Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Winging It, in the Modern— / People’s Choice

Last month on a Thursday evening before the holidays, I stood in the middle of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, straight-up looking like a high-schooler working on a class assignment (I should probably forgo my trademark neon dunks and $3 plastic red watch when interacting with strangers who aren’t given clues that suggest the contrary…), and asked museum visitors the following two questions:

Who, in your opinion, is the most overrated contemporary artist?

On the flip side, what would you like to see in a major museum or gallery show consisting of contemporary art? What are the kinds of things you’d like to see in major institutions?

Here’s what they had to say:

(Some survey-ees didn’t answer the first question. Hmmm.)

Would like to see: (R) Anything that is interactive and very real, something you can actually be involved with. It seems like so many things in museums are always “don’t touch” or “steer clear.” Something that you can actually interact with would be kind of cool.

Would like to see: (L) Ancient items. Modern art [tends to be] difficult to understand.

Would like to see: I’m very big on still lifes. A lot of shadows, not a lot of color. Just basic colored pencils or graphites to kind of depict the different values. Something simple that kind of shows the artist’s soul, something very descriptive that can just move a person. Very provocative, very thought-provoking. Not over-done.

(We then proceeded to fawn over literature and poetry.)

(The gentleman requested to have his and his wife’s photograph taken in front of the Thomas Schütte sculpture.)

Overrated: (R) Andy Warhol.

Would like to see: (R) Characteristic pieces right from the pre-historic on up to the 1950s, Rothko, maybe stopping there. A little bit into the early ‘60s, but Rothko was the last one that I really appreciate, although I do like some contemporary pieces.

Overrated: (R) Andy Warhol. He’s talented, but so many people want to read so much into it because it’s just so easy to digest and because it’s Pop Art, you know? So people want to be like, “Oh that guy’s unbelievable.” And he’s good. I mean, there are parts of it that I do like, but you’ve seen it so many times.

Would like to see: (R) I’m always a really big fan of photorealism. It’s not like it’s the most amazing form of art, but I don’t see a ton of it in art museums. And I do like abstraction—big Kandinsky fan.

(We all subsequently geeked out over the museum’s Arms & Armor section. They proposed a “modern update” to make it even better.)

Overrated: Those kinds of paintings that are just one color on a canvas. I don’t know the specific artist, but where it’s just two colors, and I’m like, “I could’ve done that.”

Would like to see: More textiles. Textiles are my favorite.

Overrated: (L) I would say Cy Twombly.

(R) Peter Max.

Would like to see: (R) Impressionism.

(L) I kind of like the modern art. I’m getting to appreciate it. It reflects this time that we’re living in right now. Just like with the Impressionists, I’m quite certain that, in their times, people didn’t accept what they were doing.

OverratedI’m a little underwhelmed with a lot of the Walker in Minneapolis. Like the landlord collection, John [Waters] or something like that. I just didn’t understand it at all.

Would like to see: Photography.

A little more of a throwback to adding more styles of old, more Renaissance, mixed with new mediums. I just don’t see any of that. It’s strictly new and it’s so avant garde that I’d like a mix of media.

As a bonus, I also surveyed the buddy who got me into the museum for free… (Thanks, Kris!)

Overrated: Damien Hirst. That guy’s bullshit. I also think Banksy’s very overrated.

Would like to see: It’d be more interesting for the major museums and galleries to at least give some space and time to people who aren’t necessarily selling a lot of stuff. Don’t get me wrong; you’re going to get a lot of crap, but that’s always true. Everything’s mostly crap, but eventually you might find something good in the crap. These boards tend to be the same sort of people everywhere. They sell themselves on what’s good and what isn’t, so it’s an echo chamber, so you always get what somebody in that group says is cool, and then everybody wants to seem cool so they go along with it. Getting something outside of that would be nice, and that could be anything from… I don’t want to say “outsider art,” because I think that got really clichéd for a bit, but there’s stuff being done that isn’t being seen by people—not because they’re outsiders, but because it’s hard to get an audience. So I’d like to see some new stuff. I’ll fully admit most of it will probably be garbage, but every once in a while something will be cool.

