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Art of the Gaps: Why People Hate Modern Art 

This is something I want to address straight away because this is the number one thing that stops people from learning about art.I’m using the term modern here to mean current because that’s how most people use it. Even though contemporary is the correct term.Anyway, I want to talk about why it is that most people have virtually no time for modern art. There’s a nice quote by critic Julian Spalding that sums this up:‘I’ve never met anyone who loved Modern Art… I have however, met plenty of people who’ve told me that I ought to like it’. 

I think this more or less sums up how a lot of people feel about modern art. Because most art made today has no obvious value or technical skill, it’s easy to assume that most people who say they like modern art are really just pretending to like it. My intention here isn’t to tell you what you ought to like, but to make it easier to find artists that you might like. Now I’m not going to pretend that all or even most art that’s made today is good, because it absolutely isn’t. I totally understand how annoyed or bored people are when they go to an art gallery because it happens to my friends all the time.Most people see examples like these white canvases that are worth $15 million, or the $12 million dollar shark in a tank. People see things like this and they usually come to one of two conclusions. Conclusion 1: All modern art is complete bullshit, and the people who like it are just being conned by fake artists with no talent. Conclusion 2: Modern Art is just very complicated and it takes a lot of insider knowledge and a certain type of person to understand it.

Now there are definitely some people who are just wasting their time by going to an art gallery. People who don’t see any value in looking at pictures or trying to interpret something, or just don’t get anything out of that environment and that’s fine. Looking at art just isn’t for them.For everyone else though, a lot of people try to learn about the subject. But all there is to learn is just a endlessly expanding list of movements and important artists and that isn’t that exciting to learn about. And there’s no explanation about how the art world gets from being an institution mainly concerned with oil painting, to the chaotic state that it’s in today.Going to an art gallery is also not going to be that helpful in getting a perspective on current art. In a gallery there’s probably going to be either one artist or a few if it’s a group show. And unless you live near a big city with a state sponsored gallery, there really won’t be that much to see. At most there’ll be a wall text giving some background information about the artist. So unless you go home and do some hard reading, you’re going to be left in the dark.What’s the Truth?The truth I think, is somewhere in between conclusions 1 and 2. Because, yes in the art world, no one ever has any idea whether or not the thing they’re buying has any value. 

This could be something that’s really meaningful and super significant, or it could just be the artist being a complete moron who’s made this work without knowing why and it has no value whatsoever. Artists themselves usually are very bad at talking about why it is they make the work that they make. They’re often making things based on gut instinct and so they don’t really know how valuable their work is and that doesn’t get decided by them it gets decided by many other important people.This is why sales in the art world are almost always based on trust. If you talk to gallerists and dealers, they always say that being successful in the art world is about having a good relationship with the people you work with. What this means is that the artist is represented by a gallery, so they know the gallerist, they might have a dealer and the dealer knows a lot about the artist’s work. The artist might even have someone to do PR for them, who can do a much better job pitching their work than they can.It’s not really the case that millionaires are walking into galleries, finding random artworks, saying ‘I love it’ and paying stupid amounts of money for it. 

Now I’m sure that has happened but it’s generally not the way things work. It’s also not true that rich people are just getting conned by smooth talkers who are selling them bullshit. People who collect art often know a lot about it, and they often start out as artists themselves. So they have a fairly good idea about what it is they’re buying.But with all that in mind, investing in art is a risk. It’s a risk because nobody knows if an artist is going to have any credibility ten years on and whether their work will be worth anything. So the person buying the work has to subscribe to the same ideology that the artist subscribes to. They both have to believe in the intrinsic value that this work has, that goes beyond its material qualities. Now this could be purely formal, it could be simply that they really like the way it looks, just the way it’s made could be immensely appealing to them. Or it could be that they find the work meaningful and this is where ideology comes in.Aesthetics Versus ConceptBecause art’s value is often symbolic and not intrinsic, it cannot be used for anything directly, it only has value through what it represents.

 Just like religious art of the past was valuable because it acted as a vessel for religious ideology. The art of our time acquires value by acting as a vessel for our ideology, or at least the wealthier segments of society.This is how a blank canvas or a shark in a tank can become worth millions of dollars, as art-works that are vulgar or defunct acquire status by being in defiance against an imaginary establishment. This establishment that previously existed was the one held by the academies of the late 19th century. A hierarchy of strict discipline where artists were expected to follow a set of rules. This involved the use of technical skill and a hierarchy of subject matter. 

Since the 1960s at least, the art world has sought to rid itself of all structural hierarchies including technical ability, in order to create a more ‘inclusive’ set of institutions where the barriers of entry do not disadvantage people from different backgrounds.Most of this change in the art world began in the 1960s when many western universities were overrun by radical socialists, who operated under the name ‘postmodernists’. The process was largely completed in the 1980s when the idea of anti-establishment art was institutionalised by the neo-conceptualists. The underlying forces driving this peculiar set of events are, like most things, driven by technological change. Eric Hobsbawm’s book; Behind the Times: Decline and Fall of the Twentieth Century Avant-Garde, tells the story of how in the mid 19th century, the Art Academies and Salons of western Europe had very firm control over the production of images and visual culture. He describes how, after the development of detailed photography in the 1850s, the art galleries effectively lost control over visual culture and have sought ever since to find a space for itself as more and more of visual imagery is taken over by technological experts.I find it useful to think of this phenomenon as ‘The Art of the Gaps’. 

Just like Bishop Earnst Barnes in the 1930s used the phrase ‘The God of the Gaps’ meaning that the role of religion grew smaller as scientific theories got better, the same thing has been happening to art as its role has been replaced by technology. However as diminished as it has become, the role of art has never died completely. Because artists still possess enough talent to be able to create unique compositions and environments that appeal to people. And they’re often given value if they’re made with the intention of creating a more open and equal society. A Set of ValuesThe problem is, that the niche that the art world has carved out for itself is one that rejects most notions of technical ability and a hierarchy of value. And once you take away that hierarchy, notions of beauty and perfection are simply replaced with notions of solidarity with the less fortunate segments of society. Which is what the art world has devolved into.This is why so many people hate modern art. Once it is no longer grounded in craftsmanship, the idea of art becomes synonymous with status for status’ sake. A field which revolves around self aggrandisement.I believe that there was a point in the mid 20th Century, where the ideas of the postmodernists that deprived art of its value, could have been resisted. And the ideas of perfection and beauty could have been salvaged. 

But history played out and this did not take place.However that in spite of all this, the art world is still very much worth paying attention to. All one has to do is to adopt a different set of values, and pay attention to the right artists. In the next few posts I will go into, how exactly the aesthetics of today are shaped by competing ideologies, and how to actually find artists that shine through despite all the rest. In the end the best way I can describe modern art is to compare it to the music industry. 90% of what you find will be dull and meaningless drivel, but if you look hard enough you’ll find that talented individuals are still there.