Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why Modern Art Is So Bad

There is a good clue to why most modern art is so bad in the recent review of an exhibit of Sterling Ruby's ceramics in the New York Times, which is a reliable source for the most conventional contemporary views of what art should be. 
The review says that the Museum of Arts and Design began as a museum of crafts and still shows to much work that focuses on craftsmanship and therefore is "technique-obsessed and uncreative." This exhibit is a refreshing contrast because Ruby is "at his most original and disruptive in ceramics." Many of the pieces "resemble giant high-sided ashtrays, filled with the detritus." They "exude signs of the artist’s hands — deep squeezes here, dragged fingers there and entire exteriors punched with thumbprints."
The word "disruptive" shows that the reviewer admires novelty for its own sake. Art is valuable if it breaks with tradition and disrupts our idea of what art is. The talk about "signs of the artist's hands" shows that the reviewer rejects artists who are skilled craftsmen focusing on the object they are creating and admires artists who focus narcissistically on themselves creating the object. 
Compare this critical attitude with the attitude behind a great work of art, Michelangelo's "David."
Michelangelo was not being "disruptive" by doing something totally different from traditional sculpture. On the contrary, he was working in a tradition that goes back to classical Greece. "David" stands out not because of its novelty but because of its excellence. It expresses the humanistic ideal behind classical sculpture more forcefully than it had been expressed before; this meaning is what strikes us when we look at the work. 
Michelangelo did not leave his thumbprints or dragged finger prints on "David." He is famous for the fine finish of his sculptures and for the careful study of anatomy that informed his works. He focused on the object he was creating, not on himself creating it. Could anyone conceivably say that this means Michelangelo was "technique-obsessed and uncreative"? And that Ruby is more creative because his work is sloppier?
The New York Times reviewer is stating the standards that today's art critics use in judging art. They admire disruption rather than excellence. And artists get extra credit for following one of the modern-art trends of the last century, as these ceramics follow in the footsteps of action painting, focusing on the process of creating the work rather on the object. 
We will produce great art again when critics care about excellence, craftsmanship and meaning rather than about disruption.


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