I know I’m getting old.
I’m starting to appreciate Andy Warhol.
The art does little aesthetically for me, still. I am unlikely to cover any walls of the new house in fifty heads of Chairman Mao. I still go “Yup, that’s a Campbell’s soup can.” If we’re going for art that incorporates pop culture, pop surrealism like Ryden’s “Meat Angel” are far more to my taste.
And yet, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, as I read through my various morning blogs and see yet another art student bitching about modern art and Warhol’s soup cans and so on, rants I ranted many times myself, when I was in college, and suddenly I find myself thinking “Not only was I not born when this art came out, thirty-eight years ago, my parents were still good Catholic teenagers waiting for marriage. This painting pre-dates not just my birth, but even the possibility of my conception.”
Thirty-eight years, and somebody somewhere is on a blog, ranting semi-coherently about it.
That’s a measure of success right there. Museums, feh. Plenty of painting in museums, one’s eyes wander over without absorbing. But that kids these days are still gettin’ pissy about soup cans? That’s a glorious infamy.
That was the point of Warhol. And I knew that vaguely on some level, I suppose, or I knew the idea of it–that some art is not to be beautiful, but to piss people off and make ’em try to explain What Art Is so that they can say that, there, isn’t art!
But it wasn’t until I stopped particularly caring about it that I actually appreciated it. After a decade of people not being condescendingly amused about my academic realism, I’ve stopped feeling so defensive about it. I don’t have to snarl and snap at any conceptual art in order to defend my little corner any more, the way I did in college. I can look back and groan and go, “Oh, good lord, what a square.”*
This art, as so many people grumble, WAS a joke. And god help me, I was the straight man.
I wasn’t calling out the lack of skill inherent in modern art, I was failing to get the joke. Obviously there’s no damn skill to a red square. That’s the POINT. And why the hell did I care anyway, the red squares were old hat long before I was watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles every day after school. I was mad at old art, which is just what the art wanted. I was dissecting the punch line of a joke, and an old joke at that. Somebody told me that you wouldn’t eat a pig that good all at once, and I was obstinately insisting that it was sick and cruel and I didn’t think it was funny, and had the pig at least had proper anaesthesia and a qualified vet?
In defense of my younger self, I don’t think most of my classmates were any better. They’d gone the other way. I was obstinately refusing to get the joke, and they were laughing on cue whenever anybody said the word “bacon.”
And–perhaps in order to make myself feel better, I’ll grant you–I still think my beady-eyed suspicion was the more worthwhile stance. Art may be whatever you can get away with–but the artistry lies in getting away with it. If one’s trying to pull a fast one on the world, you’re a lot more likely to be proud of the one you snuck by under the nose of a hundred watchful guards than the one that you got handed, gift-wrapped, with a wink and a smile. Much of the point of this art was to make people roll their eyes and go “Oh, come ON!” and it has to be a little disappointing to get a chorus of “We love you’s!” instead.
I may have been a humorless twit, but I owned my humorlessness, and I wasn’t lettin’ anybody tell me what I was supposed to think. Possibly that’s worth something, although I still clutch my head and groan. Still, it was college–if you can’t be surly and opinionated about What Art Is in college, what good is it?
It’s because of the saturation that I don’t think the joke of conceptual art really works as well any more. We went too far the other way. The art people get mad about is still the soup cans and red squares from decades past, not whatever generic contemporary art people are turning out. Slapping a label on a urinal is no longer shocking–it’s what we expect. There’s too much–it’s forgettable, not outrageous. Sure, it’s riduculous people pay a bizillion dollars for whatever. It’s ridiculous that they pay that for a Thomas Kinkade, too. Art is a fairly ridiculous thing, when you come down to it, and I certainly can’t say, with a straight face, that somebody paying for a Rothko canvas is any more silly than somebody paying for a drawing of their winged half-wolf, half-dark elf character with the six alternate forms, being devoured by a giant tentacled moose. (Of course, I rather like Rothko, but that’s one you have to see in person to make sense of.) All art is ridiculous, because people are ridiculous.
I’m not defending modern art. It doesn’t need me, it’s older than me, and anyway, I don’t want people to suddenly like it, because if people weren’t getting mad over it, I suspect, to anthropomorphize, the art would be sad. I don’t particularly like it as a visual feast myself. When I take photos of my house, you won’t see a single soup can anywhere but the pantry. But still, and finally, I see the point.
Oh, well, it only took twenty-eight years to go “Oh…wait…The pig had three legs? HA!” Better late than never.
*An abstract red one on the canvas.