Have you ever seen an all-white painting in a museum and wondered, "How is that art?"
You're not alone.
I've been to a few art museums, and in every one, I've stumbled across a painting that I couldn't interpret. Canvases that seemed blank, maybe with a single color splashed across them, sometimes with a few lines, a little dot here and there or perhaps a triangle. I never really understood why those were worthy to be in a museum with the Warhols, the Rembrandts, the Michelangelos and the DaVincis.
This summer, I went to the Art Institute Of Chicago with the same problem. I toured the paperweights, the photographs, the sculptures, the textiles, the landscapes and the portraits, appreciating the amount of skill that went into each. But when I got to the contemporary art exhibit filled with solid canvases of blue, I thought the same four words everyone has when they look at giant square in front of them.
"I could've done that."
It's so easy to be dismissive of something that doesn't inspire awe at first sight. Something that seems quite unassuming or boring as your bedroom walls. Something that seems still in comparison to the bold, expressive strokes of other art forms. Something that seems almost devoid of emotion.
But as I went deeper into the seemingly endless exhibit, trying to find out what the artists were trying to convey, I began to realize that there was something in minimalist paintings, an idea that we often miss. And I arrived at a conclusion so simple yet so complicated because it took an entire train of thought to get there.
We usually think art should be beautiful, meaningful and expressive with an added "wow" factor. Something that demonstrates amazing technique and skill. And thus, the hidden meaning in minimalist art is hidden because of what we believe art should be. I was so preoccupied trying to find a secret message that I couldn't accept that a neat pattern could just be pretty.
I began to realize that perhaps there was no significance or emotion in the squares the artists were painting. Maybe art didn't have to contain political messages or expressions of some kind. These artists were making art not to release their inner turmoil but for the sake of making an object of beauty. Art didn't have to be about emotion or skill; maybe it could just be about creating something orderly, pretty, simple and revolutionary that challenges all of these assumptions we have about what art should be.
There doesn't have to be a hidden meaning in every blue square. Perhaps the only hidden meaning there was in those pieces of art were to enjoy the painting as it is. As Vox explains, "These minimalists presented art not as an imitation of reality but as an object unto itself." They rejected the idea of art representing the thoughts and desires of individuals, instead detaching themselves from their work while promoting it for its innate aesthetic and its unique interpretation of art. And I don't know about you, but I find that pretty cool.
So going back to the statement, "I could've done it," maybe you could've.
But sometimes, art may not be as much about the skill as much as it is about the creativity, the idea or design around it. Looking at a minimalist painting, it may appear pretty easy to recreate. It seems like all you need is to grab a tube of paint, spread it on a canvas and call it art. However, did you have the creativity or the imagination to create an original piece that challenged the current standards of art and pioneered a new direction for it, being the first of its kind? I'm going to take that as a no.
I recently found a video that complains about modern art, including the minimalist paintings of today. Unfortunately, it's not the only video of its kind. Across the internet, you will find men complaining about this stuff. There are so many rants and genuinely pissed off people that it eventually gets comical after a while.
And what I've found is that all of them believe art has a fixed definition. That anything straying outside that box of realism and skill is not considered art. That art should build upon the path of its predecessors and improve its quality as the generations go on.
However, they all fail to recognize that art is something that broadly encompasses a whole set of things that is forever changing. Art can be traditional, but it sure as hell can be something completely different. Something that challenges our expectations and shocks us is essential in allowing art to be what people use to express their creativity, originality and individuality. When the person in the video says, "Many of today's artists merely use their art to make statements," he makes it sound like a bad thing. He gives the words "new," "different" and "ugly" negative connotations. Art is a statement of a person. There is nothing wrong with that.
He also brings up a compelling argument about the beauty of art. With the introduction of modern art, he says there is no way to measure which paintings have worth and which have value. Suddenly, a painting someone spent 10 years making could be compared and held to the same degree of reverence as a white block. He argues that traditional paintings are objectively much better than modern art because of the elaborate skill and beautiful detail that goes into it compared to a simple canvas with a line through.
And it is true. A real-life portrait of Jesus is obviously going to be more alluring than a blob of paint. It's going to require much more skill and be much more pleasing to the eye. It's going to be objectively better in terms of looks. But what the person misses is that modern art is not about pleasing everyone or demonstrating skill. Rather, it is making a statement and challenging what we hold to be the norms. Modern art cannot be judged based on skill but on ingenuity. Comparing all art using a scale to objectively measure which is better is not only flawed but completely unfair. Just because traditional art is beautiful does not mean it is better a white painting. Just because modern art is more creative does not mean it is better than a landscape. Each side of art has its own way to measure and compare quality. It would be absolutely foolish to establish a universal criteria to evaluate which one is "better."
The world would be such a boring place if the only thing in museums were landscapes of ships and meadows, if everyone painted within the constructs of what they were told to. We need something outrageous sometimes — even though we may not understand it — to keep our minds open and to intrigue us. Whether you feel anger at a white painting or appreciation, it inspires emotion and controversy in you. And in a sense isn't that a goal of art? To make us feel something? If a simple block of white made you feel, realize, interpret or react, then it seems that it has accomplished its goal as art.
The point is, whether it be a minimalist painting or "The Last Supper," all forms of art have some merit, none of which are better or more valid than the other. And I will defend them all in the face of dismissive and ignorant comments of those who claim that it is not.