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Modern Art: Storytelling or a load of old chairs?

Spoiler alert: I love modern art.

Some of my favourite artists of all time include Robert Rauschenberg, Anselm Kiefer and Mark Rothko. A lot of people I know whose opinions I respect a lot really don’t like modern art. I know it’s clichéd but I would be rich if I had a pound for every time I heard the phrase “I could have done that”. I think this is an unfair statement for two reasons; the first is that as someone who has attempted to create a piece of contemporary art for the IB, I know that it is nowhere near as easy as it looks. The artist must consider the colours, textures, placement and composition, which are all just as important as they are in traditional art forms. The second is that contemporary art is often not solely to be judged by what is visually there but what is behind the work as well. And yes, I do actually care about the explanations behind modern art and part of that involves making the decision to take explanations at face value.

To be quite honest I think the main reason some people are so unwilling to enjoy modern art is the knowledge that it can sell for unbelievable sums of money. It seems to beg the question: are works of contemporary art really worth that amount? Whilst I fully understand the natural conflation between worth and price, I feel this is a shame because it represents a barrier between the public and modern art pieces. I have a personal theory that the reason we tend to be less sniffy about something like abstract poetry is that we aren’t seeing it being sold for millions of pounds.

Take a Rothko painting for instance. They are some of my favourite works of art because of the appealing use of colour and texture; I am a sucker for textured works for no other reason than finding them unbelievably visually pleasing. I think many people would be quite happy to have a Rothko print hanging in their house to add some colour and interest to their home. So far so good. But in 2012, the Rothko piece Orange, Red, Yellow set a record in the contemporary art world when it sold for 53.8 million pounds at auction. And here lies the problem: is Orange, Red, Yellow worth 53.8 million pounds?

Would I pay for a Rothko if I had the money, no of course not. Do I think it’s worth 53 million pounds, well that’s a more complicated question. Personally, I think it’s pretty twisted that that kind of money can be spent on a singular item when it could have been put towards some humanitarian goal but I would not wish to declare that no-one should find a Rothko worth this amount of money.

Basically, I think it is possible to think a painting can be worth 53 million to a person whilst maintaining that no-one should actually pay 53 million pounds for it. My feelings are sort of summed up by the art curator Stefan Edlis who said, “there [are] a lot of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. This is not a view that everyone shares by any means. Art auctioneer Simon de Pury believes that a work’s financial value is extremely important and that great art should be expensive so that it is taken care of properly. He cites a case where a carefully wrapped family heirloom was explained to have no commercial value and was subsequently thrown back in its box no longer to be looked after. I am not sure I am entirely convinced by this argument as I would rather that people cared about art for its intrinsic worth and not its extrinsic value.

But then artists should be able to make money off their art, shouldn’t they? So then where is the line in how much a piece of art should sell for. To be frank, I really don’t know, and I certainly don’t endeavour to propose a cap for auction prices. Obviously artists need to be able to make a living off of their work but for most, like Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, success translates to exposure not money. At the end of the day, 99 percent of artists are not trying to deceive you in their art either through its meaning or its price. Art for many is a chosen medium for expressing ideas, modern art may be a more opaque medium for these ideas but I believe it still warrants the trust of its viewers despite its message needing more than a surface viewing. Yes, sometimes an overturned chair can really be a visual metaphor for people’s reluctance to accept things that seem out of place to them, see Ruthenbeck’s Overturned Furniture. Perhaps there is a misconception that there is only one type of worthy art. Certainly, there is immense talent and worth in a Dutch still life which so attentively depicts ordinary objects, but some of the most resonatory pieces are relatively ‘easy’ to construct and their genius is in their concept. Perhaps the only time I have ever actually laughed aloud at work of art was when I literally nearly stumbled across Clare Kenny’s VW Camper Van. First, I almost tripped on the name plaque, then, as I was searching the room to find a picture of such a van, I looked down only to realise that the work itself was an iridescent reconstruction of an oil leak synonymous with owning a VW Camper. You had to be there.

I like to think of modern art as the symbolism or metaphors of literature. Take the example of thumb biting in Romeo and Juliet. If you took it purely at surface level and refused to acknowledge a deeper meaning behind the gesture it would make for a weird read. If, however, you choose to trust that thumb biting is a symbol for the meaningless nature of the violence between the two families, it makes for a much more sensible and enriched read. Shakespeare was genius at using, for example, fruit to symbolise much more than fruit in his plays. Mark Jackson, curator of the Ruthenbeck exhibition, sums up my thoughts much more eloquently than I could, “art like this can be storytelling, or it can just be a load of old chairs”. It’s about belief.

In the same way, I strongly disagree with the idea that contemporary art is trying to ‘scam’ viewers with a convoluted deeper meaning. I also don’t think artists are trying to scam us with prices. These huge auction records have nothing to do with the individual artist and everything to do with the market. Mark Rothko himself despised the capitalisation of art as did Robert Rauschenberg who was titled the ‘enfant terrible’ of the art world. Rauschenberg in fact created an installation entitled Black Market in which part of the piece involved people taking objects from a box and replacing them with their own, like a geocache. This in itself was an attempt to challenge ‘art world’ conventions and pretensions by breaking the fundamental rule of not taking things from an art gallery.

I only hope that these record-breaking auction sales of modern art aren’t building too many walls between art and appreciation. It’s really not necessary to believe that ‘a few splatters on a piece of canvas’ is worth $40.4 million in order to enjoy and appreciate a Jackson Pollock for its pioneering technique, its wild abandonment or just because, you know what, it’s really nice to look at.