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.
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.