Scathing Assessment of Modern and Post-Modern Art

Jack Kirby uninked B&W linked earlier: TwoMorrows Publishing - Kirby Collector Twelfth Issue - Captain America #101

Ok, maybe it was more like a kilt. But still, bare legs and knees originally. It looks odd with the full head-dress, but it functions as sort of a summery planet-devourer chic. Whatever, he makes it work.

And I’m shocked at you Kevin Perry. The ‘G’ in English is explained easily. Both of you are forgetting that Galactus appears as the race he is destroying. Humans see him as a large white guy, presumably Klingons see him with a fu-manchu and I don’t think it’s silly to take that one step further and presume that the ‘G’ monogram appears in whatever language is native. Thank you, good night!

(I might add that I’m really enjoying reading the serious art discussion mixed in with this little sideline)

Man, I think I remember that kilt effect now that you mention it. Ugh. Kirby always was going for this space age, hippie, neoclassical look with these sorts of characters. Remember the Celestials? And a lot of the Inhumans looked like gay elven Canned Heat roadies.

I think that deserves a no-prize.

But yeah, he built this big spaceship, and can give people powers by zapping them. I think he can make himself some clothes that can do that. Now, why he would care to do that is another story.

(I might add that I’m really enjoying reading the serious art discussion mixed in with this little sideline)

And I’m really enjoying reading the serious comic art discussion.

I hate the Inhumans… There’s something about that giant teleporting dog that just turns me off. His 3rd World costuming isn’t much better, but Apokalips is pretty damn cool. His weird “cosmic” stuff is at least consistent. He created a look that somehow works, despite really bordering on corny. So far as Galactus and the kilt, I think he was going for some sort of Aztec meets Sumeria meets techno-futuristic. But yeah, the hippies ate it up!

It should be about anything but nothing. And poetry typically IS about something. It’s not just words thrown together because they sound nice, with no regard for meaning–it’s an excercise in language.

Look, I’m not saying that all modern art, or even all nonrepresentational art, is bad art. But I am saying that much of it is bad art, and that we place a lot more value on the lot of it than it deserves.

Why do I find Mondrian and Pollock beautiful? Because they’re beautifully composed and use color well. Does a painting need to be anything more than beautiful?

That’s a good question. It hearkens back to our “what is art” conversation. But I still believe that art and beauty, while often found together, are not synonymous. A sunset is not art. A flower is not art. Art is communication, a visual language even as poetry is a verbal one. Modernists exchanged the immense content of the world for a few geometric forms and splatters, believing that painting is about painting. Painting is about the world. Poetry is about the world, literature is about the world, and philosophy is about the world. Painting that is about painting becomes instantly irrelevant, and for the vast majority of people today, that is exactly what the contemporary art world has become.

Pollock, for what it’s worth, did not do “composition.” His gig was “action painting,” random splatters and smudges of paint on canvas, the less planned and guided, the better. Composition is not a product of accident–it requires that one compose. Any composition that you see in his action paintings is a product of your imagination, not his–it’s the artistic equivalent of a Rorschach ink blot or a form that you see in a cloud.

And that’s the big problem with modern art–people have learned to read much more into it than is actually there, and have been told by the artistic elite for the past century that they should attribute this to greatness. But communication without meaning is just noise. What interesting composition, what meaningful use of color, do you attribute to the following famous paintings?:

Any one of these could have as easily been made by a five-year old child, with as much skill and purpose. Is this really the future of visual communication? Gibberish? What if I told you that one of these paintings recently sold at auction for $40 million, whereas this work by Bouguereau rarely fetch even 1% of that price?

Are our values just a little bit skewed, has the art world become driven by investors that care little about art but only about the gullibility of a group of people that have lost all sense of perspective (much like the dot-com investors of a few years ago, or the comic book investors of the early 90s), by critics that care more about the name attached to a painting than about the painting itself, and to the prestige associated with pretending to see meaning and purpose where the unwashed masses see only four hastily drawn lines, a bunch of random splatters of paint, and a couple of rough colored squares? What if I told you that either none, one, or all of the modern paintings above were created by me, just now, in Photoshop? Do you think I could sell my painting(s) for $40 million? Do you think that art critics would find them as worthwhile as one made by Pollock or Picasso or Rothko if they knew that the painting was made by me? Would find it as worthwhile if they didn’t know? Is my composition and use of color as meaningful as that of the great modern artists? Is my message not equaly clear?

