Why Modern Art is Literal Garbage

Gus Emerson

Cy Twombly’s “Untitled” makes Jonathon Jones of The Guardian want to “plan the art heist of the century.” Image courtesy of The Guardian

A rare Leonardo Da Vinci painting created in 1490, “Salvator Mundi,” was recently sold for nearly $450.3 million. From the same classical artistic genius that gave the world the “Mona Lisa,” “The Last Supper,” and the “Vitruvian Man” sketches, this long-lost masterpiece (roughly translated as “The Savior of the World”) was sold at auction in mid-November at this record-breaking price.

At that same auction was sold an untitled piece of “conceptual art” by modern artist Cy Twombly, consisting of a wooden board, painted with a series of red loops and scribbles from a paintbrush affixed to the end of a pole… sold for $46.4 million. If you’re disturbed by how something like this can be sold for even a fraction of Da Vinci’s intricate, intriguing and beautiful High Renaissance works, then you have a working set of eyes.

This and many other modern artworks㇐all coincidentally untitled, to demonstrate how little thought was put into each piece㇐suffer from an unattractive, lackluster, and culturally-repressed art form known as “obscurantism,” in which the sole purpose of Twombly and others’ paintings is to convey a “deeper, hidden meaning” to the audience. However, that deeper meaning is meant to be purely subjective and up to the audience how it makes them feel. This particular piece made The Guardian feel that Twombly was “the most intelligent and emotionally eloquent artist of our age;” it might make some modern parents feel proud of their energetic toddler who likes to play with ketchup, because that toddler could one day become a talented modern artist; it makes me feel worried about 21st century society and makes me think how much we’ve desensitized ourselves to talented artists over the years.

On the one hand, Michelangelo carved his iconic sculpture of David out of a marble stone. On the other hand, modernist Michael Heizer of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gave us the “Levitated Mass,” a fitting title, seeing as they simply dug a trench on facility grounds and rolled an ordinary, 340-ton boulder onto the overpass. There is nothing in any way special about this boulder, accept that it has now officially been declared art by modern cultural standards. While walking beneath the giant rock, one might think about the fragility of life, since the walls could give way and the boulder could fall at any time. Likewise, one might also question what kind of self-respecting artist would think of and task himself with realizing such a strange and inconsequential project, and what kind of dealer would consciously pay nearly $10 million for so-called artwork consisting solely of a rock…

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, two teenagers placed a pair of eyeglasses on the floor of a nearly-empty room and observed as a mass of tourists and consumers gathered around this “new exhibit,” taking pictures and investing genuine interest in a pair of glasses. This is not particularly surprising, considering at the same art gallery was Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” a urinal turned on its side and placed on a pedestal. If such an installation existed in an art museum I was personally visiting, I too would turn my attention to the discarded spectacles, if only for a short time before the teenagers would ask for them back once they were satisfied by their prank.

To further prove that modern culture is all but incapable of differentiating art from accident, artist and illustrator Robert Florczak tests his graduate students at Widener University by showing them a close-up picture of color smears and random strokes, and asking them to describe and explain how the Jackson Pollock painting as seen on the projector screen is good. After hearing his class give eloquent answers explaining the painting’s “boldness” and “unconventionality,” Florczak explains that the picture is in fact a close-up photo of his stained studio apron, and the class is none the wiser.

But if the artwork isn’t either accidental or talentless, it’s disgusting and offensive, such as the 2010 monstrosity by Marcel Walldorf known as “Petra,” a silicon and metal sculpture of a German police woman squatting and urinating a synthetic puddle onto the museum floor. Next, there is Andres Serrano’s “daring,” “unprecedented,” and “rebellious” act of placing a plastic crucifix into a glass tank filled with his own urine. But if that isn’t enough, there’s one more notable, insulting mosaic by Chris Ofili, called “The Holy Virgin Mary,” depicting the title figure painted with oil, glitter, resin, elephant dung, and pornographic imagery. Unsurprisingly, the work faced controversy when it was first introduced in New York in 1996, the then-mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, describing both the art and the artist as “sick.” (Hats off to Mr. Giuliani.) That is, however, before Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize in 1998, and his “art” was sold for $4.6 million in American currency.

Many may defend modern art and argue that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, but an appropriate rebuttal would be observing that there is nothing beautiful about Calgary, Canada’s public art, “Travelling Light,” a large blue metal hoop attached to the lower half of a highway light ($470,000), that Calgary’s own mayor, Naheed Nenshi, describes as “awful.” Likewise, some may argue that many of the world’s most iconic artists such as Picasso and even Da Vinci were underappreciated and even denigrated in their time; the proper response being that (for example) Picasso’s poor public treatment was due in large part to abstract artwork conveying a hidden message about life and beauty that many then-consumers of art found difficult to fully understand and appreciate. Compare that, to modern art such as any of the previously mentioned pieces㇐talentless, meaningless, insulting, and way too expensive.

Because obscurantism hinges upon the subjective reality that “if someone claims something to be art, then that something is art,” anyone who stands in protest to the hollow ugliness of “The Holy Virgin Mary” can be painted as “uncultured” and “judgmental in the face of talent,” when in actuality, those in protest have a sense of cultural sensitivity and artistic taste, because they have an objective view of what is beautiful and what can be considered talent. That being said, it is still up to the consumer to come to his or her own conclusion as to how that art speaks to them, and is up to them to decide whether or not it belongs in an art museum. But when a modern art exhibit is literally mistaken for garbage and thrown out by the janitorial staff as was the case with the trash-filled “My Bed” exhibit by modernist Paul Blanca, you know there’s a massive problem with your art form.


Gus Emerson, staff writer