In Defense of Modern Art

Let me start with a statement: the rejection of art, in any shape or form, is not something I take lightly. Fundamentally though, I find skepticism towards historic art and towards modern art to be different – I think the former can be healthy, progressive and analytical, whereas the latter is often prematurely judgmental and restrictive.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, art is my life’s blood, my religion if you will. I make a living off of creativity, ideas and concepts, and art feeds into that on every level: it’s literally what nurtures me and gives my life meaning. Furthermore, I see creativity in a moral context, as one of few human instincts that are fundamentally good and meaningful in a broader perspective. I also see it in a political context, in that I tend to perceive political conservatism as an enemy, because a “liberal” (open minded) interpretation of art is impossible in a conservative world. Conservatism is, at its heart, very judgmental. It seeks to at the very least slow down progress, or possibly even reverse it, and return us to a world where everything is known and defined, and that is the direct antithesis of open-mindedness – which makes it an enemy of art, at least as I know it.

I need art to be open, to be full of possibilities, to be open to interpretation. The more we limit it, it becomes a restriction on creativity, which is what I live and breathe. I hold this to be especially true for modern art, because I see that as the first artistic movement that truly transcended the physical properties of art; where the visuals exist merely as a trigger for concepts and ideas, and (possibly) provocation. You’re not supposed to admire the image of a Campbell’s soup can, that is not the purpose. Modern art is not idolatry or fetishism, but it attempts to shine a light on it. In that sense, I see modern art as something that can become anything, that reflects back at us, whereas traditional art is already a (mostly) defined, known quantity that is dependent on a historical context. I have no desire to whitewash it and I do see great value in it, but I don’t want to see it used to limit the future potential of art. Saying modern art has no value, or that it has somehow become unmoored from it’s true purpose is, to me, basically denying the promise of art.

If you think about it, we can’t base new art on old values and traditions, that’s just not meaningful. It becomes pastiche and deliberate recreation of concepts and artistic principles that aren’t fully relevant anymore, or at least not understood in the same context. It actually turns self-referential, whittling down its own scope, and art then becomes a game of Pictionary instead of a Rorschach test. The former has one definite answer, whereas the latter can point to any answer.

But let me be clear: I’m not threatening to take away anybody’s art – historic art is still there, in all it’s glory. So please don’t threaten to take away mine. Because “my” art is the promise of art yet to come, and I see modern art as a springboard for that. Something that departs from the old and tries to redefine the broader concept of art. An art that is freed from the unnecessary restrictons of paint, canvas or marble, where creativity and ideas are allowed to fly in complete freedom, and can take on any form.

Perhaps I feel this way simply because art, while not technically what I do per se, at least informs it on a very intimate level, on a daily basis. I have no wish to invalidate anyone’s perspective on art, but recognize that they are, by definition, very personal and can be vastly different. Therefore, words and attitudes towards art do matter, in a very real and tangible sense. Consider if a lawyer was forced to sit through a procession of legal trials where due process was ignored and the outcomes distorted, to the point where it eventually started whittling down his or her belief in the law and the legal system’s capability to deliver justice. That is similar to how the dismissal of art, and the potential of art, affects me.

So, once again, I have no desire to reject any art of any kind, and I have no understanding of such rejection. I love art. All sorts of art. But the art of the past is already in the bank. We cannot erase it, nor should we, and it will always be there for us to enjoy, even if we look at it judgingly, or with skepticism. The principles of artistic creation and artistic discovery, however, require that you as an artist separate yourself from what has gone before, and actually try to become more childlike. Otherwise, your output becomes a play with styles and predefined concepts, and you’re stuck in pastiche territory. Of course, one cannot completely disown the traditions of one’s craft, and nobody really does, but the point is that you have to try; try to set yourself free. And that also goes for commercial expectations, which impose financial yardsticks and artificial limitations on the potential validity of art.

I derive a very deep sense of stimulus from looking at period art, but also find that it is much harder to disassociate from its contextual framework and significance. I look at it and get hit by a truckload of connotations that really have nothing to do with the art itself. And that makes it carry very little value to me in a strictly professional sense. I simply cannot be inspired by it, or it will own me as opposed to the other way around. And I then become an artistic derivative.

So, I really am not trying to reject historic art, because I couldn’t. It’s there already. But I have to try to at least filter it out as it relates to the art yet to come, because in the sense that I’m looking at art, I want to keep an open mind. In the sense that my work is in any way informed by art, I want there to be only possibilities, because limitations affect my creativity, which can honestly be a very delicate and fragile thing. That is why words matter; why the rejection of modern art matters. I meet with clients on a daily basis whose general perceptions of art, design and creativity are, as always, very personal and often quite restrictive. This continues to whittle away my sense of creative freedom, little by little, and make me more jaded and disillusioned with what I can hope to achieve from a creative standpoint. I’ve seen this thousands of times; aging creatives who lose their spark and cave in under a constantly growing mountain of artistic prejudice. It’s (at best) a tyranny of tradition, or (at worst) a tyranny of mediocrity. I think maybe it’s a little like a songwriter who is always expected to play only his or her biggest hits, and who eventually fails to preserve integrity and therefore becomes a walking nostalgia machine.

I never try to interpret art in the moment. I focus very hard to keep an open mind and let the art plant seeds that I may be able to harvest later. But I find that art exhibits differ greatly in that sense: in a modern art exhibit I feel more like a participant, whereas in a historic art exhibit, I am reduced to a spectator.

In many ways, art is my religion, but it is not my God. I don’t worship it, I practice it. Intolerance for that practice does affect me, and it does take away from what I feel my religion can accomplish. It sets limits for what I want to believe is boundless, what I need to believe is without restrictions. I feel it can accomplish so much, but only as long as people are willing to suspend judgment – because my religion is non-judgmental, unlike theist religions such as Christianity for instance, which aims to judge us all and condemning nonbelievers to an eternity in Hell. Being reminded of that kind of intolerance, judgment and restrictive thinking really does affect me, and it sometimes even makes me want to give up. Given every individual’s own personal relationship with art, you don’t need to agree with my beliefs, but if you say what I believe has no value, it saps the creative energy out of me and makes me feel I’m on a fools errand. Kills my mojo.

Put plainly, there’s an abyss between saying you don’t like something, and to suggest that society has no need for it. The former sparks debate, which is healthy. The latter threatens to restrict creative freedom.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to take art away from anyone, nor do I want others to simply keep their art, or their definition of art, to themselves – I would like to share it with them. And my hope is that they would be open minded enough to share “my” art in return. Unfortunately, rejecting the promise of modern art makes that impossible. On the other hand, suspending judgment on behalf of someone you might be able to respect, trying to see and accept that point-of-view as valid (even if it’s not for you personally), that is a beautiful thing.

Which, in closing, is why I think modern art is so important not just to me as an individual, but for society as a whole. We need to allow the yet unborn child of art to form its own identity, as much as it is possible, and suspend judgment enough to believe the child will grow into an individual who will be able to contribute to society in its own way. Not expect the baby to instantly compare favorably to previous generations who might have passed away, but who will always be cherished in memory.

If historic art is for you, then you already have it. I can’t take it away from you, nor would I want to. Modern art, on the other hand, is to a large extent the art that is yet to come. Its existence and its value is yet to be determined. Which is why I ask that you hold off on your judgment, and let it at least try to prove itself to you.

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