Friday, December 19, 2008

Reason People Think They Don't "Get" Art #629,622: Mark Rothko

"I don't get it."

It's okay, no one does.

Mark Rothko is famous for bright strips of oil paint on large canvases, and he was huge during the early years of Po-Mo. That is, post-modernism, essentially the "free market economics" of the art world -- a lot of people love it, and in this student-of-art-history's opinion, a lot of people are fucking stupid. Don't get me wrong, there were some good things that came out of Po-Mo, like there were some good things that have come out of free market economics (just don't ask me to name any), and artists didn't do nearly as much damage to the art world in the name of post-modernism as economists have done to the global economy in the name of free market economics -- but I digress, I wanted to talk about Rothko.

Rothko began as a modernist, vacillating between cubism and surrealism but eventually going off in his own direction. His most famous works, the "multiforms" became a sort of signature of the early years of Post-Moderism, and helped artists detached themselves from the rest of the world (although, one could argue that Modernism began this when art started to drift away from realism and the representation of what the artist literally saw, and started making art that was art simply by virtue of its existence). Abstract expressionism began with Rothko, who pushed this idea that his large paintings with giant blocks of solid color were somehow intensely spiritual, and while there's nothing wrong with it, the average person will look at a Rothko, read something he wrote about God and oneness and all things being equal and say "really?"

Now, a lot of artists are able to make weird art, talk about some kind of intimate relation to the work and/or god without alienating their viewers, but the mere fact that Po-Mo and especially abstract expressionism was entirely about alienating the viewer, those of us who consider ourselves contemporary artists begin to understand why most people stare at a piece and say "I don't get it". The problem with a lot of post-moderists works is that there is nothing to get, yet the artist bandies about making claims of experiencing some kind of deity through this piece and so it means so damn much to them and all they want to do is share their experience with -- wait, share? No. If they really wanted to "share their experience" of god with their viewers, they wouldn't have hogged the Peace Pipe.

Some abstract expressionists (Pollack, for instance) made the point, while talking about their work, that there was nothing to get. It's paint on a canvass, I like the way it looks. Pollack's work may have meant more to him than he claimed (although, it may have only been to the extent that it got him lots of free booze and cheap women), but allowing people to see in it what they wanted is something that I really like about Pollack's work. Other AE artists, while their art is not all bad (I do like Kandinsky), took their work far too seriously and those who didn't conform to the auspices of abstract expressionism were ostricised -- something that happens a lot in the art world, believe it or not; those who pluck things from their own brains and are then asked to discuss its meaning with people who have no clue what's going on have a tendancy to get big-headed and exclusionary about this whole business.

Back to Rothko, though. While maintaining that he was not, in fact, an abstract artist (an artist who creates work void of references to the outside world), he essentially described his work the same way an abstractionist would: he sought only to express pure human emotion, but made sure to pompous it up a bit by saying:
"The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."
In other words, in order to "get" Rothko's work, it has to make you weep. You're not allowed to have your own experience with the work, you have to have his experience with the work in order to understand it. Except, it's impossible for one person to have the same exact experience as another person, so most people just shrug and say "I don't get it", and move on to the wing with all the Thomas Kinkade paintings. (Actually, museums don't have Thomas Kinkade paintings, he has a chain of galleries that are owned wholly by the artist, and while people think they "get" his work, there actually is nothing to get because Kinkade's work is more robotic and soulless than Pollack's because he's been painting the same things in the same way for 20 goddamn years -- at least Pollack died before his work could get old).

When you have the kind of experience with art that a lot of your "normal" non-artistic people have with Modernist and Post-Modern works, it's no wonder a lot of these "normal" non-artistic people shurg off the art world and say "I don't get art". It's unfortunate, because a lot of the artists who supported this exclusionary idea ("if you don't have the experience I want, then you don't get it") made great work and the appreciation of that work is limited because people are told you have to experience something in a particular way with no room for interpretation. Except the thing is, people know what they like. Art does move people. But not everyone is affected in the same way, and expecting them to be is insane and does a great deal of damage to the art world.

Artists simply cannot take themselves that seriously.


Anonymous said...

Last year my studies included looking at Rothko's Seagram murals - well, pictures of them anyway, and I don't get it, either. 'The daubs of a petulant child' is one description which springs to mind. I am not entirely a Philistine, the topic was Art History, and I did get some of them.


Anonymous said...

About your closing point: sure, they can. And maybe they ought to. They're showmen, and as the saying goes, if he who doesn't blow his own horn may find others using it for a spitoon.

Gregory said...

In the works shown I see a little interior decoration, nothing more.

I work in tech support. I cannot mutter a single word in Georgian to an English-speaking client and expect him or her to work out the solution to his or her issue from there. Likewise an artist needs to provide enough information in a work if she or he wishes to elicit an emotion or inspire a thought in her or his audience.