The problem with modern art

While perfecting my mojito recipe with my sculptor friend, Thomas, and a visiting dignitary from Madrid, Santi, we three ventured into the problems that 20th-century art has with audience reception. I can’t recapture the byways of discussion, but sometime later the sound of the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer song, From the Beginning, cued me back to the lingering memory. It occurred to me that the aesthetic value of the song derives from (1) a technical mastery of the instruments, (2) a sensory pleasure in the sound formation itself, and (3) something conceptually of interest – and not just the words but the overall sense of design, the integration of instruments and movements. Put these three together and you get a complete sense of art.

Compare to what we see in much 20th-century art – the kind that at its best graces the galleries of, say, MOMA in mid-town Manhattan or the Tate in London. Despite many wonderful pieces, I’d say that much of this kind of modern art, at least as perceived by the open public, is generally strong on # 3 – something conceptually of interest in the design, but too often weak on # 1 and # 2. You often see an installation of modern art that may strike you as interesting, but it requires no tactile mastery of any given medium – no “art” in the narrow sense. And for related reasons, I suppose, it yields no immediate sensory pleasure, as does Greg Lake’s acoustic guitar work in the song, or as does the Renaissance or impressionist painting. Any aesthetic appreciation that you get from the modern piece must be mediated by the intellect. I am not against intellectual engagement, but the child — or the residual old guard, or the egalitarian — in me thinks it nice for an artwork to elicit an immediate sensory wonder (i.e., a level of appreciation accessible to all) that overlays and seeps into the intellectual layers.

That’s the closest I can come to my own personal closure on that fragment of discussion we three had, now lost in the past as surely as the mint and the lime and the rum that was in my freezer.

Thomas Morrison Sculpture
From the Beginning (youtube)
From the Beginning (Amazon)
The Tate Gallery

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