However the means of doing this are up to interpretation. Different people try to emphasize different flavors and textures in their cooking, this takes creativity and is not done for a practical purpose, just an aesthetic one.

      We could all drink Soylent, pure ingredients with almost no preparation, but we usually don’t.

      If you do nothing but throw raw ingredients together, you’re (probably) not being artistic. If you eat prepackaged food, the person who came up with that recipe is artistic. If you follow a recipe, it’s someone else’s art. If you innovate on it, it’s partially yours.

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  3. Anonymous June 26, 2019 / 5:55 am

    Modern art is a money laundering scheme.

    Let’s say Rich Bastard A wants to buy 5 million in cocaine from Rich Bastard B. The FBI and the IRS would hear klaxons from a 5 million USD bank transfer, and suitcases full of cash aren’t always practical. So instead, B pays some local “artist” a thousand bucks to smear feces on a canvas and call it “Internalization of the Bourgeois Synecdoche Metastasized Through Queer and Native Paradigms” then sells it to Rich Bastard A for the 5 million.

    Bastard A openly transfers the 5 million through his bank to Bastard B, cheerfully takes the worthless shit stained canvas, quietly receives his cocaine, and nobody asks questions afterwards other than “what could anyone possibly see in modern art?”

    Being a criminal is the only way to appreciate modern art.

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