‘Of flavours and colours’: In Defence of Modern Art

‘Of flavours and colours’: In Defence of Modern Art

‘Renaissance’ is Pi Comment’s culture column, taking a closer look at popular culture and fresh takes on the humanities. All too often viewed as profit-driven or faintly ridiculous, Enora le Masne de Chermont takes a stand for modern art as a creative field that bravely pushes the boundaries and will surely stand the test of time.

Most people relish stories such as the comical 2016 incident in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, which laughed in the face of contemporary art and its devotees. For those not familiar with the anecdote, two Californian teenagers, less than impressed with the museum’s exhibits, placed a pair of glasses on the floor beneath the placard describing gallery’s theme, and watched as fascinated visitors regarded their ‘work’ as ‘art’, some even snapping pictures of these trivial objects. 

If you have ever visited the Tate Museum or a contemporary art exhibition, you have probably already found yourself in a similar situation, thinking something along the lines of: “Is this really art? I could surely do the same if not better.” Admittedly, if one has nurtured a lifelong admiration for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Caravaggio’s breathtaking use of light and shade, the sight of a blank white canvas might leave one unmoved. Yet, astonishing works, like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain are also by common credence considered art. It is fully legitimate to be at first dubious about modern art as a growing market, but now is the time to explain and defend it.

“My 6-year-old brother could do better”

“You just pretend to find it deep, but in reality it doesn’t make any sense”

“No thanks, I don’t want to have to read a user manual to understand it”.

Whether sceptical about contemporary art in general or devoted to the hallowed sculptors and painters of past centuries, most would probably categorise themselves under one of these above clichés. However, even if some see modern art as simply one big fraud, the fact that hundreds of books, articles and reviews have been written contemplating the genius of artists such as James Turrell, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol indicates that it is not to be tossed aside altogether. If you are averse to contemporary art, let me try to persuade you to give it a second chance by listing three factors to bear in mind.

First, contemporary art does not necessarily try to “make the beautiful”. This does not mean that all modern art is ugly, but rather that beauty is not at the centre of the artists’ aim. What they look for instead is rather the disruption, the unsettlement required to arouse self reflection, and the means through which this is achieved can at times be highly provocative. For example, portraying the ugly can make sense when one seeks to provoke the beautiful, to contrast it with over-perfection and to make the modern art ‘stand out’. The Van Lieshout sculpture ‘The Absence’, placed in front of the Superior National School of Architecture in Nantes, France, is an illustration of this. This unidentifiable blue form that resembles a massive piece of chewing gum is used as an architectural antithesis to better draw attention to the building so that it does not merely blend into the background. 

Secondly, it is today completely acceptable to present in the artistic field works that do not require any special technique from the artist, but merely nerve. To return to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, this readymade sculpture is probably one of the most radical and divisive pieces of modern art, which did not legitimately find its way into the field, but rather invaded it. However, the question of whether Duchamp actually meant something behind the pure provocation is not what is important in accepting this work as art; but rather the brave undertaking of the action itself is what makes it a major landmark piece. 

Finally, it is also important to remember that everything in life is relative. As the French expression goes: Des goûts et des couleurs (“It is all a question of flavours and colours”). Even the most hardcore defenders of modern art can also find some renowned artists in this field utterly bland and uninspiring, just like in music or cinema. However, what defies reason is to be flatly for or against modern art in its entirety. Modern artists are more than just a bunch of frauds who test the limits of what is socially acceptable for their own profit. Art is a game and these players are simply testing new techniques and strategies to provoke the same impression as before (astonishment, revulsion, bewilderment, delight) through other means than paint and brushes. 

If you are still sceptical about modern art and certain in the belief that no one will remember these ‘oddballs’ in a few years time, then at least acknowledge the fact that 99 percent of people in his time thought that Picasso was not worthy of being considered an artist; now, millions queue for hours just to get a glimpse of his paintings. The ‘sorting’ of modern art into history and remembrance has not yet started, and no one can yet tell which artists and works will be left in a century – a guessing-game that surely only adds to the excitement and appeal of this ever-evolving cultural phenomenon. 

Image Credit: Marcel Duchamp via Wikimedia Commons