Modern art is wanky, elitist and meaningless.
I stood there starring at what must have been the hundred painting I was seeing with the same subject. I was inspired somewhat, but I also had a headache and was questioning my life choice of being an artist... I was questioning the purpose of art itself, and whether it has any value, after walking through hallway after hallway of what seemed to be pieces meant to perpetrate elitism and inequality and what could easily be described as self-indulgent artistic wanks.
You are excused for thinking I am talking about my experience at a modern art museum. I’m actually describing my experience at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, which features European art from the 12th century to the early 19th century from the former Spanish Royal Collection.
You see, my Facebook newsfeed has been full of articles and texts about how modern art is horrible.
But I am wondering how, having only a superficial knowledge of Western art over the last millennia, anyone would think that modern art is any more wanky, elitist and meaningless compared to other art periods.
I get it: I too have wandered through cathedral-like high ceiling rooms of public art galleries starring at coloured squares and pieces of human hair wondering “What the actual fuck”. I’ve also stood in front of minimalist paintings for several minutes trying hard but not understanding what all the fuss was about. I regularly go to exhibitions and leave feeling like I’m not sure what I just saw or what the value of it was.
However I have to admit I have similar conflicting experiences when I see Western art from any other period.
When visiting the Prado, I was blown away by the beauty of the portraits of the court of Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. However, as skilled and emotive as they were, there’s no escaping the fact that they are merely portraits of wealthy people.
I was also impressed by the huge scenes of battles and crownings of kings. On the other hand they were clear examples of propaganda, the supposedly “historical” events carefully constructed to entice nationalism and loyalty to a particular dynasty.
And don’t even get me started on Jesus paintings. Has anyone counted how many paintings of biblical themes exist in Spain alone? I swear that like 80% of the paintings I saw at the Prado featured Jesus. Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings are some of my favourite pieces of all time, but their obvious intention is not really the best: trying to frighten the viewer into avoiding sin or else they’ll burn and be tortured in hell for all eternity. How much artistic talent has been spent perpetrating oppressive religious ideas?
Art from the past is also overflowing with sexist porn disguised as mythology, with women either starring blankly at the viewer as objects of desire or being raped by gods. And of course, fruit baskets. They are like a masturbatory display of skill: look how real I can paint this peeled lemon. Good for you.
I’m obviously exaggerating on my comments, and I’m not dismissing the merit of any of the things I mentioned above, or trying to say I have no understanding of the value of them. Because, despite everything I just said, seeing those paintings also inspires a deep sense of awe and admiration for the skill and dedication that took to execute them, the brilliance of their composition and artistic choices, and how much they continue to captivate audiences centuries after. It is seeing them as a collection that makes me question the value of art in our society, and makes me realise how much of it has been used as a tool for religious and social control or just as a form of entertainment for the rich.
And I’m not saying that the current state of affairs in the art world is any different in that sense.
I’m just saying that modern art didn’t come along and ruin a free, equalitarian art establishment that created only meaningful high quality work and where artists were successful solely based on merit.
Looking on the bright side, we have a definite advantage over creatives of the pre modern era: creative expression is wildly free and even the most outrageous pieces are now acceptable. As much as people like to say that this means literal shit gets sold as art instead of “real art”, it also means that many incredible art forms are are now accepted and celebrated, we are no longer confined to copying nature through realism or standards set entirely by an elite.
Deep down I believe now is a better time to create than ever.