Minority Report: Treatise on Art (with asides from the art professor in my head)

by Jules Older

The New Yorker cartoon, by Roz Chast

I’m in Luxembourg, standing in a gorgeous building, an architectural gem called MUDAM, the Luxembourg Museum of Modern Art. Designed by E.M. Pei, it has great lines, great bones, and a fabulous setting overlooking the fairytale city.

And I’ve just enjoyed a delightful al fresco lunch in the museum’s sun-drenched courtyard. I should be the portrait of contentment.

But you’re not, are you, Jules?

I am not.

It’s the art, isn’t it? What did you think of the art?

I think the art … is a desecration of the building. An insult to the lunch chef. A waste of time, space and money, not necessarily in that order.

This is your chance to explicate.

“A Surrealist Family Has the Neighbors In To Tea,” The New Yorker cartoon, by Otto Soglow

Like so much contemporary art, the exhibits at MUDAM rely on insider knowledge, heavy-handed irony, or evasive shoulder shrugs — “It’s art; it speaks for itself” — to justify its existence. I hate that.

Sounds like you’ve encountered it before.

Oh, yes. Worse still was a piece I saw at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum earlier this year. That one required the presence of the artist to explain what the hell it meant.

The nature of that piece?

It was a lighted sign that said something like, “No Entry.” At the launch, the artist flew in from New York to explain the sign was from a former darkroom at his art school, and that it had deep and personal meaning to him.

“Deep and personal meaning.” That’s not sufficient for you?

Not even close. If you need the creator (or in this case, the guy who swiped the sign) standing by to explain the work (in this case, “work” used in the loosest possible way), then the work is a failure.

The New Yorker cartoon, by Saul Steinberg

Somehow, I sense there’s more.

There is. My moment of clarity in Luxembourg came as I was leaving the museum. Before lunch, I’d walked through what I named The IKEA-lite exhibit. It consisted entirely of cheaply made furniture arranged to cover most of the floor-space in a large gallery. Then, as I was leaving MUDAM, in the entrance pavilion, I passed a bunch of wooden crates. I stopped. I shook my head. And I still don’t know if the art was inside the crates or if the crates were the art.

So you were angry at art in San Francisco and in Luxembourg. Maybe this is more about you than art.

I don’t think so. I was vamping on this selfsame subject to my London friend, Steven. His moment came at home. His daughter the art student was late for an end-of-term project, and she started madly spraying canvasses with white paint. When he asked her about it, she said, “This is what they want.”

And?

And she was right. She got an A.

From this you conclude?

That, clearly, this isn’t just a Luxembourg issue. You see the same thing in London, in San Francisco—

Have you a more substantial San Francisco example, Jules?

I do. The day before my visit to Luxembourg, I was at one of my favorite museums in the world, the de Young. They were proudly hosting “Modernism,” on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

That sounds most promising.

So I thought.

But? I believe I heard a But.

Remember when your dumb uncle — the one who never took an art-appreciation course — used to look at modern art and mutter, “My kid could do better than that?”

Indeed.

I used to think he was ignorant; now, I think he’s right.

In what way, right?

Squares of thick paint putty-knifed onto canvas, disembodied arms taped to a muddied painting, giant monochromatic rectangles — they may be expressions of rebellion or messages from a tormented soul or cries for help, but art, they ain’t.

Experts beg to differ, Jules.

Yes, but they’re wrong, as experts on art so often are. In 50 years, these arms and squares and black canvases will be rightly regarded as a cultural blip, an evolutionary wrong turn, an artistic dead end, not the movement of stunning significance they were seen as at the time.

That’s what you think, is it?

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ with it. But what do I know? I think my kid could do better than that.

“Not bad, for art,” The New Yorker cartoon, by Dean Vietor

 

 

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