I Read Somewhere

A Five Year Old Could've Made That

"Of course, the major works of the twentieth-century art world are ugly. Of course, many are offensive. Of course, a five-year old could in many cases have made an indistinguishable product. Those points are not arguable—and they are entirely beside the main question. The important question is: Why has the art world of the twentieth-century adopted the ugly and the offensive? Why has it poured its creative energies and cleverness into the trivial and the self-proclaimedly meaningless?"

{From 'Why Art Became Ugly' by Stephen Hicks, The Atlas Society, June 15 2010}


In 2012 my family took a trip to Spain. In Madrid, the itinerary had its usual share of parks and palaces, but I was most excited about the museums. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is Spain's national museum of 20th century art, the period defined mostly as Modern Art, and for 18 year old me, just about to begin my design education- it was Disneyland. I spent hours there! I met Picasso and Dali and Braque and Miro, and I was justifiably starstruck. The rest of my family, however, weren't as enamoured, and after speeding through it mostly confused, they spent the rest of their time in the Museum gift shop. Did I mention that I had on the audio guide that talked about every artwork? They were in the gift shop for a long, long time.

I figured they just weren't as interested in art as me, and modern art definitely can be puzzling at best and disconcerting at worst. Yet, they perked up at the next museum we visited, the Museo del Prado which has one of the world's finest collections of Classical European Art, ranging from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. The paintings there are lovely, by heavyweights like El Greco, Goya and Rubens, but I had seen enough Immaculate Conceptions for one day. Surprisingly, my family didn't even wonder aloud if there was a gift shop.

Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia, Madrid.

The Prado, Madrid.

The Prado, Madrid.

Stephen Hicks' essay put my memories of the trip in perspective. Modern Art really does get a bad rap, and with the internet endorsing bad jokes and silly ideas, we see a propagation of memes like this one. What this reputation of vacuousness does is limit modern art to the privileged who can understand it, and excludes most of us who would rather die than be caught with a 'critic' and be expected to give views on what appear to be accidental smudges of paint on canvas.

Abstract Expressionism: Franz Kline, 'Untitled', 1957.

Abstract Expressionism: Franz Kline, 'Untitled', 1957.

F.N.Souza 'Untitled (Landscape)', 1963.

F.N.Souza 'Untitled (Landscape)', 1963.

It's going to be a difficult task to defend something that nobody understands, and most people think they don't deserve to understand, but I can try. Art of any kind, can never have themes separate from the larger cultural framework of the time they exist in. Renaissance art, for example, was a representation of the power of wealth, because at the time Italian merchants (patrons of artists) had begun to prosper and spend money extravagantly. They wanted to see painted things that money could buy, making art a quest for beauty and sensuousness. It rarely depicted common subjects- there are no Renaissance oil paintings of fisherwomen bringing in the day's haul.

Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964.

Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964.

But the 20th century was not a pleasant one, with wars and capitalism and human rights abuse on massive scales defining it. Modern art was born into a grim, fragmented world and this struggle led to its theme being a quest for truth, however brutal. What is the truth of art? Modernists asserted that form must match content, and if the world is decaying and confusing, devoid of meaning, it would have to be painted that way. Examples of this can be found in the work of Picasso, Dali and Munch's 'The Scream'. The other development was Reductionism, that was the focus of later modernists like Lichenstein and Warhol. These guys began to strip art of its elements like composition and colour to see what remained- and that which remained, or was eliminated, would be the unique essence of art. Marcel Duchamp puts it best when talking about what isn't art, referring to his famous piece 'Fountain' (basically a urinal he bought from a store):

"I threw the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they admire it for it's aesthetic beauty."
Postmodernism: Damien Hirst, 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living', 1991

Postmodernism: Damien Hirst, 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living', 1991

We live in the age of Postmodernism, which is possibly the most difficult to understand. While modernism shunned beauty, postmodernism destroys even basic visual language- probably why contemporary art has bypassed traditional mediums like paint and canvas. Yet, bizarre or not, this is the art of our times! Our artists are more outspoken about their criticisms and contempts, and are not afraid to address topics that make people uncomfortable. Is it just that we are nostalgic for the splendour of what we consider to be 'real' art? Or is it that art can be properly appreciated only in retrospect?

All art is culturally significant, and our artists are both the commentators and creators of this culture. In trivialising the statement Modern Art has tried to make, is to do it a disservice. We must try to lose our nostalgia for what is orderly, and find beauty in the mishmash. Maybe this applies to contemporary design too- we design things that solve problems or communicate messages, not just look pretty. Is it that ever since appreciation of art became cliquish, and galleries are filled with disturbing sights, we search for beauty in the other great art of our time- art that is trying to sell us things? 

To know about modern art in India, read this or this. Artsy has compiled a list of the top living artists here.