Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Artist?



              Are you afraid of art? Does it make you uncomfortable? You go to a museum and enter a room full of paintings. Are you immediately at home in a world of aesthetic expression? I'm talking mostly about Modern and contemporary art here. Museums are supposedly preserving our cultural and/or national heritage; do you feel like you are a part of that?

               I'd like to suggest that art doesn't have a routine place in our cultural experience. Given the chance, most people opt for a concert or a movie rather than a trip to an art gallery or museum. Music satisfies most of our aesthetic appetite. Songs are easy to buy, store, and listen to. We can stay away from the ones we don't like. We can invest ourselves in the music groups that produce the ones we do like. Music is an accessible, anonymous form of expression. We can 'skip' a song we don't like on Pandora. We don't even bother listening to genres that we don't understand or don't enjoy. Songs are quick and, for the most part, easily accessible. Movies are much the same way. They require a longer investment of time, but no effort. Visual and auditory information is fed directly to us; our only challenge is to find the most comfortable seat position where we watch them. Think about this: when was the last time you went to a concert that you knew beforehand would have music you didn't like or understand?

               That is a frame of reference for thinking about the contemporary art, or lack thereof, that is part of your life. We go to the Impressionist exhibits because we know we will like looking at the pictures. We do everything to avoid Francis Bacon exhibits because his distorted, ghostly figures make us uncomfortable and anxious. A suggestion for museum-goers: do less. I'll cover museum etiquette in a later essay, but for now, stop the timid observation of catalogues and placards that tell you what to see. Don't leave your emotions at "uncomfortable," "outraged," or "bored". Ask yourselves why you feel the way you do about art. Apathetic reactions to contemporary art are not entirely your fault. Art appreciation classes don't exist because people are ignorant about art. Contemporary art is to blame, more than the average museum-goer. This is the part of the essay where I get to the information relevant to my current situation.

               I'm in Oxford, and it is 2nd week of Michaelmas Term. My primary tutorial is an art history course called "Art After Modernism." Basically, I meet with my tutor - a doctoral student - once a week and write a lengthy paper for each meeting that we discuss in full.

Christ Church College, where my tutorials are held. Don't be fooled, the classrooms are ugly and cramped.

Christ Church College, where my tutorials are held. Don't be fooled, the classrooms are ugly and cramped.

 I go to relevant lectures around Oxford, but spend most of my time reading in the beautiful libraries around the city, and also in my room because it rains a lot. I just submitted my essay on Minimalism's role of de-materializing the art object while successfully critiquing Greenberg's Modernist vision. If that sounds like rubbish to you, again: you are not altogether wrong. I came into the tutorial wanting to understand the thought that goes into contemporary art. As a more skeptical person might say, "Where did it all go wrong?" Really - and here's the secret - much of the art (again, the 'out there' art in some big city gallery) you see is about dialogue. It is about art responding to other art. It is about one artist rejecting another's vision and proposing his own. It is about responding to current events, politics, societal norms, all in a way that is relevant and grabs the attention. Art has been in a constant conversation ever since people started trying to explain it rationally. Critics and historians have just as hard a time categorizing and understanding what they see as you do. To keep up with the forefront of art means to know the latest art-world events and opinions. Most of the reading I do is primary source, artists in dialogue with other artists. So far, I can say my understanding of Modern and Contemporary art has been drastically improved by engaging the delicate context that a lot of work operates in.

               No, you aren't a troglodyte for entering a Minimalist art exhibition and accidentally sitting on a sculpture. Most people who look at those pieces don't really understand what is going on. Art's complicated past is hardly transparent. But ask yourself what you see when looking at a Donald Judd sculpture:

Donald Judd,  Untitled  , 1966.

Donald Judd, Untitled , 1966.

              "There's so little to see, right? It seems like it is barely art.

               There's no interplay of form. It's theatrical and just too literally a set of boxes."

               *That is what critics on Greenberg's and Fried's side said*


               "All I see are squares.

               I have almost nothing to go on, but it has a basic power, a basic wholeness.

               There is no display of craftsmanship, the object just seems to exist."             

               *That is how Judd defended his art*


               "I've got to find meaning somewhere.

              The boxes have a different look when I see them at a low angle.

               They seem to take advantage of the space around them.

               The idea is important here: maybe I'm contributing

               something to this art's meaning."

               *That is how the next generation of artists began to

                 come up with Conceptual, process, and installation art *


Not so much to be afraid of, right?  The confusion doesn't just lie with you, but with everyone involved. Modern art is a party, but no one knows who the host is.