“…I can’t explain it.”

“I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” This was the answer given by me to my daughter when she asked why the Edvard Munch painting “Scream” was worth the $119,000,000.00 it had just sold for. After all most children (and adults) who see the image of this painting are less than awe-struck. A more apt description of the average person’s feelings would probably be “mildly disturbed”.

“Scream” by Edvard Munch

Okay, I get it. It’s telling a story. One of frustration and “losing it”. Something we can all relate to at some level. However, artistically does that create value in art? I can think of many similar quality works I’ve seen in my lifetime that are worth next to nothing, but evoke the same feelings or emotions as “Scream”. What do you feel when you view a Picasso or Pollock? I don’t know about you, but Me?…Yep, still disturbed. Yet I speak to those who have stood in front of the paintings of the old masters and claim to have experienced a host of emotions. Some even brought to tears. I know the first time I stood in front of a William Bouguereau my heart was pounding. I was speechless as I studied a small Meissonier for over an hour. The first Jules Bastien-Lepage painting I viewed still inspires me today as I look up the image of it often online. So…do emotions determine value? No. If it did, the three artists just named would surely have commanded millions for their work decades ago. It has only been in the last twenty years that any of their work has gained significant value. And that is nowhere near the value of the works of their contemporary modern artists.

Back to the original question then. What makes “Scream” and other modern artists’ works worth so much? Let’s look at another example. This last summer I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After hours viewing the European art I decided to venture into the modern side of the museum and see for myself how I would feel after viewing them up close and in person. I saw textured paintings, splattered paintings, brilliant colors, muddy colors, welded metal sculptures, bronzes and more. As I went down to the lower level, I stopped in front of a large canvas by Ellsworth Kelly titled “Blue Panel”. I think more than any work of modern art I had viewed to that point in my life, this made me ask the profound question, “What the…?” A blue panel! Just blue! Minimal thought, no skill or training, only blue. Was I disturbed again? Yes. Only a bit differently. Now it was mingled with a tinge of anger. How could this work be worthy of this prestigious museum? This hanging here was the equivalent to me of standing in front of a grand piano, holding out my index finger and pressing a single key. Then being approached to repeat my performance to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall! A single note! That is all this painting is, yet it hangs with other works by Kelly in one of the most famous museums of art in the world.

(“Reddish Brown Square on White Wall”
by Unknown Wall Painter Guy)    
“Blue Panel” by Ellsworth Kelly

After viewing the remaining works in the lower level, I started back to the upper floors. Then I noticed something. Not twenty feet from Kelly’s “Blue Panel” on the adjacent wall. Was it another Kelly, just in a different color? I moved closer to better examine it. Hmm. No name plate. And not corded off to prevent people from getting too close. I moved even closer. Then it hit me. Boy did I feel stupid! How could I have mistaken this for an Ellsworth Kelly? What was it? I’m guessing some wall painter’s idea of a joke. It was a reddish-brown square painted on the wall. Another masterpiece? Nope. Just a square. Painted by an unknown union painter I guess. Well, anyway, this unknown’s skills surely rivaled that of Kelly. He may have a carrier ahead of him. (Forgive the sarcasm. I’ll keep it to a minimum, but look at the two images and you tell me who had more talent.)

I have the answer! I had it all along. I know why someone paid $119,00,000.00 for “Scream”… Prestige suggestion. I only learned of this in recent years while listening to a key-note address given by Fred Ross, the founder of the Art Renewal Center, to  a group of artists at the national Oil Painters of America event in 2006.

Visualize this. You are with your spouse at an art gallery standing in front of a painting and you give a half chuckle and say to your better half, “Our three-year old could paint this.” You both laugh and shift your weight to move towards the next painting. Before you take a complete step you hear a voice say, “Excuse me? Um, excuse me. Did I just hear you say your three-year old could paint that?”

Not being one for public conflict you sheepishly reply, “Well, I, I, I guess I did. Yes”.

She responds, “Who are we to judge? I happen to love his work. He expresses himself through the canvas like no one I have ever known. You may look at this and say a child could reproduce it, but a child in no way could convey such a level of emotion as brilliantly as this artist does. I can feel the energy from here.”

You reply, “Ma’am. With all due respect. All this artist did was dump some green and red paint on the canvas, swirl it around a bit and drop some nuts and bolts into the wet paint. You don’t think my child could do that?”

“I’m only saying he is brilliant. As are many of the artists in here and you should not judge. His work is enlightened and fresh. So, before you condemn any more art or artists you should think twice about the emotion and feeling that went into creating these masterpieces.”

She turns to leave and you look at your spouse and mumble under your breath, “I don’t care what she say’s. A child could do that!”

Now. Fast forward six months, a year or whenever you are at another art show or event. This time you are with a friend from work. You approach him while he is looking at a work of crisscrossed colored lines covered by thick applications of paint that creates a texture over the flat linear lower layer. You ask, “So, what do you think?” He responds, “You call this art? I could reproduce this in my garage in ten minutes!”

Aware of the people surrounding you within ear shot, you reply “Well, I’ll bet it’s much more difficult than it looks. After all, we don’t know the story behind the painting. The emotion and feeling that went into creating it.” He reluctantly agrees and you move on to the next painting.

You have not only just been victimized by prestige suggestion, but passed it on to your friend! That women you met at the gallery months ago made you feel as though you were unenlightened because you did not “get”  that artist’s work. In order to not feel that way again you surrender what you know to be true with what you are supposed to “feel”. Now your friend from work will probably pass it on to others as well. I think most everyone has experienced this in one form or another. Whether from teachers, friends, spouses or strangers.

Please don’t think however that I am lumping all modern art and artists into this large pool of “unskilled work by untrained hands”. Much of modern art requires more than expression to create. Skill and training do come into play in many works. I am like many people I know I guess who look at the work of some artists and ask, “Why is this special?”.  Expression is supposed to evoke emotion isn’t it? First the artist, then the viewer of the art. Am I just bitter because I have spent years of study and training in the hopes of developing skill? Not really. It actually gives me piece of mind to know that very few people could duplicate what I do. My style and application of paint is uniquely mine. Much of modern art however can be closely reproduced with not much more than a materials list by just about anyone who wants to give it a go. Does that bother me? No. Let the modern artist create all they want and display it anywhere they choose. Just don’t suggest people are unenlightened or judgmental for having an opinion less than favorable about these kinds of works.

So. My daughter has been sat down and bored to death with my lengthy answer to her short question. Prestige suggestion has gone on for so long that we now see value in that which other than our perception has little. Nothing makes a painting like “Scream” worth millions but someones perception of it. On the other hand, this same technique has caused many nineteenth century academic artists to go from world fame and admiration to being written from our history books and viewed as irrelevant with their works removed from walls and put in basements or hidden away for decades. Don’t believe me? The three artists I mentioned above (Bouguereau, Meissonier and Lepage)  were household names in their day, just as we know Michelangelo or Rembrandt today. Today my spell-check doesn’t even recognize them (but it readily recognizes Pollock and Picasso).  These painters were not in my art history books. Were they in yours? I’ll save the other half of the effects of prestige suggestion for my next post…

Joe

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