When earlier this morning I read an article by Michel Houellebecq in The Paris Magazine (a brilliant little publication from Shakespeare & Company in Paris) I started thinking about the concept of contemporary art and its availability to the general public. The article “Approaches to Distress” was on contemporary architecture and not on pictorial art per se, but the first few lines touched on a topic I often think about and that makes me frustrated out of my wits: people walking around exhibitions of contemporary art saying smugly to their company “Oh, look at that! I could have done that myself. Why do these so called artists get to call themselves artists when my four-year-old could have done it better? I just don’t get it!” No. Clearly you don’t. Houellebecq puts it like this
It’s well known that the general public don’t like contemporary art. This trivial statement in fact contains two opposing attitudes. The average member of the public, coming across a display of contemporary paintings or sculpture, will stop in front of it, even if only to laugh. His attitude will fluctuate between ironic amusement and outright sniggering. Either way, he will be aware of a certain element of derision. The insignificance of what is on display will be a reassuring guarantee that it is harmless. It’s true that he will have wasted his time, but not in the end in a particularly unpleasant way.
So what is it then that makes these selected few worthy of their place in the artistic top layer? Why are Jackson Pollock and Marc Rothko such stars, together with Malevich, Mondrian and a not insignificant number of others? Not to mention Picasso. Women with three eyes and five breasts?, you may say. How can that be any great? In my view it comes down to just one thing: they were there first. They came up with the idea.
There is no question about the truth in the statement that a four-year-old can paint like Jackson Pollock. Of course they can. But they don’t paint like him when they grow up, they consider it childish when they become teenagers. And with that attitude they don’t change the map when questions arise in which direction the art movement will go. But Picasso did. So did Malevich with his squares and white backgrounds. So did Jackson Pollock with his streaks of paint. They questioned and wanted to go beyond what was common and ordinary.
For me this is what it all comes down to. When we grow up we conform to society and keep to the same track our teachers, friends and family tell us to. We might not be content and we might be unhappy, but we still stick to the Big Plan that is shaped like it has been for hundreds of years. We are taught to “think outside the box” but as soon as we do no one dares to hire us and our neighbors start talking about us behind our backs. Why? Is that what we want? No, certainly not. But still, we allow ourselves to laugh at the artists that dared to change the art world and brake out of the conformity of the Academies and the monetary power of the patrons. So come on and celebrate them, think about what they did. Imagine yourself in 1918, having only seen traditional painting and then all of a sudden you’re confronted with an early Cubist Picasso. You might not have liked it, you might still snigger, but admit that it was pretty brave and amazingly stubborn of him to carry on with this idea of his. Well aware of what the critics and patrons were saying, there where master painters who had gone the traditional way through the Art Academy just like Pablo Picasso and still wanted to break out of the conformity.
I am the first to agree that Flemish renaissance painting is amazing and beautiful, but it can’t just go on like that. Next time you visit an art exhibition of contemporary art, look at it with new eyes. Think about what it takes to create what these artists created and still create. Laugh when it’s too weird, sure, but don’t forget what’s behind it. Remember the courage sometimes mustered to do what they did. To do what they do today. For us.