Art. What is it? Does anybody know? Not me, probably not you either. What we do know is that it started in the winter of around 3000 years ago in a cave, and, unfortunately for the artistically inept, it isn’t showing any signs of going away.
Before Afghanistan and Iraq, Tony Blair destroyed entry fees for museums and galleries, and in a world of increasingly expensive drinks, vanishing night-clubs and violent amounts of online dating, art is becoming an increasingly attractive past-time for experts and amateurs alike. Beware though- it is no walk in the park. Without the proper fundamentals, a trip to a gallery, or ‘space’, can leave you looking, and feeling, stupider than when you went in. Hopefully, by the end of this article you should be armed with enough art history to hold your own for half an hour (the scientifically-recorded average time it takes to get a tinder date to bed, assuming you look like your photos) and break down some of art’s most notoriously incomprehensible patois such as ‘abstract expressionism’ and ‘patois’.
Don’t concern yourself with anything that came before modern art. It was essentially just portraits of the aristocracy (who used artists as an ancient form of Photoshop, to remove wrinkles, obesity and pesky wives) and paintings of Jesus- and we all know what Jesus looks like. The only names you’ll need to know for this period are Michael Angelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Splinter.
Date alert! Modern art started on January 3rd 1916, and although disputed by one scholar, his opinion has been widely disregarded on account of him having alopecia. The movement was a reaction to the horrors of World War 1; artists, struggling to balance their painting with combat, invented new styles and techniques that prioritised speed and economy — straight lines, primary colours, empty space.
Around the same time, a Swiss man named ‘Dada’ started a popular art school for oddballs. Their manifesto was to ridicule and upend the traditional values of the bourgeois (or middle-class). A modern day reincarnation of this practice would perhaps be to mock the millennial’s propensity for not only eating smashed avocado on sourdough but for mistakenly thinking that it amounts to a hobby or life-event worthy of photographic documentation. Dada and his followers wanted to challenge common ideas on the purpose of art and the role of the artist through new methods of representation, such as the use of everyday objects, often with questionably little artistic input.
Marcel Duchamp, a famous student of Dada, and the original inventor of ‘toilet humour’:
Which brings us to Paris and Pablo Picasso, the commonly cited Grandfather of modern art- and hundreds of grandchildren- historians recently predicted that today he would have around eight million followers on Instagram, just shy of Jesus’ nine. His style was borne out of a desire to paint his sexual conquests unattractively, in an attempt to deter other womanisers in Paris from trying to seduce them , such as Hemingway, the famously horny bullfighter, and the late, Great Gatsby. Picasso’s unflattering depiction of women has been criticised for giving birth to the modern phenomenon of body shaming, and many women whom he painted consequently suffered from low self-esteem and the Atkins diet.
Surrealism, owing much to the principles of Mr. Dada, was the product of allowing mentally ill geniuses have access to paints. Characterised by narcissistic personality disorder, autism, and bad breath, the surrealists took the art world by storm with their nightmarish, dream-like compositions, aiming to expose the inner workings of their minds. Abandoning common practices, they adopted new techniques to allow their subconscious to spill out onto the page unfettered. The reception was mixed, and there was not nearly enough champagne: spectators having to make do with lukewarm beer which may or may not have influenced the critical response. Whilst almost certainly on drugs, surrealist president Salvador Dali once remarked “I do not take drugs. I am drugs”. It later arose that he was lying and had in fact taken drugs.
Modern art, or, as infamous art critic Adolf Hitler liked to call it, ‘Degenerate Art’, was seen by some Art Dictators as a threat to societal values and civil order. Hitler was the editor-in-chief of the Nazi movement, known for their preference toward more traditional styles of painting, sculpture, and genocide. After a good year for modern art in 1945, Hitler and the Nazi movement disappeared, potentially to Havana, the capital of Cubism, allowing modern art to flourish.
The end of World War II- the widely unpopular sequel to World War I- provided the genesis for Abstract Expressionism, an art movement that started in New York and ended in a car crash. Jackson Pollock, a man who flicked paint at his canvas much in the same way the kids do when they have ADHD, was one of AE’s leading figures. If you’ve ever looked at a painting and thought, “I could do that”, then you were probably looking at a Pollock. Much like Dali’s declaration that he was, in fact, ‘drugs’, Pollock is reported to have declared “I am nature”, although scientists have been unable to determine the accuracy of this statement. The chaotic, random method of painting called the ‘drip method’ garnered critical acclaim and was further proof that most Americans in the fifties were alcoholics.
Then came Pop art — the early inspiration for the avant-garde breakfast movement ‘Pop tart’ — and it’s foremost figure, Andy War-hole, brother of Formula 1 racing founder, Bernie Ecclestone. Andy started out in the canned food industry, and was the brains behind the creation of the now legendary Campbell’s Tomato Soup. Characterised by ironic pop-culture references, everyday objects and repetition of images, pop art questioned the nature of our interaction with society and the self, through mediums of advertising, news and the notion of celebrity. War-hole was lesser known for providing mentorship to the then up-and-coming artist, Jean Michel Basquiat, who had a reputation for being kicked out of friend’s apartments for drawing on their fridges, stools and kettles. Andy once pissed on a Basquiat painting, and art historians still argue over whether it was a gesture of dismissal, acceptance or incontinence. American by birth, Haitian by looking at him, Basquiat drew child-like figures of people and cars, accompanied by words, scratches and scribbles, commonly with racial motivations. It is unclear whether he could actually draw, but as modern art has informed us so far, this was not a necessity. He is part of the famed ’27 club’, a private members club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where you must provide a valid death certificate to get in.
Bringing us into the modern day- contemporary art. If you’ve ever walked into a large, white room to be greeted by a pile of bricks? That was contemporary art.
Ever looked at a blank canvas? Contemporary art.
Ever seen every member of an impoverished African village take the surname of an egotistical maniac ‘artist’ called Kristian Von Hornsleth? Contemporary art.
Walk into any contemporary art gallery and you’ll hear anyone over forty remark — “is this supposed to be art?”. You may even feel a similar away, but one must remember this is exactly the kind of attitude that Dada and the modernists faced when they began their work. So feel free to snicker, criticise, even laugh out loud, but be mindful that one day you may be boasting to your grandchildren that you were at the grand unveiling of the ‘menstruation sketches’. And you’ll tell them that you ‘got’ it, and it was the most enlightening experience of your life. Period.
Things to say
To conclude, I leave you with a list of suggested phrases to take to your nearest ‘space’ to avoid looking as though you are there simply to ‘look at the pictures’. With these profound, thought-provoking pearls, you might even look like you know what’s going on.
- This raises a lot of interesting questions about … (space/light/breakfast/crocs)
- I'd imagine this is what death looks like from a dead person’s perspective.
- I think the artist was trying to communicate and non-communicable ideal.
- This challenges the validity of my whole human experience so far.
- It would be reductive to assume exactly what the artist was trying to say here.
- Hmmm. Yes.
- Shall we go back to mine?