Although I still struggle to come to terms with many aspects of modern culture, from Twitter to SoulCycle to the Kardashians, one of my most pressing questions about the 21st century concerns contemporary art. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t know why I am so reluctant to embrace the popular art trends of 2016; I’m a stickler for the older art that my parents introduced me to as a kid.
In a valiant effort to make me more cultured, my parents made sure that I was exposed to the likes of Monet, Degas and Renoir from the moment I left the womb. My family was always reading books about artists, going on trips to art museums or attempting to make art with sidewalk chalk.
While I remain unfortunately inept at drawing more than mediocre stick figures, I make up for this lack of creative talent with my capacity to appreciate art — a subconscious development that took place at some point during those early years of my life. You win, Mom and Dad.
My adoration of the aforementioned artists is one of the reasons that modern art often fails to appeal to me. While I try not to make unfair generalizations, much of the modern art I have seen on display looks as if it could have been created by a kindergartener. The contemporary wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, prominently displays Julia Fish’s “Bloom,” which is essentially a piece of canvas that has been covered by a coat of eggplant-colored paint.
In the center of the same room, a big blue cube made out of what can only be compared to Plexiglas is exhibited. Perhaps the most unusual work is Victor Grippo’s “Analogia I (2da. Version),” which is essentially a table stacked high with potatoes plugged into electric cables.
Initially, I could hardly believe that these creations represented any real skill or ingenuity in comparison with the intricate and elaborate works that I have always revered. I questioned why these contemporary artists had not taken more of their cues from artists such as Van Gogh, whose paintings hang in the gallery just two doors down.
As I thought about it more, I began to wonder if the most artistic component of apparently simplistic pieces of contemporary art is the discovery process that such ingenuity triggers in the viewers. Yet, without the detailed brushstrokes and lifelike figures of more traditional paintings and sculptures, modern art offers limited instruction, elaboration or eloquence. An ordinary piece of Plexiglas or a plain, purple canvas asks viewers to engage in a metaphorical trust fall and to believe that the artist has left them something of value underneath the understated facade that presents itself upon first glance. The required suspension of disbelief challenges each individual looking upon this artwork to search for the extraordinary in unexpected places.
The ambiguity of modern art may also be most effective for encouraging the originality of interpretation. Seven billion versions of the world are much harder to visualize than seven billion snowflakes or fingerprints. Nonetheless, people do construe the universe in vastly different ways. In its abstraction, contemporary art further accentuates these analytical distinctions.
The eggplant-colored canvas on display in Chicago offers an insightful example. A group of people staring at the same monotone canvas could simultaneously interpret it as a representation of blooming violets, a reminiscence of their mother’s favorite purple sweater or an ode to artificial grape flavoring (I didn’t say each interpretation had to be equally profound, did I?).
As a counterfactual, it would be considerably difficult to negate the fact that the sunflowers in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” intend to depict anything but twinkling stars dancing upon the blanket of an indigo sky with its merrily swirling and yet defined brushstrokes. Thus, whereas Van Gogh may have given life to a static object, the lifeless purple canvas has released innumerable stories, each made valuable by the viewer’s originality.
So, while I cannot say that I will start collecting any weird potato sculptures, I will admit that contemporary art as a whole has grown on me recently. In today’s world, where we are surrounded by constant flows of information, modern art does us a service by forcing us to step back from this cycle and simply contemplate. Even so, modernity will inevitably become history one day, and time might make today’s eggplant canvas painter tomorrow’s Van Gogh.
Rachel Mucha is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and one of two alternating columnists of OLD SOULS, which appears every other Friday.
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