Valuing modern art

October 7, 2007 | By | 14 Replies More

I know that I’m going to get into some trouble with some people as a result of this post.

Yesterday, my family visited an art fair where more than 100 artists displayed a wide variety of art.   One of the artists, an adult man, offered the following abstract paintings:

abstract art - lo rez.jpg

The painting on the left was offered for $3,200 and the one on the right for $1,300.   I don’t “get” much modern art. I never have. It amazes me that there is a market for much of it.  As you might correctly guess, I wasn’t tempted to buy either of these paintings.

Now, consider the following article from  “Here’s looking at you, “Kid”: Is 4-year-old Marla Olmstead a painting prodigy or the instrument of a hoax? “My Kid Could Paint That” The documentary “asks fascinating questions about art, family and journalistic ethics.”  This article concerns a new documentary about a young girl (Marla) who became a modern art phenom.  At least things were going well until the maker of that documentary, Amir Bar-Lev, started digging deeply:

As New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman discusses in the film, Marla’s story appealed to two contradictory popular prejudices. First of these is the idea of prodigal artistic talent as a lottery prize handed out to random toddlers by God. Second is the notion that modern art (at least in its abstract or nonfigurative guises) is a pseudo-intellectual con game that has no standards and conveys no meaning, so the apparent success of a 4-year-old debunks the whole enterprise.

I know that I’m not the first person to cry that the Emperor has no Clothes, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to cry out. I do wonder how far one could go as a modern artist with a pristine resume, assuming that the abstract art you presented as your own was actually art created by non-artists.  For instance, how easily or often could the scribbles and doodles of children pass as the creations of an adult “artistic genius?” To look at it another way, imagine that a traditional painting (e.g., Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) was accidentally destroyed. Compare the pain the world would feel to the pain it would feel at the loss of a piece of abstract art prominently displayed in one of the world’s modern art museums.

To make it clear, I’m not dissing all modern art.  There is some that consists 99% of unchannelled energy as opposed to creative effort.

I look forward to viewing the aboved-described documentary.  To listen to Bar-Lev’s podcast regarding his video, go here.


Tags: ,

Category: Art, Consumerism, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    There was a story several years ago about a major art hoax that began as a prank. I don't recall the names, bu it wen something like this:

    A upper middle class proffessional fellow grew annoyed at his ostentatious friends and there "impressionistic art" fad. This fad was more about bragging rights than art appreciation.

    This fellow bought a blank canvas and some paints, took them to his summer house, and created some modern "abstract art" by dribbling paint of various colors onto the canvas from atop a step ladder. He added a scrawled signature (a fictious Eastern European sounding name) and gave it a silly title indicating what the painting was supposed to represent. After the paint had dried, he presented it prominently at a dinner party at his town-house apartment which was attended by several of his faux-art snob friends.

    OF course, They HAD to ask, and over a peroid of time, he produced a few more painting, and a cookie-cutter thumbnail biography of the trials and tribulations of the artist's escape from a Soviet Satellite country, his failing health, and such. and before too long people were offering lots of money to buy the paintings.

  2. Mary says:

    Erich – I have a BFA in art with a concentration in weaving and I can tell you, as a trained artist, I wouldn't buy the paintings you've shown in your post. One of the frustrating things about being graded in art is that it's all so subjective. What attracts us to realistic art is that we can immediately tell whether someone has skill by how much realism they can manage to bring to a canvas or piece of paper. When it comes to "modern art," we have no definitive way to tell whether something is "good" or not. And that's okay. If someone likes this sort of art, well, they can go ahead and like it, but we don't have to feel guilty for not liking it just because they say we must. Phooey on that!

  3. gatomjp says:

    I have to disagree with Mary and say that those two paintings for sale at the art fair contain many characteristics of what I would call "good" art. There is a self-assured unity of color with dynamic variation in detail (soft and sharp), movement (still and active) and contrast (light and dark). The paintings are pleasing to my eye and yet interesting enough to hold my attention without being jarring.

    Would I pay $3,200 for one of them? Unfortunately I am not in a financial position to be that kind of art supporter but were money not an object I might be inclined to hang one of those paintings on my wall.

    I also have an extensive background in art, music and video (no degrees, unfortunately) and I'd like Mary to define for me if she can, why she would disparage this artist's work. What don't you like about these two paintings Mary and would you present your work for our consideration?

  4. Mary says:

    gatomjp – I don't believe that I actually disparaged either piece of art in my post. I merely said that I wouldn't buy them. They are not to my taste, but that doesn't mean they won't appeal to other people. Hence, my commenting on the subjectivity of art. What I don't care for is "experts" telling me I have to like something because they tell me it's good. I also have no problem with you making judgments about my work, which you can take or leave at will. I understand that subjectivity cuts all ways and that many, many people will probably not care for what I create. I can live with that. As I've turned my attention to writing more than art in later years, I have very little online, only some artist trading cards I've been dabbling with. You can see them at this link:…. The last one in line was created by my son. His art whips mine any day.

  5. gatomjp says:

    Sorry, Mary that's not good enough. It may be okay for the average person to say they don't like a painting just because they don't like it, but not someone with a BFA in art and a concentration in weaving. You know better than most that there are criteria for evaluating the technical skill of an artist, despite one's like or dislike of the art itself and I was hoping to hear your reasons for disliking those particular paintings. I now realize that you dislike abstract art in general.

