Why don’t you like modern art?

I’ve done a couple of posts on modern art over at Econlog, so I thought I’d try to avoid wearing out my welcome by doing the third over here.  It seems to me that people in the comment section object to modern art for two reasons; it’s ugly and it’s difficult.  Actually, lots of modern art is not ugly, but they especially don’t like the ugly stuff.

I tried to defend modern art, although even I don’t like most of it.  Recall that all art was once modern art, and most of the art from any period has not stood the test of time.  Museums are full of mediocre baroque history paintings and bland 18th century portraits.  Heck, former President Bush’s recent portraits of soldiers are better than half the portraits of colonial aristocrats you see in American museums.  And Bush’s work is somewhat “modern“. (Is Bush also a pretentious cosmopolitan phony?)

I’m going to try to get you to avoid being turned off by ugly and difficult.  Let’s start with two paintings that I regard as somewhat ugly.  Here’s Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas”:

Almost everyone, regardless of their views on modern art, would regard Titian as one of the all-time greatest painters.  And this painting, showing someone being skinned alive, is one of his very best works.  But I don’t think anyone would say it’s a pretty picture.

Nor is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon:

Also note that Picasso’s painting is an example of the “ugly” modern art that people dislike, whereas Titian’s is an “old master”.  The average philistine may not want the Titian hanging in their bedroom (and even I’d prefer one of his nudes), but they’d show a grudging respect.  But if you are going to reject works that are ugly, why is the Titian not equally objectionable as the Picasso?

OK, so let’s say that great works of art can be ugly, and move on to “difficult”.  The Picasso is in some ways more difficult than the Titian, and that difficulty is in part do to stylistic innovations that can be traced back to Cezanne.  Here’s a picture I took of a Cezanne that hangs over the fireplace in my bedroom), which is anything but “ugly”:

On the other hand, this picture by Thomas Kinkade is even prettier:

So why do I have a Cezanne in my bedroom, and not a Kinkade?  Let’s use an analogy from music, which most people understand better than painting (I’m the reverse.)  The Kinkade is like that catchy by annoyingly manipulative and sentimental pop song that you can’t get out of your head, perhaps sung by Celine Dion.  The Cezanne is like a tune by Radiohead, which seems difficult to follow, but grows with repeated listening.

Here’s the problem. Most people walk into a modern art museum, spend 10 seconds looking at each work (or even less) and then never again revisit these paintings. They think that a painting can be grasped in a quick glance, whereas music requires sustain concentration, but this is an illusion.

You may say that you “like” the Cezanne but don’t “like” abstract art like this Kandinsky:

Actually, if you don’t like abstract art then it’s very unlikely that you truly appreciate what makes the Cezanne so much greater than the Kinkade.  Indeed you probably don’t fully appreciate even old masters like Titian.  Don’t feel bad, I find even the greatest works of classical music, say the Goldberg Variations or Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, to be exceedingly difficult.  You can almost certainly appreciate them better than I can.  But my failure to fully appreciate these masterpieces doesn’t in any way make me think that those who do are simply being pretentious.

I’m not saying you should try to appreciate modern art.  Rather I’m saying you should try to appreciate people who appreciate modern art.

PS.  Technological progress in art reproduction has been impressive.  The Cezanne might sell for $200 million at auction, and I bought a very good reproduction and had it shipped from the UK for a little over $200 (half of which was shipping). I feel like a billionaire!  It uses giclee printing to achieve pretty good color fidelity, and is printed on canvas and then put in a tasteful and simple black wood frame.  (My photo doesn’t do justice to the reproduction’s quality.) When I was younger the available paper reproductions of paintings were so bad that it was pointless to put that sort of print on your wall.



20 Responses to “Why don’t you like modern art?”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    1. October 2017 at 14:27

    A lot of modern art is indeed great. I like your “taste theory” (point 2 in your argument against Caplan’s theory), you should apply it to Trump.

  2. Gravatar of Benoit Essiambre Benoit Essiambre
    1. October 2017 at 15:44

    I find that with art, the physical works themselves often don’t embody all of the appeal.

    The story or the historical context around a piece can impart a significant amount of value. The first piece using a particular technique may be interesting just for being the first, even though plenty of similar pieces followed that were technically better or more impressive if you didn’t know they were derivative.

    Some works are tied to historical events and historical figures and you can’t appreciate them fully without knowing some of this context.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. October 2017 at 16:17

    Christian, You are confusing aesthetic taste with moral judgments.

    I don’t doubt that lots of Trump’s fans genuinely like his bullying of minorities, or his anti-intellectualism, I simply don’t agree with it. In contrast, philistines seem to think that aesthetes are just pretending to like modern art.

    Yes, Trumpistas really do like Trump. I agree.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. October 2017 at 16:18

    Benoit, Agreed, although it’s striking how often the derivative pieces were less impressive.

  5. Gravatar of Aaron W Aaron W
    1. October 2017 at 20:20

    I don’t know if I could say that I 100% appreciate all modern art, but I do enjoy it legitimately. Like in the abstract Kadinsky you show, I enjoy the fact that you can look at it for a while and see all sorts of different things. The Thomas Kinkade painting is indeed pretty, but I find it boring in comparison just because it doesn’t evoke the imagination in the same way.

    That being said, some modern art paintings that are just a single color or the like are a bit silly.

