Page 1 of 2 Admit it - you really hate modern art By Spengler
There are esthetes who appreciate the cross-eyed cartoons of Pablo Picasso, the
random dribbles of Jackson Pollock, and even the pickled pigs of Damien Hirst.
Some of my best friends are modern artists. You, however, hate and detest the
20th century's entire output in the plastic arts, as do I.
"I don't know much about art," you aver, "but I know what I like." Actually you
don't. You have been browbeaten into feigning pleasure at the sight of
so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl, and you are afraid to admit
it for fear of seeming dull. This has gone on for so long that you have
forgotten your own
mind. Do not fear: in a few minutes' reading I can break the spell and liberate
you from this unseemly condition.
First of all, understand that you are not alone. Museums are bulging with
visitors who come to view works they secretly detest, and prices paid for
modern art keep rising. One of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings sold last year
for US$140 million, a striking result for a drunk who never learned to draw,
and splattered paint at random on the canvas.
Somewhat more modest are the prices paid for the grandfather of abstract art,
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), whose top sale price was above $40 million. An
undistinguished early Kandinsky such as Weilheim-Marienplatz (43 by 33
centimeters) will sell for $4 million or so by Sotheby's estimate. Kandinsky is
a benchmark for your unrehearsed response to abstract art, for two reasons.
First, he helped invent it, and second, he understood that non-figurative art
was one facet of an esthetic movement that also included atonal music.
Kandinsky was the friend and collaborator of the grandfather of abstract music,
composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who also painted. Schoenberg, like
Kandinsky, is universally recognized as one of the founders of modernism.
Kandinsky attended a performance of Schoenberg's music in 1911, and afterward
wrote to Schoenberg:
Please excuse me for simply writing to you without
having the pleasure of knowing you personally. I have just heard your concert
here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course - that
is, my works - since I do not exhibit much in general, and have exhibited in
Vienna only briefly once and that was years ago (at the Secession). However,
what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so
much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy. In
your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly
longed for in music.
Kandinsky was entirely correct in his
judgment. An enormous literature exists on the relationship between abstract
painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg
correspondence can be found on the Internet. For those who like that sort of
thing, as Abraham Lincoln once said, it is just the sort of thing they would
The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is
this: the price of Kandinsky's smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate
royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg's music. Out of a sense of
obligation, musicians perform Schoenberg from time to time, but always in the
middle and never at the end of a program, for audiences flee the cacophony.
Schoenberg died a poor man in 1951, and and his widow and three children barely
survived on the copyright royalties from his music. His family remains poor,
while the heirs of famous artists have become fabulously wealthy.
Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the
ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract
impressionists, most famously Clement Greenberg's sponsorship of Jackson
Pollock in The Partisan Review. It is not supposed to "please" the senses on
first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the
viewer to think and consider.
Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the
ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but
loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like
communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were
happy to admire communism from a distance, but reluctant to live under
When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You
may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to
say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote
something from the Wikipedia write-up on the artist that you consulted before
arriving at the gallery. When you listen to atonal music, for example
Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like
many hours in a dentist's chair. You cannot escape. You do not admire the
abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the
position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the
mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe
That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not
a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.
Non-abstract composers, to be sure, can become quite wealthy, for example Baron
Andrew Lloyd Webber and a number of film composers. American Aaron Copland
(1900-90), who mainly wrote cheerful works filled with local color (eg, the
ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring), earned enough to
endow scholarships for music students. Viennese atonal composer Alban Berg
(1885-1935) had a European hit in his 1925