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“My Kid Can Paint That”

March 24, 2010

As I was flipping through my movie channels, searching for a film to help me enhance my holiday vacation, I came across (not for the first time) a documentary film called My Kid Could Paint That. It’s a film about a 4-year-old girl named Marla Olmstead, who happens to paint fantastic abstract paintings that have sold for literally tens of thousands of dollars.

Basically, from my viewpoint, the film uses the story of Marla and her family as a window into the good and the bad of what has become modern art, and more importantly modern abstract art.

But I don’t want to write a review about this film, or really anything about it. I would rather use it as a jumping-off point to write about how modern abstract art has been (and probably always will be) viewed by the general public, and even the most esteemed of art critics and patrons alike. Their view is: abstract art sucks! That seems, at least, to be the general consensus. Of course, highly paid critics or wealthy patrons will have a more technical and proper criticism when discussing why they think abstract art sucks so much.

But why does abstract art suck?

Okay, many people (including myself) are in love with the wide range and possibilties of abstraction, both in the ideas and in the physical execution of abstract art, which isn’t always so easy to grasp. But when the every day measurements and standards of excellence are applied to a lot of art being made today – like “technical skill” and “time consumption” – a great amount of modern art can be seen as low-quality.

(Of course there are wonderful abstract artists who take a lot of time painting or composing a work, and it does involve a great amount of technical skill. It usually takes me no longer than 3 hours to compose one of my larger works, but it might take another abstract artist over a year to compose something similar. This diversity is part of what makes modern contemporary art so unique and wonderful.)

But I digress, because I still haven’t answered the question of why people think abstract art sucks. But in a way I did, because the answer is the diversity, the scope, the complexities of the art being made today. Let’s face it, most people prefer classical painting because the story is laid-out, easy-to-see, in a portrait or landscape. There is no mystery in classical painting, and people like what they can understand.

On the flip side, the average art viewer assumes that modern abstract art has no story simply because it’s not in front of their faces. The viewer would have to either research the artist that created the work to find out the story, or, more preferably, at least to me, the viewer could create a story on his own, using the work as a template for his or her own imagination. The diversity and complexities of today’s art have led to art becoming generally more mysterious than in previous movements or generations.

Thus the animosity, anger, and eventual hatred of abstract art ensues. When I hear “That painting sucks,” or “I hate abstract art,” I really think the person saying these things is saying, “I don’t understand abstract art. And I think these artists are trying to fool me.” A lot of them are: they have been jaded by society or critical viewers, or they are just really pretentious snobs who feel that their art is too good for the masses, and therefore they must use their art to insult their audiences. But many more of them are not trying to fool anyone; they simply lack the desire (or the skill) to tell a straightforward story, yet they feel like they have a story to tell; they have something to say.

As one of those abstract artists, I can say: we aren’t trying to fool you, we aren’t trying to con you with poorly composed, unskilled art. I think artists are always trying to express, convey, and record feelings and thoughts – the same feelings and thoughts we all feel, each and every day, about everything we experience. And sometimes, it’s better to construct visual poetry rather than a visual novel.

This post was a featured article inside Proxart Magazine Issue 1. Click the link to download the whole issue in PDF format – for free!


One Comment leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 3:57 pm

    Another thing that is missed is the cultural context of abstraction. The roots of abstraction are in impressionism. (Yes those darn water lilies from your grandmother’s calendar.) Impressionism was reactionary to the rendering of beautiful and idealistic imagery of Romanticism and Neo-Classicism. The younger generation decided to paint real life with expressive, sometimes crazed brushstrokes. (There was a fair bit of paint slinging in 19th century France!) Then followed the Post-Impressionists which took it even less realistic with Van Gogh’s crusty landscapes and Cezanne’s crazy fruit studies. Then Picasso who tried to view multiple sides of a figure all at once… and eventually to the New York school where artists have decided that it isn’t the image that is important but the medium.

    Abstract artists are actually not trying to fool anyone. The original abstract artists of the 50s and 60s wanted it to be perfectly clear that what the viewers were looking at was paint. Not a likeness of anything that came before it. Just paint.

    By those artists freeing themselves of the expectations of past art movements, New artists are now able to paint landscapes that only live in their own minds. It’s a way to share something intimate and ambiguous with the world, without having to actually spell it out.

    You don’t have to like it. In fact, art is better if it’s divisive, but I do ask that you consider it.

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