In 1917, Marcel DuChamp entered a urinal (an actual porceline urinal that he purchased at the store) in an art show under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” It was rejected. But today, knowing the real name attached to the work, it stands as the driving force behind much of post-modern art philosophy. One contemporary critic has this to say:

“Duchamp is asking his audience to think about fountains. The word may cause each person to think about a particular fountain, but when used to name a urinal, it creates a dialectic. What makes a fountain a fountain and a non-fountain a non-fountain? The result is an essentialization, or the recognition of an ideal fountain which bears the qualities of “Fountainness.” This “perspective by incongruity” is gained by placing things in different, seemingly opposite, contexts (Hyman, 21). Once the concept of Fountain is arrived at, then the next step is to determine how Fountain is a fountain. To fulfill the Fountain’s Fountainness the viewer must first fill the fountain. (Who ever heard of a fountain with no water?) Fill the fountain with abstract notions of an idealized Fountain or fill it with urine, either way the viewer becomes the mechanism by which Fountain can function. Here scatology and eschatology overlap (Burke, A Rhetoric, 308)(4) Through the simple act of placing a urinal (agency) in a particular scene, Duchamp (agent) has created (purpose) a spiraling mass of artistic criticism that goes high and low, and ultimately asks the viewer to transcend previous notions of what art is.”

All of the professional writers in this forum (myself included) are smirking right now. If you can wade through the hip-deep mire of purposely obfuscating words and phrases such as “perspective by incongruity” and “essentialization” (which isn’t even a word), you’ll see the work of a man secure in the knowledge that he is much, much smarter than you. “Transcending previous notions of what art is” is highly valued in the shock-driven world of post-modern art, but I question the wisdom that says that by destroying a thing we make it better, that by eliminating definitions we elevate meaning. “Fountain” was just a urinal, a crude joke designed to test the art show panel’s patience with absurdity.

Modern and post-modern art has become the joke, but the artists and critics are no longer laughing because they have forgotten the punchline.

A sidenote: I never meant my reference to craft to be derogatory, and I think if you look again at my post you won’t find insult.

I know that you didn’t mean to, but you did. You said that craft limits painting, that a skillfully made realist painting is “just” imitation, while modern art is “liberated” from the shackles of association. And that pretty much jives with the post-modernist view of art.

“Craft” has come to be a four-letter word in the world of art, a derogatory term that implies technical skill without vision, an artificial barrier to expression. Shouldn’t a true artist be able to express without the need for passing through the gauntlet of learning his or her craft? Isn’t this a limiting requirement?

Well, in that it limits trained artists to technical quality, yeah, it is. I hardly consider that to be a bad thing, though. A writer with ideas but no skill is not considered a good writer, or a liberated one. The philosophy that painting exists for its own sake is a hollow and nihilistic one, and one that rarely appears in creative endeavors outside the visual arts.

Now there’s a lesson a few writers I’ve edited over the years could stand to learn. :twisted:

I’ve already brought this conversation from Pollock and fine art down to Kirby and comic books, so I’ll refrain from the Beavis-like comments that come to mind about the pictures Ben just posted.

I had a brief but terrible moment where I was Googling to find a picture of Galactus appearing as an alien but still having a G upon his chest. Luckily, I pulled back from the brink of that Shatnerian madness. But I did peer over it at a Galactus fansite, which includes links to fanfic like the following:

GALACTUS: STAR WARS - by Mike O’Brian. What happens when the Devourer of Worlds makes Darth Vader his herald? How can this new partnership lead to an even greater union? Starring: All your favorite characters from Star Wars and Galactus himself.

This is exactly what’s wrong with the internet.

If there is Galactus slash out there, I do not want to know.

Sorry Kevin, I think Ben just decimated our little side conversation here. Thanks for that info Ben, FWIW I agree with you, but it was nice to see someone put what I’ve been thinking when I look at that stuff with the black and white grid and the geometric shapes into words.