  6. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI H_WASSHOI
    1. October 2017 at 21:03

    I am using digital photo-frames

  7. Gravatar of Mike Tubbs Mike Tubbs
    2. October 2017 at 09:27


    I think part of the problem is training. I have a hard time interpreting modern art, but in the few classes I did have I was amazed about how much I gained from time+lessons on a particular work.

    My biggest difficulty w/ modern art is my inability to distinguish between good and bad much like a very immature wine taster. I feel very comfortable with this in film. Even if I don’t fully understand a movie I feel capable of being able to determine some level of quality.

    With modern art I feel incapable of making this decision, and for a while I thought no one did but having sister become an artist will quickly change your opinion. Art is interesting in this way. (mostly) No one doubts the late great Roger Ebert’s ability to dissect a movie even if they aren’t comfortable with the medium. But somehow everyone believes their is no substance to the critics comments on modern art.


    P.S. I’d also be very interested in your take on the new Aronofsky film ‘Mother!’. The film has garnered a lot of criticism. I couldn’t help but think of von Trier while watching. I’ll hold off on saying anymore until you comment or watch!

  8. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    2. October 2017 at 10:51

    Great post. In the past I mocked modern art. Then I went to the Whitney biennial. After 3 floors of the best young modern artists I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor to see the permanent selection and was immediately presented with a Jackson Pollack. I did not understand it, but even to my untrained eye, it was clear that it was orders of magnitude better than everything I had seen that day. I’ve refrained from mocking modern art since.

  9. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    2. October 2017 at 12:11

    Scott, where are you buying your reproductions from? Is there a site you would recommend?

  10. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. October 2017 at 14:36

    I’m not confusing aesthetic taste with moral judgments, I’m just saying both are subjective.

  11. Gravatar of Brandon Fishback Brandon Fishback
    2. October 2017 at 22:17

    I wouldn’t call Titian’s painting ugly, more like gritty. It’s the art equivalent of something like The Machinist. It’s a good movie but I don’t feel a desire to rewatch it.

  12. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    3. October 2017 at 02:06

    Because it’s ugly.

    Is that too philistine? Alright, something something Walter Pater.

    Anyhow, ‘modern’ often seems to be more or less synonymous with ‘non-representational.’ And I would argue that ‘non-representational art’ is practically an oxymoron. Abstract art eschews appeal to the senses in favor of making some intellectual point. Of course, that can be done far more efficiently with these things called words.

  13. Gravatar of Travis Allison Travis Allison
    3. October 2017 at 06:29

    Scott, what service did you use in England for your giclee print?

  14. Gravatar of ChargerCarl ChargerCarl
    3. October 2017 at 07:10

    Nicely timed post, I just finished Robert Hughes’ 8 part series on the Modernist movement from the 80’s.

    The episode on modernist architecture is particularly excellent:


  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. October 2017 at 07:21

    Everyone, Thanks, lots of good comments.

    Mike, Thanks for the tip, I haven’t seen “Mother!”

    Brandon, Just to be clear, I was not using ‘ugly’ as a pejorative.

    Liberal and Travis, This site:


    Their photo is more accurate than mine. I only bought this one giclee.

  16. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    3. October 2017 at 08:56

    Personally I put Kinkade as the most significant artist of the second half of the 20th century. Not because I think his paintings are aesthetically pleasing, but because he was groundbreaking in the way art should be produced, consumed and distributed.

    I can’t say that I love a lot of Picasso paitings, but I have a lot of respect for Picasso. His early paintings ooze so much emotion. And he single-handedly drove the art world in new directions. And somewhere in the middle of his career he looses it, and his paintings no longer seem innovative, and are bloodless, assembly-line crap.

    Funny, I can like Kinkade for his assembly line crap and not like Picasso for the same reason.

    As for the rest of modern art. It is my opinion that modern art spent a bit too long exploring abstract expressionism before realizing that it is an intellectual dead end. By the 1950’s that corner had been pretty well mined out, yet artists kept churning out the same stuff.

    As for the “post-modern” any artwork that requires a paragraph of exposition to be understood is failing. The artwork must stand on its own. This is not everything being produced, but there is all to much of it.

  17. Gravatar of IVV IVV
    3. October 2017 at 12:29

    Definitely the viewer’s background will directly affect their experience when regarding an artwork. On the one hand, it’s perfectly reasonable for someone with a lot of art history knowledge to recognize when a piece of art is more informed, and someone’s culture will recognize nuances that someone else will miss.

    But in the end, the artist must anticipate the audience, and a piece needs to resonate differently with someone if it’s going to be publicly available and evaluated that way, or if it’s something that is expressly for the cognoscenti.

    It makes me wonder how more recent, generally-available art/writing projects like the SCP Foundation will be viewed in the long term.

  18. Gravatar of Ben Ben
    4. October 2017 at 10:17

    Hey, Scott. If you think reproduction with Giclee is good, you should check out what some people are doing with 3d printers:


    amazing stuff!

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. October 2017 at 20:43

    Ben, Amazing.

  20. Gravatar of carl carl
    5. October 2017 at 09:34

    I recently went to MOCA and ended up loving Max Ernst’s Capricorn statue. My wife loved Rothko’s Yellow and Orange. We both were sure that the the other had been manipulated by the artist. That said, i do think there is something true about “Bauhaus to Our House” and the danger of artist and critic thinking of themselves as a priesthood. And that is why I will always be on my guard against modern artists who appeal to people like my wife who lack my objectively excellent eye for art.

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