Book Diary Special – ‘Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That’ by Susie Hodge, (and thoughts on Modern Art in general)

I like art and I generally tend to prefer more modern work than the older stuff. I’ve enjoyed a couple of trips to the Tate Modern and found a lot to appreciate in there. So, I was very interested in reading “Why Your Five Year Old…” to see what Susie Hodge had to say on the subject. Amazon’s synopsis proclaims:

‘Why Your 5 Year Old Could Not Have Done That’ is Susie Hodge’s passionate and persuasive argument against the most common disparaging remark levelled at modern art. In this enjoyable and thought-provoking book, she examines 100 works of modern art that have attracted critical and public hostility… and explains how, far from being negligible novelties, they are inspired and logical extensions of the ideas of their time… Susie Hodge places each work in its cultural context to present an unforgettable vision of modern art. This book will give you an understanding of the ways in which modern art differs from the realistic works of earlier centuries, transforming as well as informing your gallery visits for years to come.

Fantastic! ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘something which manages to articulate the worth of modern art to a sceptical audience. I can’t wait to read this and assimilate its wisdom into my own (limited) knowledge of the subject!’

Despite being a fan of modern art, my admiration for it is not unconditional. The main problem I find with it as a whole is that the art world is an inherently elitist institution.

Campbell’s Soup – Andy Warhol (1968)

The abstract nature of modern art inevitably makes it cryptic. I am by no means an expert but from my limited knowledge I think I can say that a lot of people don’t know how to look at a modern painting (myself definitely included – the difference perhaps being that I am aware of this). Unlike a photo, or a realist painting in which the artist is simply committing what they see to canvas, a modern artwork needs to be looked at for a while and then analysed.

For example, Andy Warhol’s famous soup cans are not just a simplified painting of a tin of soup but also symbolise the mass-produced nature of objects and apparently were designed to represent the fact that in a consumer society the poor can experience the same things as the rich – the soup costs the same, tastes the same, is the same whether you’re a millionaire or not. (I must confess I had to do a little research about the meaning of the paintings myself – I couldn’t pick all that up just from looking at it.)

So the meaning isn’t immediately obvious; that’s when the little blurb by the side of the painting comes in handy, and here’s where the art industry reinforces its elitist nature at the expense of us outsiders. One of the main barriers used to maintain the exclusivity is the language used by galleries to ‘explain’ the meaning behind paintings. This has prompted a great deal of frustration even within the industry and has led to an artist and a critic joining forces to analyse what they describe as International Art English.

And here’s where Susie Hodge’s book comes in. This is a great opportunity for someone to explain in accessible English the meanings of the paintings and also how to read them. Unfortunately it’s a missed opportunity. Instead, Ms. Hodge falls into the familiar art language while simultaneously taking her basic titular premise almost too seriously. She takes one hundred works of modern art which have attracted widespread derision and gives each a double-page spread with little boxes giving a short biography of the artist and explaining about the techniques used for this painting, detailing brief trivia about the work, and similar pieces for the reader’s consideration should they wish to do some further research. At the bottom, she devotes three or four sentences to explaining why a five-year-old child couldn’t have produced the work.

‘Monument’ for V. Tatlin – Dan Flavin (1964)

Her main problem is that she loses sight of the fact that most people’s problem is the seeming lack of skill involved. For instance, Dan Flavin’s ”Monument’ for V. Tatlin’ is explained as follows:

Although children could lean fluorescent lights against a wall, they would not ask viewers to reconsider several things at once, including the function of objects, philosophical ideals first cited in Russia in 1915 and the gallery space itself. By reducing his role from creator to arranger, Flavin was also demonstrating the often disregarded relationships between art, science and engineering.

So, in order to comprehend this properly, we need to appreciate that in leaning seven strip lights against the wall, Flavin is questioning the function of strip lights themselves and asking if they can be art, fascinated by the Russian Constructivists and is creating a tribute to Vladimir Tatlin’s planned but unrealised ‘Monument to the Third International’, among other things. Yeah, me neither.

The other problem with attempting to ‘justify’ modern art is that whatever argument put forward in its defence comes an unanswerable reply in the form of a name. Cy Twombly. If you don’t already know who he is, you may think that Cy Twombly is a vehement and knowledgeable critic of art capable of producing, on the spur of the moment, a comprehensive dismissal of modern art and all that it stands for. Unfortunately, he isn’t. It’s much worse than that – he’s an artist, and it’s in Susie Hodge’s defence of his work that I had to part company with her and her admirable but flawed intentions.

Olympia – Cy Twombly (1957)

Above is the painting resolutely defended by Ms. Hodge. It seems pointless for me to explain what she says since there is no way of conveying its ridiculousness better than to merely quote her own words.

The white canvas is covered with scribbles and scratches in crayon, pencil and paint, as Twombly aimed to contradict viewers’ conventional appreciation of art, and blur established distinctions between drawing and painting. Almost inscrutable, the marks resemble graffiti in a public toilet, but also allude to motifs and legacies of classical history, as can be discerned in words such as ‘Roma’ and ‘Amor’ which can just be deciphered as the eye is drawn around the work.

Firstly, I didn’t realise there was such a strong distinction between drawing and painting that any serious artist would feel the need to blur it. Secondly, I think that claiming ‘Olympia’ alludes to classical history because of almost invisible words contained within is stretching credibility past its elastic limit.

She goes on to reinforce this thought in her summing up:

Frequently likened to a child’s doodles, this scribbled image… appears easy enough for a young child to have done. Yet the spare, messy and often indistinct scribbles were not created through lack of skill or understanding of depth. They are an exploration of human existence, reflecting on and connecting with classical art and literature.

The dominant frustration I feel is the Emperor’s New Clothes atmosphere that surrounds works like this. However, rather than being ridiculed for being taken in, it is actually the opposite. I would also question whether or not it would be possible for an unknown artist to  garner acclaim for producing a similar painting, thus reinforcing the air of exclusion around the art world.

I suppose the mistake that I am making is in assuming the entire world of modern art should be defended or explained as a single whole. Instead, it should be treated as any other art form – music, writing, theatre, dance – and subdivided into loose genres. That way, it makes allowance for individual tastes. There’s music I love and music I can’t bear to listen to; you’ll probably never catch me reading romance novels, but detective stories make up the lion’s share of my reading material; if there’s a stage in front of me, it’s more likely to contain a comedian than an actor. Thus, tarring all modern artists with the same brush displays the same amount of ignorance as bundling Coldplay in with Eminem, even though it’s an ignorance the modern art world seems in no hurry to dispel. It must therefore be done from the outside, and by better books than this.

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