Much of the artworld is a case of nobody having the courage to go… “Hey that emperor over there is naked!” -or- sometimes a fountain is just a urinal… and sometimes a crucifix immersed in urine is just a really scary/weird thing to do with your little photography hobby.

I wrote a larger response to Ben’s impressive argument last evening and then lost it to a stray mouse click. sigh. Anyway, I’ll try to keep up with what’s been said since and not digress.

I think you underestimate, Ben, the amount of composition that goes into a Pollock painting. I still think Pollock is overrated, but he’s not the cynical anti-artist you want to portray him as. He makes crucial choices of color, layering, and placement. It’s hard to prove, but I don’t think just anyone can reproduce a Jackson Pollock painting.

The choices made in completely abstract art like Pollock or color field painting or even op-art are not trivial. In a sense, they are much simpler than those that your precious Bouguereau (sorry, just wanted to say that) had to make. In many cases, they are the choices that painters must always make, they’re just stripped down to a single or a few choices. Then they’re approached with far more attention and precision. Look at Joseph Albers’ works. They are an exploration of color interactions. And that’s about it. It’s definitely a different philosophy that Bouguereau has, but I think it is productive, not destructive as you seem to insist.

I think there are fundamental reasons that we must, culturally, accept a great deal of modern art and that we can’t just return to our Burne-Joneses and Waterhouses today the way Ross wants us to. First of all, Ross is obviously very focused on figural subjects. Yes, he has some landscapes in the site’s collections, but look at how he decks out the main pages. There’s a lot more to portray in art than human figures – even figures AND landscape – but the 19th century artist, despite seeing these things in life refused to recognize them. Specifically, I’m talking about technology. Ross’ vision for a “renewed” aesthetic would, if his decor choices are any indication, shun any real exploration of the impact of technology on life. Instead, we’d be left floating in a world of classical allusion and religious imagery. That’s all well and good – really – but how does that speak to life in the modern era?

In conclusion, I think Galactus’ shorts are stupid, too.

Care to place a wager on that? But even if that were true, are we to judge aesthetic value based on superficial complexity? If so, then the snow pattern on my television when I tune it to an empty channel must be high art indeed, because I’ll bet I could never accurately reproduce the exact details. Ditto for the used palettes that I throw away when I finish a painting.

The choices made in completely abstract art like Pollock or color field painting or even op-art are not trivial. In a sense, they are much simpler than those that your precious Bouguereau (sorry, just wanted to say that) had to make.

They are both simple and trivial, unless you’d like to provide a real argument for why they aren’t (isnt this a lot like the “it’s fun” syndrome?). I could run five feet and call it a race, but I wouldn’t expect anyone to be impressed. Likewise for painting an orange square on a red field.

In many cases, they are the choices that painters must always make, they’re just stripped down to a single or a few choices. Then they’re approached with far more attention and precision. Look at Joseph Albers’ works.

Oh, believe me–I have. One of my professors at Syracuse University was a colleague of Albers’, when he was alive. I’ve agonized over paintings of the red square inside a blue square inside a yellow square (and other assorted variations) until I was sick of both colors and squares. And yes, they make for an interesting study in color interaction, much like a strip of paint chips at Home Depot, and with similar artistic value.

They are an exploration of color interactions. And that’s about it. It’s definitely a different philosophy that Bouguereau has, but I think it is productive, not destructive as you seem to insist.

The destructive part comes into play when the modernists began to claim that their vision, their art was the only art that was valid. And they did, with a vengeance. Traditional painters were ridiculed in the early 20th century, and often they still are today. The entire art establishment has traded thousands of years of study and wisdom, lock, stock, and barrel, for the rantings of a bunch of contemporary discontents and their groupies.

First of all, Ross is obviously very focused on figural subjects. Yes, he has some landscapes in the site’s collections, but look at how he decks out the main pages. There’s a lot more to portray in art than human figures – even figures AND landscape – but the 19th century artist, despite seeing these things in life refused to recognize them.