    Since viewing your art cards online (which I like very much, by the way) I am especially surprised at your lack of interest in abstract art. I expected to find that you were a realist or at least an neo-impressionist of some kind. Those cards are highly abstract representations of nature. I find it hard to believe that you have never been tempted to push your art further into the realm of pure form and even more surprised that you don't appreciate the art of those who do.

  6. Mary says:

    gatomjp – Okay, let's start at the beginning again. First, and foremost, it seems that I have inadvertently used my education as a medieval cudgel, which wasn't my intent at all. I believe that people can become educated on subjects through means other than earning a degree, which you have obviously done in the field of art. My grandfather was a self-taught artist, so I'm not attempting to sit upon some pedestal and make judgments about what people know and don't know based upon academic achievement. What I have seen over and over when it comes to art is that people who don't have a background in art feel that they can't possibly know art or judge it as good because they feel they must leave it to experts. If we switch to the subject of music, we find that people have no difficulty ascertaining what they like and don't like, even if they have absolutely no musical training – as it is for me. Why must we leave art completely to the experts? Who were the experts in art before there were experts in art?

    You've asked me to get technical with the above pieces, so I shall. The fact that they are abstract is not a drawback for me. I love abstract art. Most of my own art is abstract, so how could I not? In fact, it has been argued that a painting or drawing that attempts to be realistic can never really achieve realism because it has been rendered in two-dimensions. I can admire the technical aspects of the above paintings, such as the use of color, the juxtaposition of light against dark, the movement of the brush strokes, the way the light plays across the surface, the texture of the strokes, and the way these elements make the eye move around the painting. I could even concede that I can't make a true judgment of either of these works without seeing them up close and in person. While a painting or other art work can be technically perfect, if it doesn't stir my emotions, it will not speak to me and I will have no interest in it.

    Back to our music example – the guitarist Steve Vai is a technical virtuoso, yet his music does not appeal to the masses. He has a devoted following, but his music does not make an emotional connection with everyone. Now, it could very well be that I would see another painting by the same artist who created these and I would love it. Same artist, same technical skill – the difference is in my gut-level, emotional reaction to it. In fact, using music again, I can tell you that I adore the music of Dave Matthews Band, but every once in a while I'll hear one of their songs and not be particularly impressed.

    Therein lies the subjectivity of art. And everyone, whether trained artist or not, has access to this personal emotional knowledge of art. Given this, the paintings pictured above do not make an emotional connection to me, therefore I would not purchase them.

  7. Xiaogou says:

    I like the paintings, but I would not be paying thousands of dollars on it. Enjoy the art as in a thousand years from now much of it will be gone forever. I don’t think many of the art today will survive that long and will be lost forever never to be seen again.

  8. Mary says:

    You're right, Xiaogou, a lot of art won't survive, but every once in a while, one slips through the cracks of time to be uncovered by people today. Check out this link to what is is being pegged as the world's oldest wall painting. It was found in Syria and it's thought to date from the 11th century B.C.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Mary: Thanks for the link. It's a bit confusing for that article to claim that that Syrian art is the world's oldest at 11,000 years old, however, given the 13,000-15,000 years old cave paintings in Lascaux France.

    Imagine being the artists of any of these ancient pieces being time-travelled to the future to see that we moderns are STILL admiring their work!

  10. Mary says:

    You know, Erich, I was thinking exactly the same thing about the age claim. What about Lascaux? Or any of the other rock paintings found all over the world? It's incredible that any of them have survived, but what it shows us is that for as modern and technologically astute as we think we are, those from the past certainly rival us in what they accomplished.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Abstract Art: A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.

    Albert Camus

  12. Diane says:

    Wow! I am an abstract artist! You guys are tough. I paint with the idea in mind that the work might possibly actually! last a very long time. I use quality products and years of knowledge and experience and observations. From a personal point of view, the image that appears (talent or not?) is the result of, hopefully, a life time of visions, translated into images, colors and energy straight from the soul through the instrument (i.e. knife, fork, spoon, bare hands, brush? etc.) onto the canvas. A real artist really doesn't give a shit if you like the art or not. We paint for ourself. We must be very careful about selling these little parts of our soul to the unappreciative and the sofa matching people. It's a feeling.

  13. You know it's just like golf. These "grown men" walk around out there with their clubs and whack a little white ball down this bunch of grass. And after they whack it down there, they walk down there and whack it again. and again. And again. All day long they hit this little white ball around trying to hit it into a little hole. They spend ungodly amounts of money on special shoes and hats and gloves and clubs just so they can whack a little ball a little better than their buddies. They all laugh and slap each other on the butts and tell dirty jokes. Do you think that the day after they die anyone will care if they whacked the little ball 3 times or 4 times down the grass twords that hole in the ground.

    Would you spend $3500 just to whack a little ball around?

    I don't golf and never will. It just looks stupid to me. But I have to say watching Tiger Woods do something so simple as whack a little white ball around is mesmerizing.

    I am an Artist and I've spend my whole life trying to figure out how to do something so simple as to paint. Abstract painting must follow rules to be considered "good." That man's painting you have displayed above are good paintings. Whether a painting is worth $3500 depends on the quality of the piece, and the qualities of his other work. Also how long has he been painting and is he likely to continue his career and create a substantial body of work.

    Anybody can paint a flyer but that doesn't make it worth $3500.

    It's just as irritating for me to work like crazy spend money I don't have to show my work and then have someone walk up and say, "I bet my 8 year old could scribble some paint on a canvas and get a million dollars for it."

    Probably just as irritating as having some smart a** artist show up on a golf course commenting on how stupid they look whacking a little ball around.

Leave a Reply