“Well I Could Do That” or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Modern Art

Beginning in the 1860s, the art world began to break down. The world was opening up to new avenues of approach and what mattered in art slowly began to change. From the Fauvists to the cubists to the dadaists to the surrealists to the abstract expressionists, the art world trended to abstractions. But where else could it go? If the greatest thing that an artist can have is novelty, then there is only so long that people can paint a face before it loses its merit. So in 1917 Marcel Duchamp put a toilet in an art gallery and art changed forever. Then in 1924 Andre Breton published his surrealist manifesto and art changed forever. Then, well, you get the picture. There’s a constant need to reinvent the wheel, and gradually art became more and more esoteric.

At the same time the potential audience was changing as well. What was once an interest created by the elite (and their patrons), for the enjoyment of the other elite, was blown completely open. Anyone with a computer or a library card or a high school education can become invested in the arts. It levels the playing field. So I’ve been going to art galleries to see the way that people think about modern art and the way we view it in connection with the past and the future. Interviewing them and taking pictures afterwards.

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What you see is recognisable. People, places, shapes, forms. Whereas a lot of modern art is concepts and ideas, which you have to reflect on deeply and if you don’t understand the artist’s original intent then there’s not a lot you can do. You’re left a bit dumbfounded whereas you can always get something out of this.

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I deliberately avoided the modern art… I don’t really understand it. I can’t read its significance. I can’t understand what it’s trying to say to us… here’s a lot of meaning in a lot of the more pre-raphaelite paintings… because it relates to often every day pictures, portraits,and what might have happened to you or what you thought could happen to you in the past; I can relate to it more than an abstract item or something like that.

Is art just exclusionary? I don’t think so. It really depends on what you think of when someone says the words “modern art”. It’s a buzzword that people immediately associate with bland bullshit with explanations that they made up afterwards, but is that all what art contains? Narrative art might have have changed, but isn’t it alive and well in film and TV and comics and literature and even games? Realism might have changed, but isn’t it alive and well in photography.

The question really should be is “Fine” art inherently exclusionary, and the answer to that is that I’m not sure. It has certainly lost the attention of the general public, who could easily get involved if they actually wanted to. Is that the fault of the art itself? If it is, then where should art go? Is it possible to continue to reinvent the wheel without it spinning out of control?

The answer to all of these questions is a firm “I don’t know”. What I do know is that there is something of real value is lost when someone can’t engage with work. The wonderful thing about art is its ability to change people and make them understand the world around them. Every person that couldn’t engage with a piece is another missed opportunity.

When I think about art for the public, I think of Banksy. I do not like Banksy. I think his work is trite and inelegant and far too broad, but these are the things that allow him to engage with the public. So would something be lost if other art also tried to do this?

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I look at my nephews or my sister, I can’t think of when my little sister was last in a gallery or a museum and it’s the same with my nephews. I mean, they’re interesting in bikes and you know, all sorts of things and not art. But it’s their loss. I think it just doesn’t occur to them.

I always remember a guy that I used to, he was doing a phd in Newcastle and I shared a lab with this lad, and I was going to the ballet one evening and my mate that was supposed to be coming along came down with the flu or something and so I had this ticket and I said “come on Ben, ballet tonight” and he was gobsmacked! And afterwards he said “you know, I didn’t think this was for me” he said, but it’s brilliant. Just as you were saying, it’s not on their radar. Which is sad.

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This is – this, it’s more of a novelty I think, for people really. I mean, it’s interesting and people react in different ways obviously like, well, it doesn’t offer the same kind of experience at all. People who look at paintings tend to spend a long time looking at an individual painting and if they often come in pairs and they’ll basically, discuss the artwork as they’re going around. With a show like this people are more curious like with the photographs downstairs – the computer photographs, so they’re curious because they’re not sure what it is so they’ll have a look around and that, but you won’t hear them discussing it much – modern works tend not to get discussed as much

Modern art doesn’t do itself any favours due to the gibberish that’s generated by artists and curators and critics as well. I think it’s possible to talk about art whether it’s contemporary or ancient in a clear way, that conveys, it’s what Grayson Perry dubbed “International Art English” when he did his reith lectures on the BBC, he actually copied down some of this from the Venice Biennale – some artist had written about his work on a wall and he read it out to the audience and at the end he was like “Anybody?” And nobody did offer any suggestions, it’s all just gibberish which is unfortunate and it gives it a bad name really – it puts a barrier between the viewer and the art object really…

People who, I mean, you can approach it on a really simple level and just enjoy the pictures which a lot of people do. They just like the pre-raphaelites or whatever and they like the sense of the past that comes across from them and that’s a big thing I reckon.

So should art change to the whims of the many? Sometimes, I guess. I think fine art can get so lost in its own importance that it’s impossible to take it seriously at times. Art really doesn’t help itself sometimes. But at the same time I would never want to deprive the world of people like Ai Weiwei or Marina Abramovic or Anish Kapoor or Takashi Murakami or Yayoi Kusama or Jeff Koons or do-ho suh. There is so much to offer in things which might initially seem too difficult or too abstract, so many avenues that they can explore if you give them a chance.

So that’s basically the point I ended up at. The art can be difficult but it’s worth exploring. Modern art is a phrase which conjures a certain image in your mind and yes, sometimes that stereotype is true, but there are bad things in every medium and it’s never an excuse to dismiss it entirely. Sometimes it feels like there’s a place left unfulfilled in art, a place that can speak to the masses with eloquence and thoughtfulness without talking down to them. But I don’t know how to fill it, so I may as well learn to stop worrying about the future of art and love the things that are good, even if other people can’t see it.

Oh and, a last note, the whole “I could do that” thing that people say when they’re looking at modern art? Fucking stop it.

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