The image I gave to Star to use is Lee Aguinaldo's Explosion No. 141 in the Ateneo Art Gallery collection. As many of you who regularly read me know, I'm cocurating an exhibition on Lee for Ateneo later this year. While I did not discuss Lee in my article, I felt it was appropriate to submit this image of his Pollock-influenced work. In the course of my talking about my work for the exhibition and on Lee, I have heard people (more often than usual) say, "But I could do that!" This article is a response to that. Indeed, the article is addressed to these people in particular, an audience I have to acknowledge I don't normally address in my writings on art because they're unlikely to read it in the first place (though I think my articles are often approachable enough to those without that much knowledge in the arts). However, in the offshoot I may capture some renegade non-art people into reading the article, I thought it would be worth writing as the effort to champion the cause of modern and contemporary art, though small, is worth it... Who knows - perhaps at least one person's perception may change?
I also have to mention here that not all modern and contemporary works are equal... Quality varies. Reading and regularly going to exhibitions and art talks both here and abroad will help refine one's eye and mind to start discerning quality. I did not mention this in the article because I felt it was going to confuse the audience I'm trying to address here but if one of those in this audience made it as far as visiting my blog then he/she should know - quality varies. It will be frustrating trying to understand why one work or one artist is valued more than others but it is important not to be discouraged. It is also important to look at museums who take a lead in this as arbiters of quality. I will - for the record - mention that not all museums are equal either... but I'll stop here.
"But I could do that!"
Many say this when encountering modern and contemporary art forms, whether for the first time or not. Framed papers pure white? Paintings of pure abstraction? Scattered everyday objects around the room? “But I could do that!” Said often in quick reflex, it is accompanied by attitudes which can range from confusion to good humor and to, unfortunately, the maliciously arrogant.
Certainly, I believe those who say this need to give pause. There is a necessity likewise, however, to understand where such quick assumptions come from. “But I could do that!” stems from a preconceived widely-held idea of art, mainly art as craft that gives value to creating images as they are seen in reality. It demands of art not only that it be figurative but that it be technically skillful — what separates the artist from the ordinary person. The medium commonly affixed to this idea is oil painting though it gives room to works using graphite as well.
There is some merit to this idea. Before the artist became artist, he was at first craftsman. It was during the Renaissance which prized the idea of the individual as genius that the artist attained high stature, though his virtuosity remained an essential part of his repertoire, a reason for his celebrity. When many think “art,” they think of the Renaissance idea of art, including its penchant for oil painting when its usage became popular.
While the idea of artist as celebrity remains popular today, much has changed in the time since the Renaissance, particularly in the last 150 years. The invention of photography, for example, freed artists from simply having to reproduce images as seen in nature. World War I and II had a huge impact on the art world — the Dada movement, one of the most singularly important sources of contemporary art, rising from the disillusionment of war after the first; the value given to modern art after its crucifixion during the second. Artists also questioned long-held ideas of art and attempted to subvert the institution. Performance, installation and video, coming to prominence in the 1970s, were part of the challenge to art as commodity. Conceptual art endeavored to resist the fetishization of art as object and placed eminence on art as idea. Multiculturalism and gender studies contested the idea of artist as the straight white Western male. The times also are simply different — the methods in capturing the dynamism and complexity of contemporary life are also in this age equally dynamic and complex.
This article, however, is not meant to be a lesson in art history. To begin appreciating modern and contemporary art, knowledge of art history is surprisingly not requisite. Indeed, the ones sometimes who have been actually quite receptive to appreciating contemporary art are those without any art background at all and therefore, with no preconceived idea of art. While helping out C3, an independent art space in Melbourne, Australia, I personally observed visiting preschool children happily engaging with the teacher’s questions on the art on show. The artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, who interacts and works with construction workers in her pieces and through her collaborative group Martinez Art Projects, recalled during an interview that the workers are interested and approach her about the work she does and that they encounter while helping in installation. Another artist, Lyle Buencamino, reiterated this to me as well in his experience with gallery hands.
While suggestions such as talking to the artists and the curators, looking up previous works of the artists, going to exhibitions regularly, reading the exhibition notes and delving into art books are helpful in furthering one’s grasp of modern and contemporary art, the real foremost condition to initiate its comprehension and appreciation is simply having an open mind. And with this, I would also add letting go of the idea that art should be beautiful — a pursuit, as Hitler internationally and the Marcos years locally have taught us, that in its narrowness and rigidity can be rimmed with danger.
Admittedly, appreciating it can be daunting because of the way much art is presented — cold white walls, strange specialist language, everyone else seeming to understand and, moreover, expecting the uninitiated to understand. To this I would say, it is essential for those who work in and with different kinds of art spaces to meet others halfway and be just as open to guiding in its appreciation. This, however, must be distinguished from spoon-feeding. Appreciation of modern and contemporary art will always remain elusive without some thinking of one’s own.
Let me recount as well two responses to this “But I could do that!” kind of thinking that I deem quite satisfactory.
The first response I heard over a decade ago, when I was the organizational head of my high school art club. Our moderator, the artist Pepper Roxas, had whipped out a book that I remember to be on Jackson Pollock and was showing it to us. “People say when they see this kind of work, ‘But I could do that,’” she said. “But the thing is…you didn’t.”
The second response I gathered from the director of the modern art museum the Ateneo Art Gallery, Ramon Lerma, while interviewing him for a different article a few days ago. He said, “Two things, I often challenge people when they come to a gallery and I hear comments like that — ‘Really? Let’s see you try.’ That’s number one. Number two, even if they attempt to, I ask them — ‘Would you be willing to spend the rest of your life just doing that? And stake your very identity on doing what you belittle as something trivial or facile?’”
There is a depth to modern and contemporary art so terrifying that it seems infinitely easier to dismiss it, to brand it elitist, to presume one knows better. Yet, for those who dare to take its ride — to open their thoughts, to open their minds, to let something change them in ways little and profound — the effort can admittedly be dizzying but so, too, can be its rewards.
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