I enjoy art. I own art. I’ve been to the six most popular art museums in the world and all that but the art world still makes no sense to me.
To me, art should be about paintings, murals or whatever else that one subjectively thinks look good and means something to them. I even understand and appreciate that there is important history to certain pieces of art – in the same way I listen to Buddy Holly, The Beatles or Jimi Hendrix and appreciate that they were the first to do what they did. That being said, I cannot comprehend the stigmas that define the art world.
A good example to look at is one of the best-regarded painters of all time, Johannes Vermeer. Although not particularly acclaimed during his lifetime, Vermeer’s reputation soared posthumously. Known for his innovative lightning techniques, Vermeer’s paintings looked like modern photographs. Girl With a Pearl Earing is one of the most famous portraits of all time, and looks like almost like an “amateur” model photo one would find on Instagram.
Vermeer’s art looked distinct from other paintings in his time period, and we now know why. Vermeer created an optical device that allowed him to trace real life images. Similar to a camera, the device was the first object to ever accurately record colour and resultantly allowed him to “paint” photographs that mirrored real life.
The device was awfully simple; it consisted of a lens and two mirrors (one concave, one comparator). It allowed Vermeer to trace over a reflection of an image and match the colour tones exactly. The device was a real life paint-by-numbers, as the colours would overlap, allowing one to get an “objective” replica of any image. Johannes Vermeer, one of the most famous artists of all time was essentially a glorified tracer – the same job so aggressively mocked by Kevin Smith in the movie Chasing Amy.
Knowing how the art world worked, Vermeer did the smart thing and ensured that nobody knew the true source of his images by keeping his device a complete secret. Vermeer understood that if people knew that he used a machine to make his paintings, nobody would care about his work. The best evidence to support this thesis is that when technologist Tim Jenison created Vermeer’s device, nobody cared for Tim’s exact replica of Vermeer’s paintings, or bothered to use the device to paint any other sight as an “original” Vermeer.
Art should be valued because it looks good, not because of a name or story attached to it.
My parents purchased a silkscreen reproduction of a Pablo Picasso piece that after being framed cost a whomping few hundred dollars. The piece looks amazing; its almost as if my parents have a Picasso painting in their house. Considering how easy and affordable it is to replicate art, I cannot comprehend why this is not a common practice. As almost all the most famous artworks of our time are in the public domain, there is even no legal argument against. I’m not suggesting anyone put up the Mona Lisa in their house because that would obviously be tacky, but if the point of art is to look at beautiful images, why are people not putting up the most beautiful images they can?
The aforementioned Mona Lisa is another example of how little I “get” art. As anyone who’s been to The Louvre knows, the Mona Lisa is an enigma. Walking through The Louvre to get to the Mona Lisa, one is exposed to thousands of historic and amazing paintings; nobody seems to care about them. In the hallway directly before the Mona Lisa room, there is a wall of Da Vinci paintings, all equally as stunning as the Mona Lisa itself; nobody seems to care about them. Finally, one walks into the Mona Lisa room and is surrounded by 400 other tourists trying to take a picture of a 21 by 30 inch painting they cannot even get close to.
To understand this, one must understand the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is not the best-known painting in the world because it’s the most aesthetically pleasing, but because it is the most famous painting in the world. Catch 22 be damned but its true, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, because it was the most famous painting in the world… yesterday. The Mona Lisa was the most famous painting in the world yesterday because it was stolen in a well-known heist. The Mona Lisa was stolen in a well-known heist because of the popularity the painting had after a famous essay was written about it. A famous essay was written about the Mona Lisa because several different royals previously owned it. Several different royals owned the Mona Lisa because the Mona Lisa was an innovative piece of art by one of the best regarded Renaissance artists. The Mona Lisa is the best-known painting in the world not because it is the most beautiful piece of art, but because people did talk about it, do talk about it and will continue to talk about it.
My favourite example of well coveted art is the thrift store Jackson Pollock. An unmarked painting was purchased from a thrift store for $5 that many people believe is an authentic Jackson Pollock. The painting looks like a Jackson Pollock and has forensic evidence to prove it, but the art world remains unconvinced. Authentic or not, the point still remains. While the appearance of the painting is the same regardless of the outcome; if the painting is deemed to have been painted by Pollock, it will be worth $50 million, if there is insufficient evidence, it will be worth $5. The art world has made it clear; the person who painted the piece is more important than what the piece looks like.
While we’re on the subject of famous art, it’s important to look at the city of Detroit. The Detroit Institute of Arts is the second largest municipal art museum in America and valued at close to $5 billion. Although some of the art was donated to the museum, the Van Gogh, the Matisse, the Monet and many other famous paintings were all purchased by the city itself (when Detroit was booming thanks to Henry Ford and Europe was struggling after World War 1, the city controversially decided to purchase expensive art). Selling off the most expensive pieces owned by the city could result in close to $1 billion.
Everybody knows that Detroit is bankrupt and in serious trouble. After a hike in water prices to increase revenue, many people have had their taps shut off. Most streetlights no longer operate at night, response times for cops and ambulances are simply too long to be effective.
Detroit badly needs money that selling their art could provide. I’m not suggesting the city shut down their art museum, but the marginal benefit of having a Van Gough painting is negligible, especially in light of what the money could do for the city. The purpose of an art museum should be to enrich people by its stimulating pieces. The Van Gough painting is not more stimulating than an alternative piece from one of the 60,000+ other paintings the museum has. The Van Gough painting is expensive because Van Gough made it and although this fact provides monetary value for the item, it produces no additional artistic enrichment for the city of Detroit.
To me, art should be about putting things that look good on display and forgetting all of the guck that goes with it.
All true. But I think the battle is lost. I just avoid the word ‘art’ now. Art refers to those artifacts to which this kind of magical thinking is permitted. In the current context, there’s probably nothing to be gained in a strategy of asserting that art’s purpose ‘should’ be to look good, although I do agree.
I use the word ‘illustration’ and I draw from the commercial design tradition for my own stuff, rather than the art tradition. If enough like-minded people do the same, eventually, maybe, hopefully, the art world will be marginalised at its expense.
I think the discourse currently resembles that around religion before the new atheist insurgency. A lot of people raised in a culture of deference around art, who themselves don’t see what the fuss is about and find the magical thinking suspect, but who are not themselves motivated to be the boorish one to question it.
You need to take a read of https://www.amazon.com/Story-Art-H-Gombrich/dp/0714832472 ASAP! It’s a fantastic book that I think will answer all of your questions, it traces the evolution of art over history.