Anyone you agree with? Anyone you’d like to vehemently debate? Any other artists you’d like to add to the list? Any other kinds of art you love and wish more people loved?

Also, because of all this shit-talking, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are now turning up in my Gmail ads. Goddamnit, Google.


  1. I want to see more Ed Ruscha! I always like a bit of text that makes you think and ponder in my paintings.

    How can Andy Warhol be overrated? He only started a entire movement. He did much much more then just soup cans. He got the entire world talking about his art and how it relates, how many have done that?

    And to the girl that said:
    Those kinds of paintings that are just one color on a canvas. I don’t know the specific artist, but where it’s just two colors, and I’m like, “I could’ve done that.”
    Oh brother, I imagine you are talking about Robert Ryman or Rothko, then why are you not doing it? It is not so easy, technique wise or in marketing yourself.

  2. Kinetic sculptures... or a Rube Goldberg that self resets.... serious!

  3. I was just in the modern wing with some friends recently too, and all we could ask is "who is deciding what belongs here?" We just felt there were very few pieces that had either a thought-provoking quality or some form of high-level skill or talent from the artist. Besides the classics I enjoy like Dali and Magritte, There were too many pieces (like wood-pole-on-wall, or large-monochrome-block-canvas) that have us saying, "yea I could do that" - and don't say, "yea but you didn't", that point is over-used... remember we are paying customers!

    To Personally answer this question, I would LOVE to see artwork here that really challenges those two genres of meaning and skill. There are so many contemporary topics, artists, and styles that are not touched here. But maybe that's what the MCA is for. Sorry, Art Institute, your modern wing is lacking.

  4. @ BG

    Your point is well taken. A lot of people have and still are talking about Warhol. By the same token a lot of people talk about Paris Hilton too. Being popular isn't always good or indicative of talent.

    Another example of pop culture in action....

    The best selling recording artist from the New Orleans area is who? Plenty to choose from...the answer is...drumroll.....Brittney Spears.

    The best selling jazz musician....Kenny G and on and on..

    If you want to make great art nothing wrong with appealing to a smaller number of people. many people are sheep-like and it is to popular culture they flock...Warhol is "safe" but over-played...in my humble opinion.

  5. Maybe if art museums were called "art HISTORY museums" it would clear up some of the confusion about why certain artists and artworks are included in the collections? An individual Warhol might not be much in and of itself, but Warhol had a significant effect on the culture and philosophy of art-making and collecting. Of course, if they WERE called "art history museums" traffic might slow down to a trickle because, well, because it sounds kind of dull. But I wish the supplementary material the museums produce didn't try so hard to "explain" particular works and put more emphasis on explaining how the work fits into the ongoing dialog of art-making...

  6. Like BG, I'm Team Warhol as well. Simply put, he changed things. He's the first modern art star / artist as celebrity (whether that's good or bad is up to interpretation), blurring the line separating the low- from the highbrow. He is indeed the go-to artist many people name when asked about art, but sometimes fame is well-warranted. (If anything, we can give him credit for the current wave of think-rich-look-poor fauxhemians...)

    Jamie, I'm definitely guilty of using the "yeah but you didn't" retort, but I still stand behind it! (At least, I stand behind it when applied to innovators, to those who think of and then execute a particular idea "first"; love Duchamp's Fountain for what it was during its time, would roll my eyes out of their sockets if someone today did the same thing without bringing anything new to the table.) But I also definitely agree that I'd like to see more art strike a healthy balance between, like you said, "meaning and skill" (a topic that I try to bring up often here). Since you mentioned the MCA, what exhibitions there do you think challenged you in that way? Or have there been any like that at all? (The last couple of times I visited, the place felt pretty empty, and in more ways than one...)

    Very interesting point, Peggy. Importance within a historical context is certainly something that needs to be taken into consideration.

  7. I enjoyed reading this Jenny, congrats on taking the initiative.

    As per the comment above states, Andy Warhol did indeed do much more than paint cans of soup. He was indeed revolutionary and made a profound impact on the contemporary art scene and art history as a whole.