Perhaps, but I think you underestimate the importance of people as the subject of art. Here’s an exercise. Find me a work of literature that’s not about people. Find me a film that’s not about people.

Specifically, I’m talking about technology. Ross’ vision for a “renewed” aesthetic would, if his decor choices are any indication, shun any real exploration of the impact of technology on life. Instead, we’d be left floating in a world of classical allusion and religious imagery.

I think you attribute beliefs and attitudes to Ross that he does not actually profess. What he chooses to paint and what he values as art are not necessarily one and the same. If I choose to be a painter rather than a sculptor, it does not follow that I hate sculpture and advocate the dominance of painting. If I write mystery novels, it does not follow that I would have readers shun science fiction.

Perhaps you’d care to explain how Pollack’s “Shimmering Substance” provides an exploration of the impact of technology on life, or of anything at all other than how paint tends to splatter when you drizzle it on a canvas. I’ll tell you what–I’d rather be floating in a world of classical allusion and religious imagery than one of meaningless colored squares and empty rooms with blinking lights.

But my understanding from speaking with Mr. Ross is that a regression to 19th century themes is not the goal of ARC. Indeed, that is not a part of their mission statement, which is available on the website. Certainly many of the images in their museum feature religious and classical subjects, but that’s because ARC is trying to re-examine and re-evaluate the work of 19th century painters, the historical record on which has been ignored (and as a result, partly lost) in the Modern art revolution. Many of the paintings of that time were largely concerned with those subjects. ARC’s mission statement says that they want artists to return to the standards of craft and learning that the artists of the 19th century possessed, not that today’s artists must paint the same things that 19th century painters did. Ross emailed me a sample of his work, and while I won’t post it here without his permission, I can assure you that it’s nothing like what you’d find in a Bouguereau painting, or in any other painting from the 19th century.

So where does that Thomas Kinkaid “The Painter of Light” fall?

I dunno. I find his work garish and ugly, so I’d say that it falls into the bad art category.

How is a criterion of complexity any different than a criterion of academic skill? The latter is definitely part of Ross’ philosophy, yet it’s just as isolated from fundamental questions of beauty. I didn’t see him including any Henri Rousseau in his collection, yet is it really so confounding that someone would find his work beautiful? Clearly, Ross wants artists to follow the teachings and traditions of the classic academy.

They are both simple and trivial, unless you’d like to provide a real argument for why they aren’t (isnt this a lot like the “it’s fun” syndrome?). I could run five feet and call it a race, but I wouldn’t expect anyone to be impressed. Likewise for painting an orange square on a red field.

It’s reductive, yes, but not trivializing. That’s like saying a haiku is trivial in a world where there are novels. Absurd. Albers clearly was very careful in his choice of colors and the pallette he had to choose from was much vaster than the one that Bourgereau, by the dictates of his model and the nature of light, was allowed to select from. This is not to insult Bourgereau, of course, just to highlight the difference in approach.

The destructive part comes into play when the modernists began to claim that their vision, their art was the only art that was valid. And they did, with a vengeance. Traditional painters were ridiculed in the early 20th century, and often they still are today. The entire art establishment has traded thousands of years of study and wisdom, lock, stock, and barrel, for the rantings of a bunch of contemporary discontents and their groupies.

This is a complex argument, and there’re elements I agree with. But first of all, if what you’re saying is true, art history as a discipline would not extend beyond the 20th century. Patently not true. Most art critics and historians and curators can appreciate a full range of artistic forms. I do believe there is a reason for the backlash against traditional academic painters at the dawn of modernism that has to do with certain failures of traditional painting to address the fundamental questions that have assaulted modern man. The arrival of some of these questions have been damaging as have some responses to them. But overall, there is nothing destructive about the goal of at least moving to address them.

Perhaps, but I think you underestimate the importance of people as the subject of art. Here’s an exercise. Find me a work of literature that’s not about people. Find me a film that’s not about people.

