So I was talking to this guy I know the other day (we'll call him "Mike," because that's his name) who had just visited the SF MOMA for the first time. "Wow, What'd you think?" I asked, "Isn't it fantastic?"
Mike was not as enthusiastic as I had thought he might be. "Well, I liked some of it, but a lot of it was just stupid. Like there was this one painting, it was just this huge gray canvas, with like one little tiny squiggle of white paint at the bottom. I mean, what the hell is that?"
This is not an uncommon response to modern art, particularly the more abstract stuff. When my Dad got a membership to the SF MOMA, he only went once, maybe twice, and expressed much the same opinion - that there were some things that were interesting, but a lot that just didn't seem like art to him. "Where's the talent that goes into putting a bunch of rocks in a circle?" he once asked me, "Why does that get put in a museum?"
Now I'm no art connoisseur - I mean, I can identify Van Gogh's Sunflowers when I see it hanging in the Dentist's office, and I can even sometimes be counted on to differentiate between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but for the most part, I'm pretty ignorant, particularly when it comes to making value judgements. I can't say I totally get what makes "Piss Christ" a valid work, nor can I really support either side of the argument as to whether or not Andy Warhol does, indeed, suck a big one. Despite my ignorance, however, I have developed certain opinions about modern art, particularly the stuff that "looks like my neighbor's three-year-old mentally-retarded kid could paint it."
Modern art asks us to appreciate not the talent, but the message. The statement it makes is not so much "Look what I can do" as "Look what I have done." Where more traditional, representational forms come to us with an answer in the form of a picture, modern art comes often with a question in the form of an image. Modern art doesn't ask for admiration (the artists generally do - but that's a whole separate issue). It asks for a reaction, a response, a willingness to go down the path that the image directs us towards, even if that path is covered in leaves and brambles that make it difficult to see, much less traverse. In a sense, "Why would anybody call that ART?" is exactly the appropriate question. Rather than make the answer obvious by way of depiction ("Here's a Lion. He's pretty scary."), modern art goes in for more subliminal, subconscious suggestions that may lead you to any number of further questions ("Here's some yellow. How do you feel about ducks? What does butter make you think of? What are you so afraid of?").
It doesn't help that so many people who DO profess to know a great deal about art are so deliberately obfuscatory and intellectually territorial. The fact that the general public, with the hearty support of popular culture and the media, considers modern artists shysters and ninnies is probably the most natural response to being told that that big white ball in the center of the room surrounded by magenta pilotfish with flaming batons in their mouths is representative of the artist's anger at the repression of women in central Zamibia. I've heard tour guides say this kind of stuff countless times to their tour groups. They always seem surprised when eyes begin to glaze over, and smirks begin to appear. People don't like to be made to feel stupid, so in defense to having their intelligence insulted, they just reject the whole thing as artsy-fartsy hogwash.
The truth is that it's not that the meaning of the work is inaccessible, it's that it isn't intrinsic - each person experiencing the work brings a critical part of the meaning with them. By trying to prove the value of the work through elaborate pontification and parroted criticism, the percieved expert actually destroys the effect of the piece by bringing the audience to a particular destination without undertaking the journey. It's like going to Disneyland, waiting in line for the rides, and then being shown to the exit right before you get on. "So, what'd you think of Disneyland, kids?" "It SUCKED, Dad!!"
So, next time you're in a modern art museum and find yourself confronted with what looks suspiciously like, and may actually be, a piece of moldy Keilbasa with a cockroach pinned to it under a display case, rather than discounting the thing out of hand, try going down the path. Take the journey. Go along for the ride. Don't rent the audio-headset-tour-with sister what's-her-face. Ignore the guys in berets and goatees who walk around smelling like cloves and sneering at everybody. For God's sake, don't talk to the docents. Just go with it. It's a dialogue between you and the work. It goes something like this:
You: "Why the hell would anybody take a picture of a naked dead guy with flowers coming out of his head?"
You: "What's the point of hanging a Urinal in a gallery?"
You: "I can't believe anyone would smear elephant crap on the Virgin Mary!"
Art: "Well, there you go."
You: "What makes this pile of dog kibble with a flag in it significant?"
Art: "I don't know, let's figure it out together, you and me. What do you say?"