    A regard what would I like to see in a museum, well I don't think it's as much as what to see, as to how the works are presented and how the museum goes about educating the public in relation to the works being shown.

    The majority of people that visit museums are not art experts, but all to often the works are simply presented with very little else to communicate the artist's message to the viewer.

    Of course it could be argued that the work itself should communicate the message, but personally, I think a little helping-hand to aid the viewer in understand what is being communicated, would be appreciated by most members of the public and would undoubtedly enhance the viewing/visiting experience. In so many cases, museums are very sterile in atmosphere, which does not entice the public to indulge and enjoy!

    Jenny, you mentioned Duchamp, and let's be honest, his "Urinal" was pure attempt to mock the system, wherein anything and everything could be and is "art"! The likes of Hirst and Koons are simply modern day examples of what Duchamp was mocking! Throughout art history however we can find such examples of this, so Hirst, Koons and numerous others have always been there and probably always will be. Nothing is new!

    Lastly (and I realise I'm not commenting in order of notation), as regard the single dot on a contrasting colour or two colour artworks etc., I agree with the comment above, for those who say "I could have done that", why didn't they? As we all know, art is subjective. A single colour on a single canvas can convey a great deal to one individual and very little to another.

    The key point that was mentioned in the comments, is that of "marketing", and now I'm back to my soap-box for communicating the meaning of the work to the viewer. Museums and other public venues owe it to both the public and the artist to try their level best to communicate the artist's statement. If that work happens to be a single colour on a single canvas, then they probably need to try even harder. For the couple that didn't get the single dot, it appears to me that the message has not been communicated to them well!

  8. You said it Thomas; 'art is subjective' which explains why the comments are so varied. One thing that comes through is a desire for pieces which are easier to understand and which speak more directly to the viewer. Not everyone wants to read a load of blurb about a piece and they probably wouldn't read it even if it was well presented to them. Maybe their subjective take is that art should explain itself?

    So, the art needs to be very varied and from all areas of the arts. We need work from those who are good at marketing themselves AS WELL as from those who are not. Lot's of different curators, some fresh out of college, self taught and established gallery owners, museum curators. The variety would be refreshing.

    I also think more emphasis on public involvement would be good. Interactive pieces yes, but also invitations to criticise, virtually curate(put together your own catalogue of favourites), write the blurb even!?

    As an artist and as an art lover since childhood I have often felt I am being told what to like and what to think and I don't like that, not many people do. It's like the museum or gallery is saying to me; 'you know so little I must tell you' but we then feel we are getting prescribed thoughts and not education.

    Personally I have had a lot of stick for making work with a high degree of skill. It is dismissed as 'just craft'. If I went all the way and copied nature it would be more acceptable also if I went the other way and abstracted completely. I was recently told by a high level professional to 'dumb down' what I do so that it would be more acceptable to the public. It is too strong, challenging and obvious!! Needless to say I have thus far completely ignore the advice.

    Thank you for this Jenny, as an artist I need all the information I can get on what people really want. As an art lover I would love to see more 'real' peoples work out there. I find it on the internet but it is not the same as going to see it. I'd like to see things that nobody in the 'art world' would approve of.

    I think Kris has the best attitude. As for overrated, most artists that have overblown public egos (names) that people buy just to buy in. Many artists with immense talent just could not go there and it is them I would like to see (Van Gogh was one once)

  9. I would love to see more of Thomas Kinkade. The man is a God. He is also one of the most collected artists in the Greenwich and Westport areas, and affluent community just outside of NYC judging by local gallery sales. This says a lot to me.

  10. Thank you, Thomas! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Specifically, how do you think museums should go about communicating artists' intentions to viewers? (E.g. more in-depth labels next to works of art; different arrangements in museum layout, perhaps paying closer attention to art historical significance; etc.?) And on the topic of nothing being new: true (ahh, the joys of living in a postmodern world), but one can present things in ways that /feel/ new.

    Christina, you're very welcome! I love that you said what you did about public involvement and interaction, because many of the discussions here and all the posts tagged with "I CAN DO THAT" are building up to something that addresses this very issue. And good point re: Van Gogh.

    As for Thomas Kinkade........................................ I'll let someone else take this one.


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