My 5-year-old could have done that
But she didn’t. Why does so much modern art annoy people who accept experimentation and ambiguity in music and fashion but want their art to be arty?
MY FIVE-YEAR-OLD could have done that.” “Yes, but she didn’t . . .” Slashed blank canvasses, piles of bricks, splatters of paint, an unmade bed: art can be difficult to explain and harder to justify. Outside the art world, many are apathetic, and some are openly hostile to any art that isn’t a straightforward depiction of the things we see.
In fact, contemporary art, with all its jargon and references, subtleties and difficulties, in-crowds and outsiders, seldom makes it out of the specialist sections of the media unless there’s a scandal or a record-breaking sale price.
One of the problems is that it can be hard to communicate just what it is that moves you when you’re looking at a piece of work. Another problem is the language that some people use to discuss and describe art, which can be as difficult to get to grips with as the work itself.
That’s why a new book from Thames Hudson, Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That, by Susie Hodge, seems such a good idea. Subtitled Modern Art Explained, it aims to look at what lies behind some of the art that was inexplicable, derided, infamous or just ignored in its time.
Taking 100 works, and arranging them into five thematic sections, Hodge tries to vindicate pieces such as Untitled (12 Horses) (1969) by Jannis Kounellis, which consisted of 12 horses tethered to the walls in an art gallery; 24 Hour Psycho (1993) by Douglas Gordon, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was slowed down to run over 24 hours; and Untitled (USA Today) by Félix González-Torres (1990), which is a pile of sweets that weighs 136kg.
The problem is that Hodge falls into one of the more obvious traps of the art apologist: she gets defensive, and she gets stuck in the realms of artspeak. Along with background information on each artwork and a short piece about the artist is a paragraph on why a child couldn’t have done it. Thus Corner Piece by Lynda Benglis (1969) isn’t simply swirls of coloured latex, poured into a right-angled shape; instead it is “highlighting several prevalent creative ideas and art movements including Minimalism, Pop art, Abstract Expressionism and feminism” – an explanation that leaves one none the wiser.
Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho is the artist “considering how [the film] was originally constructed and the responses of viewers to the altered version rather than the content of the film itself or his methods of making the video”. And Gonzalez-Torres was “expressing his feelings about gay rights and Aids, as well as highlighting political volatility” with his pile of sweets.