“Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That” is a bestseller book at the Tate Modern shop. It is an obvious sign that we struggle understanding modern art. We crave for explanations that can answer that nagging question of why something so seemingly insignificant, something so seemingly simple can generate so much money and be praised by a small group of people. Oftentimes, it would not be hard to make the work you’re looking at yourself, nor is it even aesthetically pleasing. Where are the Renaissance paintings so intricate a magnifying glass reveals details not visible with the bare eye? We want to see the time and effort that has crept into creating a work of art before we could truly call it art. But we try to understand modern art. We visit modern art exhibitions and try our absolute best to grasp some meaning behind it. Yet the question of why the doodle you’re looking at would be art lingers subconsciously in your mind. Have modern artists pushed it too far? Genuine questions that cross everyone’s mind, including mine.
However, I have made a few observations that can answer the questions about modern art, or at least make them less relevant.
Modern artists are often incredibly literate.
The first picture shows a painting of Paul Klee, one of the most influential painters of the 20th century. I went to an exhibition that showed his works, but I was nearly more impressed with the small excerpts on the wall of his writing as with his actual art. It served as a satisfying justification that at least this art is made by the hand and mind of an incredibly bright individual with a huge vocabulary and deep philosofical insights. His artwork is infused with these philosophies, yet Klee does not serve them readily, which brings me to my second point.
Modern art is not about the final product.
The process that brought the artwork from thought to reality is truly what is important. Klee often sat for hours in a chair smoking his pipe, apparently doing nothing, before standing up and adding a dash of colour to his work. A modern artist thinks deeply about an aspect of life and creates something that encourages the viewer to go through the same process. This cannot be done without at least some abstraction. A beautifully painted picture of a ship does not raise questions. We admire it because of the obvious external skill of the painter. But modern art does raise questions. It tries to lead the viewer through the same questions the artist went through and we should admire it when it succeeds in doing so.
Of course, everyone is wired differently, so interpretations will differ. But that poses no problem as long as there is critical thought. The second picture is a work by Mira Schendel and one can attach many interpretations to it. Personally, I imagine myself walking through the wires and admiring how delicately and softly the wires touch me. When was the last time something touched you that was so light, an inanimate caress?
Modern art urges us to question and be critical. It is a medium for everyone to be curious and to question the status quo, to question today’s society and its flaws, to question yourself. Art is as relevant as it ever was.