Humor me while I set the scene.
You’re perusing a modern art museum, well-aware that you’re surrounded by some of the most esteemed objects to grace the last century. You round the corner and come face to face with a sloppy amalgam of hasty scribbles or an installation of a thousand pieces of candy on the ground or, God forbid, a staggeringly unremarkable wooden chair.
Without meaning to, your first reaction is: “I could have done that.” You lament that you didn’t shirk your undergraduate degree to sell Crayola doodles to art collectors, and, by extension, you belittle the artist’s vision and the systems of power that legitimize the work.
Just because I pretentiously own a keychain bearing artist Craig Damrauer’s equation pondering the nature of modern art — “Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t” — doesn’t mean I am qualified to speak to why I believe this reaction is utter B.S., but it won’t stop me from sharing my two cents.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the natural inclination to downplay the technical skill associated with modern art. It took multiple modern art history courses and museum internships to advance my own way of thinking on the matter. What’s more, centuries of art history contribute to the myth that to be truly considered high art, a work must display technical skill, evoke viewing pleasure and be aesthetically harmonious in its formal elements. A revolutionary departure from this traditional way of thinking only really began in the last 150 years, when ideas themselves came to be regarded as works of art. But I want to do my part in shattering the illusion that some objects don’t deserve to be called art because they appear “easy” to make — if you think technical complexity is a prerequisite for art, you’re missing the point.
First, consider whether you really could have made the art. When it comes to paintings like Cy Twombly’s graffiti-like scratches and scrawls or Piet Mondrian’s color-block oil paintings that appear to require the motor skills of a toddler, it’s easy to think that you could have. But these artists had to painstakingly mix colors and materials; apply balanced, crisp lines to canvas; draft, experiment, scrap and re-draft; await the inevitable criticism from curators and collectors and repeatedly defend the motivations and meanings behind the forms of expression they chose. They not only had to conceive and produce a work, but they also had to navigate art and its markets so expertly that their so-called splotches and rectangles came to be worth millions.
Even with readymade art that the average adult could likely reproduce with ease — such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ installation of two synchronized analog clocks on a wall — there’s more to it than meets the eye. The piece, “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” is meant to metaphorize the harmony of two lovers who will inevitably fall out of sync someday. The meaning of the work is made even more profound when you consider that he made it shortly after his partner, who died sooner and whose figurative clock battery tapered out first, was diagnosed with AIDS. So even if you were to execute a perfect replica, it would not be art in the same way Gonzalez-Torres’ version is art. It would lack the circumstances of creation that imbue it with meaning.
Especially with modern art, the goal of the artist is not to leave you in awe of their flawless craftsmanship but to elicit a thoughtful response. You’re not supposed to gaze in wonder at the sublime beauty of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a crucifix figurine immersed in — you guessed it, urine — you’re supposed to be stunned, offended, disgusted. You’re not supposed to see the reckless brushstrokes on Willem de Kooning’s abstract female nude series as lazy or sloppy, you’re supposed to contemplate that it took him over 200 sketches to achieve precision in grotesqueness and that the painting brilliantly subverts classical traditions.
Everything in art has purpose, including the movement away from showcasing technical skills and into conceptualism where ideas speak for themselves. Whether to overturn dominant trends, highlight the inherent value of objects or undermine the commercial system of the art world, nothing in art happens by accident. Nothing happens independent of sociopolitical circumstances, either. In tandem with global industrialization and the introduction of unskilled labor, the art world has evolved to host new methods of production, like photography and readymade objects, that challenge the value of spending years perfecting a magnum opus.
It’s up to viewers to open our minds and escape the restricted mentality that art is not art unless it fits into strictly traditional, technical norms. The modern movement demands an entirely different set of skills that the untrained artist is hardly capable of perfecting to a comparable degree: empathy, observation, deduction, radical thought, avant-garde interpretation, the ability to react to the world with an arsenal of unprecedented self-expression. Now, can you do that? (And make a living while you’re at it?)
Art can be — and is — a splatter of paint, a collage of plastic straws, a tin can of feces, a woman inviting gallery-goers to cut clothes off her. Instead of trivializing the art itself by assuming it takes no skill, stop and ask why the artist did what they did and what response they hoped to evoke in you by doing so. Next time, dig a little deeper.
Catherine Yang is a senior writing about art and visual culture. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.