Can Modern Art Be Justified?

How could an all white painting be sold for millions? Are we stretching the definition of art too thin, or are these pieces really beyond our creativity?

Nothing confuses us more than witnessing a seemingly bland piece of canvas or an “interestingly” placed rock being celebrated as art. Why is it, then, that people still buy these pieces for millions of dollars, leaving the rest of us feeling even more incredibly artistically challenged? Are we stretching the definition of art too thin, or are these pieces really beyond our creativity?

Turns out, it is more complicated than just these two questions. Here are some of the possible reasons we may not get art:

1) We simply lack information or detail crucial to understanding the art piece:

The Art Assignment explores this idea in their YouTube video “I Could Do That”, giving us an example of Felix Gonzalez-Torrez’s “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1991, which was just an installation of two identical commercial clocks perfectly in sync. The title invites us to think about the two clocks as lovers whose hearts beat in sync like the ticking of these clocks.

Modern Art
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1991, Clocks, Paint on wall

While this idea seems like something any of us could have conceptualized, the artwork is greatly elevated on learning that the artist produced this installation while his partner was battling with AIDS. The eventual running out of one of the batteries before the other, thus signifying the two lovers falling out of sync, but still perfectly in love, makes the art piece even more profound when we take into account the fact that Felix Gonzalez-Torrez’s partner died in 1991, and he died in 1996.

Modern Art

“Time is something that scares me . . . or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.”

Furthermore, this piece was also a political statement. Having been a homosexual in a time of increasing censorship, Gonzalez-Torrez believed that, “Two clocks side by side are much more threatening to the powers that be than an image of two guys sucking each other’s dicks, because they cannot use me as a rallying point in their battle to erase meaning. It is going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being expended for the promotion of homosexual art when all they have to show are two plugs side by side, or two mirrors side by side…

It is clear that in this case, without the knowledge of the events that took place in the artist’s life, we might have been hasty in dismissing his artwork as ordinary.

2) We do not understand the purpose of the art piece:

Modern Art
All white Minimalist painting


In Vox‘s video, assistant art curator Elisabeth Sherman pleads the case for Minimalism- the genre in which you find paintings like, you guessed it, all white canvases. She talks about how paintings in this category are intentionally bland for reasons of simplicity, harmony and order, pointing out that even in all white paintings there are subtle differences in the shades or tones of white paint.

This genre evolved as a rejection of Abstract Expressionism in which the splashes of paint is about the artist’s emotions and movements, whereas Minimalist artists believe that paintings should be as far removed from the author as possible.

However, Minimalism is also not about objects: it is about the painting as a separate entity of its own. Rather than finding meaning, it is supposed to stir emotion in its audience and any interpretation of it is legitimate.

3) Sometimes it is about skill:

The Art Assignment also explains that with Abstract Expressionism, it is more about the skill and emotions of the artist than the meaning of the painting. Take Piet Mondrian’s Tableau 1, for example.

Modern Art
Piet Mondrian’s Tableau 1

While this piece may look simple, it takes a lot of precision and skillful handling of the paintbrush to get lines this smooth while also maintaining a consistent flat application of color using oil paint. So the truth of the matter is that you think you could make it, but it is unlikely that you could.

Modern Art
Cy Twombly’s School of Fontainebleau

Another example is School of Fontainebleau by Cy Twombly. It really looks like a child’s scribbles, but on closer inspection, the scribbles are surprisingly skillful. The use of color is restrained and the harmony of the different mediums- oil, wax, paint and pencil- is exquisite. Perhaps it is also the sense of freedom attached to the scribbles that adds value to this piece.

4) Art as a luxury item:

No matter how you try to explain it, the truth behind the monetary value of some art pieces is simply that they are luxury items. To elaborate, the factors that affect art pricing are:

  • reputation of the artist
  • status of the dealer
  • status of the intended purchaser
  • size of an artwork

Taking this into account, it is fair to deduce that the bigger the reputation of the artist, the more money their art piece will sell for regardless of its artistic value. For newer artists, the reputation of the dealer goes a long way in setting high prices. Dealers also have the upper hand in pricing because by making the prices private, they can rely on their reputation to increase the value of the artwork. Sometimes, dealers can create a scarcity in the market by advising that the artist make less artwork. Applying the demand-supply rule, fewer art would be sold for higher prices.

Whatever the reason, we are still very confused by Modern Art.

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