By Frances Thrush
I cannot count the number of times I have heard University of Dallas students express their distaste for modern art. As a sculpture major and an art aficionado, it is always difficult for me to hear this. Recently, this statement has been resounding more and more often and discussed with more voracity than I have previously experienced.
The defensive stance of those opposed to what they view as a devilish distortion of art, this entropy of the artistic muscle and the decline of society, is impassioned and aggressive. As an artist whose art lies primarily in the realm of the contemporary, with bold unrealistic colors, abstracted and conceptual forms in space — this reaction both eludes and concerns me. Why is this something that is said so often, so astutely and defended so fiercely?
What has become clear to me is that this statement is usually born from a lack of understanding of the uncomfortable “unknown” that is such a large protagonist in both contemporary and modern works of art. “The Unknown” is the frightening void that all things seek to respond to, answer or posit. I have found that too often people stumble into an art exhibit with a lack of understanding of the art and, as a result, the concept that is being conveyed is entirely missed. Too often have contemporary and modern artists been written off due to lack of exposure, understanding and empathy on the part of their viewers.
When I look at my favorite works of art, I see that they come from different time periods and movements, and that they cover a slew of different subjects: from artists criticizing art itself (Duchamp’s “Fountain” is a famous example) to politics, fame or the celebration of the beauty in life. Interestingly, most of these subjects are intimately represented in modern and contemporary artworks and movements.
The Dada movement, for example, was born out of a reaction to World War I. The artists within this movement reeled against social structures of all kinds, as such structures had clearly failed society at large; instead, the artists sought out answers in randomness, chaos and sound poetry. Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” is a great example; it evokes anger and discomfort from the audience simply by nonsensical sounds and vowel pronunciation.
Art, as a method of criticizing society (whether positively, negatively or simply as a presentation of ideas of flaws) has moved past the bounds of construct. The main difference between Classical Greek, Renaissance, Medieval and Impressionist art from movements such as Dadaism, Minimalism, Surrealism Realism and Performance Art are the foundational ideas that anchor them.
The first three movements (Classical Greek, Renaissance and Medieval) were anchored primarily in tradition and religious texts. They existed as illustrations beautifully crafted and carefully constructed so as to inform viewers of what they should think and feel and how they should react. Beginning with the more modern artworks, artists found that they did not need to be bound by painting Biblical and historical scenes. The artistic language grew and expanded into philosophy as artists began to read more and become more involved in the human condition.
One of my favorite painters, Barnett Newman, was deeply influenced by Existentialsim. His paintings focused purely on communicating a sense of locality, presence, individuality and a sense of the “unknown.”
The large color fields of Newman’s “Cathedra” engulf the viewer as the larger-than-life canvas stands before the viewer — there is nothing there but you and the canvas and then suddenly, you find that the single line of white (he called it a zip) is so relatable; you feel like that single white zip. The largeness of the world becomes so tangible and you, as the viewer, become so keenly aware of the largeness of the world and at the same time, the beauty of individuality.
I find it so difficult to hear that works this beautiful and this meaningful, works that resound with every square inch and speak to the human experience — of emotions that I have felt, things I have experienced — are not considered art. I agree that they are certainly different, but they are undeniably the product of the human experience, and the reflection of our society.
I hope to open up a dialogue where instead of writing off years of an artistic movement and all the artists within it, UD students may become more informed about the frightening and blasphemous realm of modern and contemporary artworks less worthy of recognition, and then can say, “I don’t like this artist” or “I don’t like this piece of art,” as opposed to blindly disregarding the entire movement of modern and contemporary art and the many influential artists and works within it.
“What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden? For the artists are the first men.”