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The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Empty museums: an explanation

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In the ‘60s, the question “what is art?” was answered by a chorus of “anything.” Since then, our culture has paid a high price. I gave up going to see anything made after 1917 when I saw a toilet bowl in the Whitney Museum. There was an American Standard toilet in one of America’s most renowned modern art museums. I was told it was a thought piece. Personally, I thought there was very little there. In September, I decided to go back. I saw vintage video games and machinery made to do odd things. I had an N64. I’ve already seen them in action.

I agree that all art and all beauty are subjectively defined. It doesn’t seem possible to contest that. But the common working definition of art as anything that provokes thought is the reason why no one really cares about it anymore. Everything can provoke some thought. Whether that thought is meaningful is an entirely different question.

The wilder, more “daring” varieties of visual art we see in our leading contemporary museums are generally trite — too obscure to have any profound meaning. Often it is simply too self-referential. It can only be comprehended by a small subset of people who have studied it all their lives. Even then, its ambition is limited and the work uninteresting. Other works are too expected. There is a battery of art, especially performance art, which just attempts to shock the viewer with the risque. It doesn’t challenge him or her to think differently. It does test the strength of the stomach, however. Pieces waver between easily comprehensible or totally random. Saying it provides food for thought doesn’t redeem its specialness — I could ponder the miracle of a mop without paying admission.

So what do we have in contemporary visual art? Aesthetic appeal has largely been done away with, save by a few artists like Bridget Riley, Tom Hunter and Gregory Crewdson. Otherwise, there’s little beauty or entertainment to be had. Entertainment and visual art have been separate for some time. If it isn’t amusing on a basic level or beautiful to our subjective minds, how can we engage with it? The intellectual level is rarely that rich. Defamiliarization is the main way people try to get at it. But rarely is the message more complex than a “dude, how weird are toilets, man?” It may have been interesting 50 years ago to look at a fork outside of its normal habitat, but it no longer achieves any goal. That doesn’t stop anyone from trying. I find no means to appreciate this art. I do not find the insight, the immersion or the catharsis other creative works give me. I only see trivialities and novelties.

There are obviously works that break these trends. Hockney, Freud and Richter are among those few names that make astonishingly great pieces, and I would suggest a quick Googling to those who despair of contemporary art. But I do feel as though the culture of art and art criticism in America is intentionally inaccessible and, also intentionally, seeks to move away from any measure of understandable value. I appreciate an art that seeks to be intrinsically powerful and entirely inexplicable, but not at the cost of all enjoyment. The desire to be inexplicable and the will to be random have destroyed art. It makes art an exercise in competitive randomness. Who can be more esoteric? Who can boggle the audience more? Art becomes a contest of hipness that continues well after the audience has left the theater. Artists merely try to prove their individuality with their work, and the work becomes of little interest to anyone but their circle. This makes audiences, already alienated by obscurity, dislike the culture surrounding the artist, too.

But now it becomes necessary to turn my eye to myself. As a disclaimer, my assessment of what is worthwhile is just as subjective as a definition of art. However, I will say my findings about contemporary art’s inaccessibility are commonly shared. Have I merely become too used to the Internet and TV to get at the core of these different forms of expression? I will say that art experienced in person is totally different than that on screen. Pictures of architectural feats have very different effects than the buildings themselves. The same holds true of painting and other visual arts. Could it not stand to reason that, because we interact with art usually through a screen rather than in person, the impact and general perception of art is diminished? Or have I been made of incapable of understanding something invaluable? These are valid questions that I cannot answer; but I’d still be really happy if this were posted on Reddit.

Because you can’t give Spencer an upvote, why not email him at dsnelson@stanford.edu?