Ian Malcolm and Dar Williams on modern art

I stumbled across this old favourite moment from Jurassic Park:

“If I may. I’ll tell you the problem with the art you’ve made here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it.”

And this is my probem with modern art. I look at a painting like Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), and try to see something there, and I can’t. Here it is:

Late last year, this painting was auctioned by Christie’s, and sold for $35.7 million. Now I realise that Rothko is not responsible for the prices people pay for his work after his death; and I realise that the prices of artworks reflect fashion or even investment potential much more than they do actual quality as perceived by informed critics. But still: if nothing else, this price tells us that it’s a painting a lot of people like.

To me, it’s evident that this is exactly what it looks like: a canvas painted purple, with three boxes (one brown, two black) painted over it. I could have painted that, and it would have taken me maybe half an hour of work.

So when Rothko himself said of his work:

[I am interested] only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.

I read that as self-serving nonsense.

Untitled (1968)

So far, so predictable. Here’s where it gets interesting, to me at least: I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.

The reason for that is that people whose art I do respect see something there that I’m missing. For example, Dar Williams — who for my money is among the very top rank of contemporary singer-songwriters — wrote a whole song about Rothko:

The blue, it speaks so full
It’s like the beauty one can barely stand
Or too much things dropped in your hand
And there’s a green like the peace
In your heart sometimes
Printed underneath the sheets of ashy snow

I hear that, and I want to shout “It’s just blue, Dar! It’s just green!” But then I have to stop and ask myself, who is the artist here? Clearly all the evidence says she has much better insight than I do. If she’s seeing something, it’s because that something is there. And I’m missing it.

But what is it? How am I missing it? Is it literally like colour-blindness?

Long-time readers will remember that I feel the same about Bob Dylan. So far as I can tell, he’s a rotten songwriter who can’t sing and can barely play guitar. Yet he has been and remains hugely popular, and not only with people whose opinion I can write off as uninformed. I have to conclude that there really is something great in Dylan, and that I’m missing it.

See also: poetry, which I can barely manage to read, let alone understand.

This is weird.

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12 responses to “Ian Malcolm and Dar Williams on modern art

  1. I would understand if the colour was just a block of one colour- but Rothko never does that- he blends and blurs and blends again so we can immerse ourselves in the colour- it becomes a meditative experience. What kind of art has that effect on you- is it just music or does anything visual have that effect.

  2. But what is it? How am I missing it? Is it literally like colour-blindness?

    In the specific case of abstract art, I think the point is that while it might be easy to make a blue splodge on a piece of paper, the trick is knowing exactly which shade of blue to use, and how big the splodge should be.

    Take Mondrian’s line paintings for example. Obviously anyone could make a painting of lines. But positioning those lines exactly to make the painting feel balanced — or off-balance just the right amount that even just a few lines and blocks of colour can create the impression of movement— that’s the genius.

    Hm, to put it another way: composition is hard, right? It’s, to use your word, a discipline. Properly composing a picture, deciding where the elements should go, whether the figure should be just to the left, just to the right, how it relates to all the other elements, etc etc, that’s a skill, right, isn’t it? One that artists need to have a good eye for and eve then it takes much practice to master. An artist could be incredibly skilled at photo-realistic drawing, but if they don’t have the skill of composition, their pictures will be boring lifeless mishmashes of elements.

    What artists like Mondrian and Rothko do, then, is remove all the other elements and make paintings that are just pure composition. And actually that makes what they are doing even harder, even more impressive, because they can’t distract from any deficiencies in the composition by flashy drawing elsewhere. A less abstract painter could try to distract from the fact they weren’t quite sure where to put the figure by making the figure really well-drawn and lifelike. An abstract artist in the minimalist style can’t do that: they have to have their composition exactly right. They have nothing else to hide behind.

    Obviously some modern art is just bollocks. The stuff where there’s no discipline in the execution at all. But whatever you think of Rothko, it’s not at all true that there’s no discipline in it.

  3. Isn’t this just basically a Rorschach test? That’s always been my assumption when I see some completely unrelatable (to me) reaction, like Dar Williams in the example. 1% of that was in the canvas, the other 99% was in the viewer’s mind.

  4. That’s always been my assumption when I see some completely unrelatable (to me) reaction, like Dar Williams in the example.

    That seems quite an assumption. ‘If I can’t see something, then I assume that it doesn’t exist, and anybody who claims to see it is just mistaken.’

    You must have some supreme confidence in your powers of perception and interpretation for that (rather than that, say, there might be something there that you missed) to be your go-to assumption.

  5. Perhaps the Emperor simply has no clothes.

  6. For me, one of the ‘duties’ of good art is to challenge how we see things- and make us look more

  7. Perhaps the Emperor simply has no clothes.

    Perhaps everybody is singing out of key, except for you.

  8. The John Logan play “Red,” about Mark Rothko, is also one of the best plays of the last decade (as judged by my opinion, and by the fact that it won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play). So clearly Rothko is capable of inspiring art in others with his blotches somehow.

  9. I’m with H on this one; I think there’s definitely more to it than just the surface (ho ho), and that I don’t understand what it is; but then again, if I did, I’d be able to do it…
    Rothko is one of the few artists to have evoked any sort of emotional response in me, although that was solely in the context of the Seagram Murals when they were displayed in a space that was designed to mimic the intended format of the originals – which suggests that there is more to it than just the canvasses too. (It’s very hard to explain a visceral experience like that, but I still recall it several decades later.)

  10. I’m with you. I’m pretty sure there is something there, judging by other’s reactions, but darned if I can see it.

  11. Hi Mike,

    Perhaps one thing to bear in mind with American Abstract Expressionism is that it was quite fixated on getting back to the original work of art, to the point where reproductions don’t really convey the thing. In fact I suspect at times they were deliberately (if not necessarily consciously) creating works which were unreproducible. And when I saw the Rothko room at a Royal Academy exhibition a few years ago it did make me see him differently. It seemed to be as much a result of seeing several works arranged in combination as seeing them ‘in the flesh’. For reasons I don’t think I’d be good at explaining, but I noticed someone else said a similar thing about the Seagram murals.
     
    It is true that, even after all that, I still didn’t really like his work. But I think I went from “don’t even see what he’s doing” to “what he’s doing isn’t something for me”. Which is a change of sorts, I suppose.
     
    If you could bear to read more of me ranting about Rothko, here’s something I wrote at the time…

  12. Aonghus Fallon

    “In the specific case of abstract art, I think the point is that while it might be easy to make a blue splodge on a piece of paper, the trick is knowing exactly which shade of blue to use, and how big the splodge should be.

    Take Mondrian’s line paintings for example. Obviously anyone could make a painting of lines. But positioning those lines exactly to make the painting feel balanced — or off-balance just the right amount that even just a few lines and blocks of colour can create the impression of movement— that’s the genius.”

    Not really anything I can add to this! Sean Scully does big, monumental abstracts that are basically grids of complementary colours. They’re much more impressive to see in reality, as they tend to be physically huge. In theory anybody should be able to do them. Funnily enough, nobody can.

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