Why I Like Modern Art

My Six Year Old Can Do That

That is what I have heard many times from people who were indignant about some piece of abstract art that had confounded or offended them. When I hear this kind of invective against truly gifted artists, such as Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, I get really frustrated.

But then I hear about Martin Creed, a British conceptual artist who most famously won the Turner Prize in 2001 for his installation of an empty room with a light switching on and off. The truth is that the general public feels alienated from the world of modern art because they see pretentious, anti-art “expressions” such Creed’s empty room get the praise, the prizes, and most importantly, the big bucks.

Who pays for this bad art? A lot of commercially successful (but artistically moribund) artists are enabled by collectors, speculators, academics, and curators, who have too much money and not enough humility. Unfortunately, the wealthy arts organizations that pay for exhibits, catalogs, grants and stipends are increasingly favoring lame, pretentious, and anti-art artwork.

Style and Substance

Although I sometimes agree with people who rave against modern art as being much ado about nothing, I have love and respect for good modern painting and sculpture, both representational and abstract. The American masters of the recent past did not just decide one day to stop doing representational art in favor of throwing paint on canvas or making statues from found objects.

Before *Pollock& became a star among the abstract expressionists, he developed a romantic Regionalist style, and then progressed to semi figurative pieces, using symbolism from Native American culture. That is the way most masters become masters, they study the masterpieces of the past, find a tradition that inspires them, then develop something new and beautiful style of their very own. Alas, the heyday of modern art has given way to contemporary art that is, more often than not, alienated from the very notion of craft, beauty, and real life.

Several years ago, Philip Pearlstein, a modern artist renown in the fine art world as a figurative painter, had a disturbing experience while dealing with the art establishment. Pearlstein was on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, looking at slides from artists who had applied for a grant. Later as he was thinking over what he had seen, he realized that he had not seen one representational work. Furthermore, he had not even seen one work that was a four-sided canvas with paint on it.

He was later told by to some NEA staffers, that the NEA had asked a few of the panelists to come in the previous day and cull out all of the applicants they felt were not competitive. So he spent some hours going through the works that had been culled out. And he found among the rejects far and away the best artists in the whole lot. Many were painters, and not all of them were representational.

Post Modern Dilemma

The moral of the Philip Perlstein NEA story is that contemporary artists must turn away from the big institutions that are clearly biased against modern art. When you hear about an exhibit of Damian Hirst’s sliced cows preserved in formaldehyde,do not be fooled. Hirst’s work is not modern art nor is it postmodern; it is anti-art.

Many artists like Hirst, Raymond Pettibone, and Jeff Koons have been challenged by the modern masters of the fifties and sixties and come up short.

What the anti-art movement learned from the art establishment ‘s ultimate acceptance of Helen Frankenthaler, Warhol, and Basquiat was that criticizing society with one’s art and leading an alienated (or counterculture) lifestyle is good for business. What the anti-art crowd have failed to learn is that attitude and style is not enough to make good art.

But I believe there is a postmodern movement still alive in 21st century. Starting with David Hockney, his A Bigger Splash (1967) and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971) are as fresh and relevant now as they were when they were first painted.

You can see the influence of the Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism of the mid-twentieth century in the work of up and coming contemporary artists such as Kevin Christison (an American painter and sculptor living in Saigon) and Alyssa Monks (a photorealistic painter teaching at Montclair State University). And if you go into the small galleries, community colleges and local museums, you will see the lyrical, the ironic, and the beautiful yeoman work done by the unsung postmodern artists.

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