27 July 2007

The Modern Art Conundrum

"Modern art is inaccessible!"
It's almost like a battle cry from Davey's lips, feeling especially snubbed by the art-elite because he can't quite remember the last time he considered himself a part of any "out" group. (Actually, he just chooses not to remember, but who really considers high school to be the "glory days" anyways?) As I make my way through the disconnected forum of the permanent collection of modern art at the Met, I am trying to imagine what it would feel like to take in this exhibit cold.

I am unable to empathize. Each piece triggers the search for some information I've filed away for this exact purpose. I piece together historical events, personal biographies, innovations in technology, anything to contextualize the work in front of me so that I can gather my own sense of it's significance and presence. People argue pretentiously that art is not created to be analyzed, but simply enjoyed. The reality is that most people cannot begin to enjoy something they feel is beyond their reach of understanding. We are rational, logical beings who find comfort in comprehension. Also, it's easier to command a viewer not to think too much when the object being scrutinized has a recognizable subject.

There are two aspects of any modern art piece that allows me to truly enjoy the art. The first is the relevance of its place in a historical timeline. In the Berliner Gallerie's display of work from the DaDa movement, one sees collages similar to pieces we made for Mother's Day in the 1st grade while learning coordination through the use of safety scissors. This means nothing until the patron realizes that this is one of the first of its kind in the public sphere. Before this moment in time, no high profile artist within or outside of any movement thought it would be a nifty idea to cut out pictures and paste them on a canvas to create a new image. This was considered the deconstruction of art as they knew it at the time.

The second characteristic I like to draw upon for contextualization when considering modern art is the placement of the piece in the creative process of that particular artist. When I first stumbled upon Robert Rauschenberg, I was appalled. The idea of old photos and magazine pictures pasted on broken cabinet doors being considered art was hard to swallow. I was especially skeptical about the goat wearing a tire. However, I am a flexible, open-minded human being, so I gave it a chance - and what I experienced shifted paradigms. Slowing taking in an entire special exhibition devoted to Rauschenberg, I relived his artistic processes: the why joined with the how and what simply became an object of my affection. I experienced his frustrations with his limitations and his rebellion of mixed mediums. I grew to respect this visionary who learned how to make others fall in love (for how else does one sell modern art?).

Now, a diagonal flourescent light is no longer random and silly; it is an integral part of Dan Flavin's large scale light installations that explore the properties of light and color in ways that invoke the amazement of an optical illusion. A felt-covered cello is no longer impractical; tears form in my eyes and emotions well up in my throat as I remember Joseph Beuys' obsession with the material that saved his life when he was shot down during the second World War. This life-giving fabric not only contrasts the shine of the classical instrument, preaching practicality over luxury - Beuys also invokes the memory of concentration camps where human hair was actually used in the manufacturing of this textile.

Modern art does not have to be inaccessible; perhaps curators simply choose to make it so. Until art spaces truly become interactive educational spaces as well, the average Joe will continue to shake his head in disbelief and confusion.
And who are we kidding? Even my friends aren't that eloquent under pressure.
His real words: "I dont get it."

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