‘My child could have done this’

As modern art takes on increasingly bizarre, mundane and minimalist forms, many question what makes art, art

Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire sold for $1.76 million.
Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire sold for $1.76 million.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of dalihouse.blogsome.com

There’s a very funny episode of Rugrats, which depicts Tommy’s dad, Stu, taking the babies to an art museum. While the babies run off and get into trouble, Stu meets a couple of young, artsy women. Using classic art critic jargon, Stu successfully dupes the women into thinking he’s a genuine art aficionado, all the while describing blank walls of the gallery and fire extinguishers.

The comedy of the episode lies in a familiar debate: what qualifies as art, especially in the increasingly bizarre world of modern art? From Malevich’s Black Square, a pure black canvas, to DuChamp’s Fountain, a urinal turned upside down, modern art can take on forms from the bizarre to the mundane. This leaves many people wondering, how can these seemingly simple pieces become famous works of art?

Many point to a controversial purchase made by the National Gallery of Canada in 1990 as the biggest art scandal in this country. The issue revolved around a well-known contemporary painting by Barnett Newman called Voice of Fire. The painting is almost 18 feet tall and features a simple red stripe on a blue background.

Although Voice of Fire hung peacefully on loan in the gallery for two years, it was the subject of public outcry when, in the spring of 1990, the gallery decided to purchase the painting for $1.76 million.

As Capital News reported, the purchase was so highly contested by the public and the media that it was taken all the way to the House of Commons and sparked a fad of T-shirts and ties patterned after the painting.

Felix Holtmann, a Manitoba MP who was then chair of the House of Commons committee on communications and culture, told a Winnipeg-based talk show the painting looked like “two cans of paint and two rollers and about 10 minutes would do the trick.”

The genre of art to which Barnett Newman and other similarly controversial artists belong is often classified as abstract expressionism.

Allison Morehead, one of the instructors for the class “Modern and Contemporary Art c.1900 to the Present” explained that the term is a combination of two congruent art movements.

Morehead said expressionism was a term used in the 20th century to refer to a number of German artists who sought to instill a certain expressivity in their work. This expressivity was understood in various ways.

“In some cases that was understood to be really bright colours, or broad, fast-looking brush strokes, and in some cases it was work that moved towards what appeared to be less of a connection with the real world,” she said.

As emphasis on subconscious feelings and drives became more prevalent in art, expressionist painters drew upon abstraction to further convey the sense of the inner-self. Wassily Kandinsky’s work in the years between 1910 and 1912 is often credited as being the first abstract art produced. His paintings would later go on to influence famous expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Kazimir Malevich.

“These artists really celebrated the idea that the work of art could express somebody’s inner emotions and that that was our inner spirit,” Morehead said. “For some artists, although not for all, [that was] best achieved by moving towards abstraction.”

For some, abstraction was seen as the most heroic avenue for new art. Although heavily debated among both viewers and art critics, abstraction was an immensely important development in modern art, Morehead said. “Abstraction, and abstraction tied to expressionist vocabulary, become for many people the sort of natural evolution of art in our world, and for many people a real high point,” she said. “It’s heavily been theorized actually as such—as the purification of painting to its very essential forms. That’s the way it’s theorized, but viewers might take it a different way.”

An oft-heard criticism of abstract and contemporary art is that it can be created by anyone, as opposed to a distinguished, uniquely-talented artist. Although Morehead recognizes the legitimacy of that argument, she said it doesn’t lead to a very insightful exchange about the art produced.

“There’s a part of me that says that it’s a completely valid response when somebody says, ‘My child could have done this.’ Well, maybe they could,” she said. “That’s that person’s absolute right to express that. It’s not a very good way to start a discussion, though. I think there are more interesting statements you could make.”

Jan Allen, chief curator and curator of Contemporary Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre, explained that much contemporary art is produced differently from our traditional understanding, and has come to include many different mediums. She also said artists are much more flexible in terms of their materials and process.

“I think one of the things that confuses people sometimes is, in terms of our public education, there’s kind of a fixed idea of artistic practice that’s a little bit more enclosed,” she said. “It’s really almost a 19th Century idea of a painting, the artistic genius and the studio. Artists today work in much more fluid ways and much more socially with people and political realities. In media, that may be confusing for people if they haven’t familiarized themselves with the work.”

Allen said our ability to copy or reproduce works has had an enormous impact on the range of art we find in the world today. Whereas photography, film, graffiti and other media were not considered art before, they certainly are today. This has particularly come into effect with the increasing popularity and community of the Internet.

“Art making has kind of repositioned itself in our culture—there needs to be taken into account this exercise of conversation with the culture, its values, its attitudes, its impulses. So art today is functioning on a different level in terms of production, in terms of what the object is that we look at as art or that we experience as art,” she said.

The art market, in turn, has also expanded. More works are being sold and more people are willing to pay more money for them. This ranges from street artist Banksy’s works selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948, which sold for $140 million.

“There certainly is a spectacular market for the type of work[that] has developed,” Allen said.

“I guess it reflects the concentration of money, of capital in certain hands. And their willingness to pay what would have been considered to be astronomical prices a few years ago is greater.”

The reason, then, that these seemingly simple pieces go for incredibly large sums of money is that there’s a level of importance to the work, which has social value to many people. For Allen, it isn’t enough to simply look at a painting and evaluate it on the basis of how elaborate it is. In order to enjoy the work and see its value, you have to learn more about it.

“Issues of value don’t have to do with the material entity of the work, strictly speaking, but rather the set of artistic intentions and authorship that surround a work of art. … It’s a misapprehension of what art is to say, ‘Well, I could have done that,’ because art isn’t just a skilled production. It involves skill, but that’s not all it is. So it’s kind of missing the point.”

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