Why We Hate Modern Art

What is it about modern art that makes people so angry?

We walk into a contemporary gallery or modern art museum and see something colorful or abstract or minimalistic — showcased for the world to see, revered as “art”, and worth hundreds or thousands (or millions!) of dollars.

And we get mad.

People say “please, my child paints better!” or “oh, my grandmother could have done that.” (Side note: isn’t it funny that we automatically understand that doing something like a child or old woman is embarrassingly bad?)

A few days ago, I went to the Anish Kapoor show at the Gagosian Gallery in Hong Kong and then downstairs to the PearlLam Galleries with an exhibit of Sam Francis paintings (an artist I was unfamiliar with).

Anish Kapoor (credit: Gagosian Gallery Hong Kong) and Sam Francis (credit: PearlLam Gallery Hong Kong)

I studied Art History, accidentally, in college, so I was taught about art — ancient and modern, Western and Eastern — by eloquent teachers and beautifully written research. I learned to appreciate art after studying it, even if it wasn’t initially breathtaking or undoubtedly labor intensive. But I still sometimes walk into galleries and feel moments of frustration and confusion: Why is this art?

As I stood looking at the bright, color-splotch paintings and watching a video of the artist at work (walking across a giant canvas in his underpants and a oversized red shirt), these questions bubbled to the surface of my mind, thinking about how many people must feel facing the works of this artist and so many others:

  • Are we angry that we could create it but don’t?
  • That we stop our childlike explorations of color and form and this person did not?
  • That they dared continue their form of creative play — and even more daringly, called it art and shared it with the world?
  • Are we upset that some people can find value in the things we can’t seem to appreciate about ourselves?
  • That if perhaps we had continued those old dreams of art or music or writing, that we could be happy?
  • That we could share our world and vision and experience with others and feel seen and heard?

We more easily respect the art that clearly reflects years of talent and practice. Work that defies attempts to imitate or recreate it, that feels far removed from our own experience, that couldn’t have been created by our hands.

We want the world to be rational, we want the stories we’ve been told about adulthood and growing up and stopping playful experiments, of letting go of childhood fancies — we want it to be true and valid because we’ve potentially ruined our lives and sacrificed too much to fit into a framework and follow rules that maybe weren’t as strict or real as we were lead to believe.

So we hate modern art.

We demean the simple and the childish expressions and explorations. 
We tell others not to persue those dreams. 
We try to make those rules we were told into capital-T Truths so that our continuing to follow them doesn’t feel so wrong or dishonest. 
We shore up the walls of our prisons with disdain and contempt.

But we will continue to be confronted and offended because there will always be people who do not conform, who cannot and will not stop their artistic endeavors, whether they are childish and unappreciated or evolved but personal or renowned and revered.

Perhaps the secret is to allow space in our lives for both childish fancy and adult responsibility, to pursue our passions in the realm outside our adult ambitions, to make space for play in our structured lifestyle, so that our inner child isn’t held in contempt.

Maybe then we will walk into art spaces and see modern and contemporary artworks and think about whether we enjoy them or not, whether they speak to us or not, whether they stir and inspire something within us — but we won’t feel angry and tricked and ashamed. We won’t feel denied.

Maybe we will feel brave enough to reopen the closed boxes of our own curiosity and pursue our playful explorations of form or color or language or sound. Maybe we will whisper life back into our childhood dreams and salve the scars left by our shame. Maybe one day we will dare to call our creations “art” and share them with others.

Or maybe we’ll still hate modern art.

Katherine is a digital nomad, working remotely while she travels the world — on the road since June 2014. She’s a member of Remote Year 2 Battuta, living around the world with 75 other digital nomads from February 2016 to January 2017.

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