No, you couldn’t totally make that: Modern and Contemporary Art for the Layperson
Many people find out I’m an artist and immediately request a guided tour of a museum. They assume that since I’ve gone to art school, I can explain almost everything inside an art museum. While it may be true that my art history and art theory classes have prepared me well to talk about most genres of art and many specific pieces on display at these establishments, part of what I often hear includes, “I just don’t get [modern/contemporary] art. Some of that stuff I could totally do; what’s the big deal about it?”
Let’s start with a quick distinction: Modern art is NOT the same thing as contemporary art (crazy/stupid, I know). Modern art is actually already over; the term refers to a specific period in art that lasted roughly from the end of Impressionism until somewhere in the 1970s. Definitions of Contemporary art differ, but many people consider art from the 1970s to today as Contemporary (and, confusingly, Postmodern art is often included in definitions of Contemporary art). Therefore, when you speak of art being made now, you’re speaking of Contemporary art, not Modern art. In most other disciplines (medicine, technology), Modern means current, but not so much in art.
That being distinguished, people often complain to me about both modern and contemporary work that “anyone could do it”. Sorry, but that’s not true.
Let’s talk about a specific piece; one that’s often difficult to appreciate. It’s a black square. On a white canvas. That’s it.
But how is that ART? How is that hung in important art museums? Couldn’t I have done it?
Here’s the deal. This painter, Kazimir Malevich, was educated in the formal art tradition of the time. He went to a fancy art school that taught him about the past masters; he’d grown up in a Catholic family that valued these church-funded, usually religiously-themed works. The works were full of people and scenes- they tried to recreate the world of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. These traditional works were still the dominant themes of the time, though Cubism had started developing simultaneously with Kazimir’s work. And, if we really think about it, most art laypersons feel that “good” art is still that which can accurately depict a piece of reality.
Kazimir thought differently. He thought the thinking of trying to put three dimensions into two was a wasted effort. He felt that true raw emotion was the real purpose of art, and that all the people, religious iconography, and landscapes he saw only distracted from pure emotion. He deduced that only pure forms and shapes could generate pure emotion. He wanted art to separate not only from religious institutions, but also from representation and object altogether. So, he started painting simple geometric forms, mostly squares and circles.
This guy, Kazimir Malevich, painter of a black square on a white background, created an entirely new way of thinking about art and representation. He made these pieces in a time and place where nothing like them or even remotely along the same lines had ever been done before. Nobody had ever painted just a black square before, and definitely nobody had written a manifesto discussing these types of sentiments before. He singlehandedly and by himself started an entire art MOVEMENT: Suprematism, which is recognized and discussed as significant in 20th century art history classes worldwide.
So back to the question: couldn’t anybody do that? No.
Could you do that? Not with a black square… but just maybe, with something else, you could.
Oh, and for the record- It wasn’t a cop-out; Kazimir could render the heck out of naturalistic work like portraits too.