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.
It’s not that Hodge is wrong; González-Torres was making a point about Aids, as gallerygoers were invited to help themselves to the sweets, to share them around and enjoy them together. As a metaphor for pre-Aids innocence, the pile of sweets can take on an unsettling sense, and you can start to see something sinister in their promise of instant gratification, the way that, given and handed on, they spread out through networks of friends and strangers. They also communicate something about the hidden consequences of choices and actions.
What’s missing from Hodge’s descriptions is an explanation of how the gallery, and the reputation of the artist, provide the context for making these wider connections and for thinking more deeply about what you are looking at. Art isn’t always about showing what things look like any more; it also creates a space for thinking about how things might be. So, yes, a five-year-old could have slashed a canvas like Lucio Fontana in Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960), but that probably wouldn’t invite you to consider ideas of violation, destruction and the delicate balance between the perfect and the flawed.
Another problem with the book is that it is not critical. Damien Hirst’s spin paintings, one of the low points of his career, are described as “examining the choices of ironies, pretences, falsehoods and desires that we face as we navigate through life”, rather than opening up the possibility that the series was a cynical manipulation of an overinflated market. Even the fiercest defenders of art admit that not all of it is always any good.
ANOTHER NEW BOOK that claims to explain art, What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye, by the BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, touches on this, suggesting that some recent art is closer to entertainment.
Gompertz cites Carsten Höller’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation, Test Site (2007), in which visitors played on giant slides, pointing out that some artmakers and museums position themselves as part of the leisure industry, and in doing so subtly change what we expect from art itself.
Whether art is entertainment or an intellectual exercise, neither of the books explores the mystery of why some people are so angered by the kinds of creative experimentation that are more acceptable in the worlds of music and fashion. Or how we already recognise that industry in the developed world is about the ownership of ideas, rather than the making of objects, but find it less easy to come to terms with a parallel development in art.
Gompertz does write about the way institutions now “provide an environment in which the public is willing to suspend its disbelief . . . And that puts artists today in a privileged position based on trust.” With an artist such as González-Torres, the art gallery becomes a laboratory for art experiments – the art market comes in later – and what we see can be a provocation, a suggestion, an invitation to look, consider and even laugh.
Perhaps part of the reason for any anger is that abstract art can annoy those who like definitive meanings. People mark the invention of photography as the moment art changed: not having to depict actual things, it could start to create images and, later, installations around ideas.
But the trend goes back farther than that, to mass literacy. Before it was usual to be able to read, art had to tell stories about the people depicted in paintings: who they were, how important they were, what they did for a living or how they came by their wealth. It had to be literal. Freed from that, art can be abstract in ideas as well as in imagery.
Looked at in this way, the disproportionate anger, frustration and even hatred some people have of nonrepresentational art can be seen as resistance to the idea of pure unfettered freedom of thought; to experiments with no outcome; to ideas with no narrative, without the structure of beginning, middle and end. We like our conclusions, the moral of the story, the obvious hero and villain, and when it comes to contemporary art you don’t always get that.
And yes, there is a great deal of art your five-year-old could just about have done, but a five-year-old would probably never get you to look at an unmade bed, like Tracey Emin did with My Bed (1998), and cause you to think about how it might be to feel truly and utterly powerless, hopeless and alone. Actually, neither can My Bed, unless you are prepared to give up the quest for explanations and instead give it the space and time to let the feelings come.
Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That is published on October 1st.
What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye is published by Viking