Neither of those is as difficult as you might think. Certainly, I’d never find a novel that’s not about people, but that’s because novels are a medium of story, and there are no stories without people. But poems? No problem. Films, too, although not the sort you’ll see in a major theater (where story, again, is important). Painting is about images and there are plenty of things to see that aren’t people. Arguably, there is much more to human beings that literature or film are better equipped to address than painting is. Ideas, feelings, ambitions, etc. Painting can only suggest those. I’m not saying it should do that, but there are far more subjects – including colored squares – that are within the realm of painting as a medium.

I don’t want to seem entirely antagonistic to your or Ross’ views. As I think I’ve said, I can sympathize with some of the cultural observations he makes, and I certainly support a reevaluation of some of the forgotten 19th century painters. In fact, I’m curious to know more about the things that inform your viewpoint. Mainly, the role of the academy. I’ve had very little real art training (and from what I gather, you might not believe you can get real art training anymore), so when you refer to the traditions, wisdom, techniques of the classic academy, I’m curious to know what kinds of things that entails. And, in light of that, what is it that the academy artist is supposed to strive for in his work?

All this high-falutin’ fine arts stuff makes my head hurt. But I will say that I agree with Ben completely. I cannot appreciate modern art at all, unless it comes in 22-page, monthly format and features grown men in colorful spandex. I’ve always loved the later 19th century work of Waterhouse, Rossetti, etc. Have a number of prints here that I’ve framed. Someone that I’m particularly into at the moment, however, is David Roberts. He toured the Holy Land in the 1830s and 1840s, drawing ancient sites from Baalbek to Giza. Some truly fantastic stuff, if you’re at all interested in the region and the ancient world. It’s even better if you’ve visited some of the sites in question, and can compare your memories and photographs of what the place looks like today to what it looked like before Lonely Planet encouraged a new generation of hippies to leave Evian bottles all over the fucking place.

I’m going to go ahead and say I have no real opinion on what he’s done, but anything that’s distributed in Christian screen saver packs can’t be good.

If I can’t tell he made a choice, it’s not a choice.

Because the complexity in question is random, and serves no identifiable purpose. Remember that we are talking about a form of communication, here. I could come up with random combinations of consants and vowels to form meaningless words, and then string them together to form a novel. The result would be pretty complex, and possibly require a lot of work. Are you seriously telling me that you would consider this a work of literature equal in aesthetic value to, say, Lord of the Rings?

The latter is definitely part of Ross’ philosophy, yet it’s just as isolated from fundamental questions of beauty. I didn’t see him including any Henri Rousseau in his collection, yet is it really so confounding that someone would find his work beautiful?

Not at all. I already outlined my views on the differences between beauty and art, so I won’t repeat it here. And the ARC web museum is a work in progress, so the non-inclusion of Rousseau is not a refusal of endorsement. The museum also lack works by Piero di Cosimo, one of my favorite Renaissance artists, but I’m not taking it personally. It’s not like they are limiting their content to neoclassical works in the style of Raphael–they have sections for Gustave Klimt, El Greco, Goya, Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavennes, and so forth. If the museum focuses on academic classicists and Salon painters, well, that’s because the website is trying to straighten the historical account on that particular portion of art history.

It’s reductive, yes, but not trivializing. That’s like saying a haiku is trivial in a world where there are novels. Absurd.

Why is it absurd? Compared to a novel, a haiku is trivial. That’s why you won’t find single haiku being sold for $25 on the new releases table at Borders, or find ten-page reviews of the newest haiku in the Atlantic Monthly. That’s not to say that haiku are valueless, but this modernist need to place everything on a level playing field and discredit critical comparison of significance and, yes, even craft… that’s the absurdity.

And let’s face it–many works of modern art fail even to live up to the standards of a haiku, because even a simple haiku communicates a message or an idea. Rothko’s “Blue, Green, and Brown” might as well be a haiku that goes like this:

“Blue,
Green,
Brown”

And you want me to accept that as untrivial… with a straight face, even? I think not.

Albers clearly was very careful in his choice of colors and the pallette he had to choose from was much vaster than the one that Bourgereau, by the dictates of his model and the nature of light, was allowed to select from.

