When I visit art museums, I usually end up watching the people staring at the art just about as much as I look at the art itself. When the average person is confronted with a piece like this one:
The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David, 1793, oil on canvas
…people who do recognize it stand and stare in wonderment. Others gather around it because there are other people gathered around it, read the placard on the wall, glance for a few seconds and then move on. It is figural (there is a person), there is a coherant scene involved (a wounded man, seemingly dead, hangs over the bathtub while holding a letter), and while the average person might not know its grand significance, they can still appreciate its artistic merit, how hard it would be to create a piece like this, and the intense training involved for this level of art production. However…when confronted with a piece like this:
Number 10, 1950, Mark Rothko, 1950, oil on canvas, 90 3/8 x 57 1/8 in.
…some people stand in awe as the colors and sheer size of the canvas overpower them. A majority, however, usually tend to either pretend to be interested, laugh to themselves, shake their heads in confusion and walk away, or my personal favorite: “My 5-year-old could do that!”
From someone who is minorly obsessed with Mark Rothko and abstract expressionism, let me say, in order to fully appreciate abstract art (like the piece above):
- You need to understand the context of the piece
- You need to see it in person
For me, when I look at abstract art, it all goes back to the two World Wars. Up until the world wars, art production was still centered around realism and trying to make paintings look as objectively true to reality as possible. Artists produced many figural pieces, landscapes or more “normal”-looking pieces during this time period, and the ultimate goal was to make paintings look like things do in real life. But as history goes: war happened. And the major question that artists asked after the 50 million+ death toll from WWII far exceeded any war before it, after two cities were annihilated by atomic bombs, after many were forced to leave their native countries, after innocent Japanese-Americans had been forced into internment camps, after Pearl Harbor…..why the hell would I represent my world as a coherant place when it is anything but coherant? What point is there in making a nice, pretty portrait when all I see around me is suffering? Why represent a cityscape when my city has been destroyed?
The world got messy, and visual culture followed suit.
Art became much less about representing objective reality, and much more about personal expression, contemplation and representing the experience of the artist. It became an investigation of art itself. The point isn’t that that these artists couldn’t create figural, Leonardo or Michelangelo-esque works that have become the benchmarks of “good art”…it’s that creating “good art” didn’t matter. I’ll save the “who decides what qualifies as ‘good art'” rant for another day 🙂