Let’s keep this in perspective. He painted squares. An endless parade of colored squares from 1950 until his death in 1976. He had an endless palette to choose from, but without compelling reason to choose one color over another, who cares? And ultimately he tried just about every combination he could think of. As a study in the optical nature of subtractive color, he does nothing that any first year art student does not also do (save for the fact that they don’t spend 26 years of their life doing it). If this is your argument for the nontrivial nature of modern art, I remain unconvinced.

This is a complex argument, and there’re elements I agree with. But first of all, if what you’re saying is true, art history as a discipline would not extend beyond the 20th century. Patently not true. Most art critics and historians and curators can appreciate a full range of artistic forms.

They appreciate them in the past tense. And they don’t appreciate the works of the 19th century Salon painters at all, despite the fact that their works are every bit as compelling, and more technically accomplished, than the works of the High Renaissance. This is because modernists value uniqueness over all else. If it’s been done before, it’s no good. The 19th century painters were “merely” building on the foundation created by the painters of the Renaissance. Well, duh. And the painters of the Renaissance were building on the foundation set by Medieval artists, and later the Helenistic art of the classical world.

Like I said before, this idea of the paramount importance of innovation is silly, and has no analog in other creative endeavors. Writers realize (and accept) that there are really only a handful of truly unique themes, and that it’s not a problem that needs solving. Games are the same way. Ditto for films. With modernists, it’s all about context. If Bouguereau had been a contemporary of Raphael, he’d be considered one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. Because he wasn’t, his work is derided as petty and (according to Janson) pornographic. Modernists would have us believe that the circumstances that created a work of art are more important than the work of art itself.

It’s little wonder that the modernists are so wrapped up in context, because deprived of context, most modern art is simple and trivial.

I do believe there is a reason for the backlash against traditional academic painters at the dawn of modernism that has to do with certain failures of traditional painting to address the fundamental questions that have assaulted modern man.

Bullshit. It was about a bunch of (understandably) disillusioned artists rebelling against the establishment. That may have value of its own, in a historical context, but it hardly validates their art.

The arrival of some of these questions have been damaging as have some responses to them. But overall, there is nothing destructive about the goal of at least moving to address them.

Are you not paying attention? I said–pretty clearly, I thought–that it was destructive not because the modernists decided to paint splattered canvases and colored squares, but because they also decided to ridicule and discredit anyone that did not.

In fact, I’m curious to know more about the things that inform your viewpoint. Mainly, the role of the academy. I’ve had very little real art training (and from what I gather, you might not believe you can get real art training anymore),

I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it is clearly true that the modernist philosophy is ingrained in the fine art curriculum of most schools, often to the point that other approaches are actively discouraged. This much I’ve seen firsthand, which is why I decided to major in Illustration rather than Fine Art. And, like Ross, I think it stinks.

so when you refer to the traditions, wisdom, techniques of the classic academy, I’m curious to know what kinds of things that entails. And, in light of that, what is it that the academy artist is supposed to strive for in his work?

As a student? Mostly techical skill. Rigorous classes in drawing from life, copying other works of art (which is a remarkably effective way to learn how other artists achieve particular effects), how linear perspective works (many students learn the bare basics of this in high school, but little more)… in a nutshell, it’s about learning how to observe and communicate visually. I don’t share Ross’s view that today’s colleges have abandoned this utterly, at least not in their foundation programs or in the commercial arts, but they do play things pretty light and loose. Writers understand that you have to learn the rules before you can hope to break them in any meangful way. Artists, for some reason, think they can skip that step.

First, there’s a big difference between a visual and a written form of communication. Random letters thrown together are literally meaningless; a single letter (with a couple exceptions) cannot signify an idea, which is the purpose of words. A single color, however, in the context of sight, is meaningful. We can react to it in meaningful, if simple, ways. Now, I recognize that it’s debatable whether it’s worth encountering that meaning in a museum or something. More on that in the “haiku” argument.

Still, there is ground for comparison here, but visual communication is so much simpler and more direct that I think something like a line of color is more comparable to a single word. I can say that this or that line of Aubrey Beardsley’s is perfect… I can say an author’s word choice is perfect. I can’t say his letter choice is perfect.

If the museum focuses on academic classicists and Salon painters, well, that’s because the website is trying to straighten the historical account on that particular portion of art history.

Fair enough. Sounds to me like I’ve overemphasized Ross’ feelings on academy training. I’ll trust your reading of him since I only skimmed the article.

Why is it absurd? Compared to a novel, a haiku is trivial.

I guess I have a hard time saying that literary aesthetic significance is tied to number of words. It’s like saying that artistic aesthetic significance is tied to canvas size.

“Blue,
Green,
Brown”

Okay, but just to be fair, we’re talking one out of a gajillion shades of blue, green, etc. The painting also conveys (perhaps simple) messages through composition, format, materials. There’s the visual effect of those colors next to each other. There’s far more going on than you’re giving credit to. As a painter (if my understanding is correct), I’d expect you to get some of this stuff even better then I would.

Let’s keep this in perspective. He painted squares. An endless parade of colored squares from 1950 until his death in 1976. He had an endless palette to choose from, but without compelling reason to choose one color over another, who cares? And ultimately he tried just about every combination he could think of. As a study in the optical nature of subtractive color, he does nothing that any first year art student does not also do (save for the fact that they don’t spend 26 years of their life doing it). If this is your argument for the nontrivial nature of modern art, I remain unconvinced.

Are you sure he had no compelling reason to choose one color over another? Even after 26 years of colored squares he surely had a nearly endless set of possible combinations and I guess I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he chose from those combinations pretty deliberately. For the record, I didn’t choose Albers to defend all of modern art, just to illustrate the expansive decisions involved in even the most reductive formats.

If I were to argue for the non-triviality of modern art, I would start with these:

http://moca-la.org/museum/artwork_detail.php?id=101

http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_work_lg_1093.html

http://www.oir.ucf.edu/wm/paint/auth/cornell/cornell.medici-princess.jpg

This is a complex argument, and there’re elements I agree with. But first of all, if what you’re saying is true, art history as a discipline would not extend beyond the 20th century. Patently not true. Most art critics and historians and curators can appreciate a full range of artistic forms.

They appreciate them in the past tense. And they don’t appreciate the works of the 19th century Salon painters at all, despite the fact that their works are every bit as compelling, and more technically accomplished, than the works of the High Renaissance. This is because modernists value uniqueness over all else. If it’s been done before, it’s no good.

I think this is an oversimplification. Again, I do agree that novelty is overvalued in modern and especially postmodern art. But it’s not the only criteria for them. In fact, it may be the misconception that modern art was all about novelty that has led to the ruin of a large segment of postmodernism. Certainly, many artists ascribe to that view, but will they be the ones remembered in even fifty years?

Novelty is one of many factors in aesthetic significance, for any period of art. Those art-student copies of great masters’ works you refer to… could I just plant one of those in a museum and say I was “building on the traditions of the past”? Novelty is not entirely insignificant.

Bullshit. It was about a bunch of (understandably) disillusioned artists rebelling against the establishment. That may have value of its own, in a historical context, but it hardly validates their art.

I suppose you can think of it that way, but I don’t think it’s the rebellion that really is the critical piece. It’s the reexamination of the rules and purpose and definition of art. To me, these are fair questions to ask. They may not automatically lead to the most eye-appealing works ever or the most comprehensible – cave scrawls at Lascaux aren’t either of those, but they’re art. Even in the modern day, in light of all of the great academic painting of human history, they can still constitute a valid, meaningful approach to art. It feels a bit like “art science” in a way, it’s true. Albers is a prime example of that. But I do think it was a reasonable time to start doing some new “research,” if you will. Which means, perhaps, starting over in some sense.

This probably seems absurd from your point of view, but I do think it has already had promising effects for the future of art (it’s caused its share of setbacks as well, I’ll grant you). For example, modernism has “uncovered” the value of collage in the visual arts. Was following Bourgereau’s footsteps going to lead to that? Never in a million years.

Writers understand that you have to learn the rules before you can hope to break them in any meangful way. Artists, for some reason, think they can skip that step.

Okay, but you seem to think that even the seminal artists of modernism haven’t learned these rules? Picasso? Miro? Duchamp? – the greatest rule-breaker of all and a fine academic painter for as long as he attempted it.

Granted. But for the sake of this argument, I’d say the analogy works just fine.

Random letters thrown together are literally meaningless; a single letter (with a couple exceptions) cannot signify an idea, which is the purpose of words. A single color, however, in the context of sight, is meaningful. We can react to it in meaningful, if simple, ways.

Meaningful how? React to it in what ways? You are merely using the “it’s fun” argument again.

Still, there is ground for comparison here, but visual communication is so much simpler and more direct that I think something like a line of color is more comparable to a single word.

So use real words. Is a novel composed of randomly selected words any better? How about one composed of carefully selected words (but words that still form no meaningful sentences or phrases)? Would you read such a novel? I wouldn’t.

I guess I have a hard time saying that literary aesthetic significance is tied to number of words. It’s like saying that artistic aesthetic significance is tied to canvas size.

At some level, it is. Or, to be more accurate, it’s really tied to complexity and significance of the ideas that it communicates, and that can be limited by number of words (for a novel) or canvas size (for a painting). Bosch would have had a tough time composing Garden of Earthly Delights on a panel the size of a postage stamp. Tolkien would have been pretty hard pressed to convey the story of Lord of the Rings–even a monstrously simplified version–as a haiku.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that just because the canvas is bigger and the novel is thicker, it’s better or has more depth. I can fill a twenty foot canvas with nothing (some post-modernists have done so), and I can write 1000 pages of crap.

Okay, but just to be fair, we’re talking one out of a gajillion shades of blue, green, etc. The painting also conveys (perhaps simple) messages through composition, format, materials.

Here we go again. What messages? Be specific. Shall I show you another example? How about “Orange, Blue, on Red?”…

There’s the visual effect of those colors next to each other. There’s far more going on than you’re giving credit to. As a painter (if my understanding is correct), I’d expect you to get some of this stuff even better then I would.

I do get it, I just don’t think it’s particularly noteworthy or interesting. In fact, I get a very similar experience simply by looking at this website. Should I print it out, entitle it “Blue, Gray, on White,” and hang it in the Guggenheim?

Are you sure he had no compelling reason to choose one color over another?

Hell if I know. If you can figure it out by looking at his paintings (no cheating–don’t go searching for an art critic’s synopsis to explain it for you), then you are a better man than I am.

Even after 26 years of colored squares he surely had a nearly endless set of possible combinations and I guess I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he chose from those combinations pretty deliberately.

That is as good an explanation of modern art as I could ever give. There MUST be something significant there, so I should assume that I’m the ignorant one and give the artist the benefit of the doubt that his work has aesthetic value or meaning.

No thanks. I’m more confident in my opinions than that. If I read a book that makes absolutely no sense to me, I don’t blame myself–I blame the author.

For the record, I didn’t choose Albers to defend all of modern art, just to illustrate the expansive decisions involved in even the most reductive formats.

Yes, you keep talking about all these expansive decisions. What are they? Can you name even one that has any significance or meaning?

In fact, I think I’m going to skip the rest of this argument and stick to this point for the time being, because it’s pretty important. Do you really see aesthetic value in these works, or do you merely think that you see it because people that you consider more knowledgeable in art have told you that it’s there? If the former, you should be able to describe what value, what meaning you see. We were working on pure abstraction, but you can use the samples from the links that you posted above, too, if you want.

If the latter, all I can say is: trust your own judgement. If someone has to explain why a work of art has aesthetic value, be skeptical, because it probably has none.

They may not automatically lead to the most eye-appealing works ever or the most comprehensible – cave scrawls at Lascaux aren’t either of those, but they’re art.

For what it’s worth, I never said that any of the works that we’ve talked about are not art. I merely hold that they are cheap, trivial, and largely meaningless art.

Okay, but you seem to think that even the seminal artists of modernism haven’t learned these rules? Picasso? Miro? Duchamp? – the greatest rule-breaker of all and a fine academic painter for as long as he attempted it.

I didn’t say that. Picasso had plenty of technical skill, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at most of his later work. I did say that many contemporary artists (and their instructors), wishing only to make art in the mode of Picasso, have decided that learning “outdated” skills such as drawing or artistic observation is no longer necessary.