The Untrained Eye or The Art Museum Has No Clothes?

The Guggenheim, Lee Ufan, and The Question of What Makes Great Art


Lee Ufan's "Silence Room"

“Art” is just something different – something hard to characterize or categorize. Even the law makes exceptions for it. Under typical contract law, the parties to the contract can have a “satisfaction clause.” This means that that the performing party has not legally fulfilled their obligation until the other party is satisfied with their work.  There’s a catch, though. This  “satisfaction” is tested objectively. That is to say, if the average person would be satisfied with the work, then the “satisfaction clause” has been fulfilled. This is true even if the actual person who made the contract is incredibly disappointed with the work performed.

There is, however, one big exception – contracts to create art. When it comes to paintings, portraits, and sculptures, the person who commissioned the work can reject each attempt until they receive something that fits their own personalized expectations. The reasoning behind the exception is that art is something so individual, so specific to the person seeking it, that the law cannot impose the same sort of generalized expectations that govern the typical sort of agreement for goods or services. As recognized even in the legal world, art is something apart.

Which begs the question – how do we reach any sort of consensus as to what makes great art, when art itself is so inherently subjective? From the curator deciding on the next exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the little girl picking out her Lisa Frank pencil box, everyone approaches expressive imagery with their own taste in what they find pleasant, moving, or appealing. In the face of such a wide diversity of not only perspectives on art, but of schools, movements, and varieties of art, how do we decide what deserves uniform praise, and what is merely one man’s preference?

I found myself confronting this question during a recent trip to the Guggenheim. The current exhibition, entitled “Marking Infinity” showcases the work of the artist Lee Ufan. Ufan’s pieces fit into the category of “modern art.” The pieces on display included rocks placed on pillows, largely blank canvases containing one or two splotches of color, works consisting of a collection of vertical lines made in pencil, and assortments of metal laid bare on the gallery floor. These works eschewed the typical rules of form and presentation. Instead, Ufan opted for the unusual, creating works that emphasize emptiness and space. The actual subjects of his art acted more as metes and bounds of the work, rather than as the actual focus. It is a novel and unique approach to art.

Lee Ufan in front of one of his pieces.

Walking through this exhibition, I did my best to understand and appreciate it. I attempted to approach each work with an open mind, and to try to see and feel what Ufan meant to convey. I read the snippets giving Ufan’s biography and the excerpts describing the influences on his life and art. I listened to the audio tour, as it explained in some detail the purpose and significance behind each piece. I even paid close attention to the inclusion of Ufan’s own words from essays he had written, explicating his philosophy on expression and existence. I did everything possible to embrace and comprehend Ufan’s work.

Yet, try as I might, I just did not “get it.” Ufan’s art did not affect me. I made great effort to try to see the use of negative space and to feel infinity marked. I tried to understand the manner in which Ufan was responding to what had come before and the times in which he lived. I tried to take in the deeper meaning and the particularity with which Ufan had carefully constructed these scenes. Yet, in the end, all I could see was a slew of rocks, piles of scrap metal, and ordinary lines on an ordinary canvas. I tried. I tried, and was unmoved.

Which leads me to the same inexorable question I face every time I find myself unmoved by modern art. Is it my untrained eye, or does the art museum have no clothes? Which is to say, does this type of art exude a greatness that I am simply blind to, or has the art world trumped up the pedestrian in the guise of the sublime?

Do I lack the capacity or facility to comprehend or appreciate the offbeat and transcendent? Do these pieces fail to inspire me because I am not conversant in the history leading up to them, nor the context from whence they came? Is it that modern art has strewn too far from the path of accessibility – that it is so immersed in what it’s responding to that it fails to exist or engage on its own terms? Or is it that, at the end of the day, a box is just a box – that all the meaning and intentionality an artist or critic attempts to imbue in a piece are simply puffery – the trappings of high-minded appreciation and intellectual escapism attached to something that cannot sustain them? The honest answer is a cop out, but it’s the only response I can give – I simply don’t know.

One of Lee Ufan's works on display at The Guggenheim featured a series of rocks placed on pillows.

Creativity as Modern Art’s Driving Force

When viewing modern art, my kneejerk reaction is often “I could have made this.” This critique is both perfectly understandable and patently unfair. Those of us who receive even minimal education in art are exposed to the image-forging masters of the Renaissance and beyond. We’re introduced to the scope of Michelangelo’s artistry at the Sistine Chapel, the simple but haunting beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the creative brushstrokes and masterful vision in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. When viewing these works, we cannot help but marvel at the talent and skill of their creators. For the vast majority of us, we know that these artists have risen to a standard we could never hope to meet. Above and beyond the essential beautiful, gripping nature of these works, the skill and effort that went into their creation is part of what makes each piece so impressive.

Much of modern art lacks that same ability to impress based on required skill alone. Lines on a canvas or chunks of granite cannot conjure up the same sort of awed reaction to mastery of form as the works of those well-known classical artists. On the other hand, the best response to the criticism of “I could have done that” is usually “but would you think to do that?”

There are works in great art museums that require no more technical skill than that of your average individual, but do require an incredible sense of creativity and imagination. While the raw talent or skill that’s shown by depicting lifelike scenes or portraying the human body may wow us, inventiveness, ingenuity, and novelty in expression are all equally valid components in making great art. What modern art may lack in pure technical skill, it balances with sheer originality and defiance of expectation.

Modern Artist Hans-Peter Feldman won an award given by the Guggenheim for contemporary art, netting him $100,000. In his resulting installation, Feldman pinned this exact amount in one dollar bills to the walls of the Guggenheim's exhibition room.

Indeed, a strong part of what makes today’s “mash-up culture” legitimate is the idea that one need not create a work from scratch to for it to be valid, personal, or worthwhile. The ability to take preexisting materials, juxtapose them, and recombine them to offer a different view or a different message is just as much art and just as much worthy of recognition and protection. Creativity alone is a talent, and when used to express something compelling or poignant, it can serve as the foundation for great art, regardless of the level of technical expertise necessary to make that art.

Smoke or Substance?

On the other hand, that element of expression is often where I falter – where I view modern art and cannot help but think “the emperor has no clothes.” In the audio tour for Ufan’s pieces, the Guggenheim’s curators offer such glowing praise. They speak of the deep insight evinced by what ostensibly appears to be a nondescript pile of rocks. It’s not difficult to imagine these same curators mistaking an pile of the janitor’s cleaning supplies for one of Ufan’s works and heaping the same manner of praise as to what sort of “statement” the artist is making. I find myself wondering whether one can genuinely find the message in some of these pieces, or whether these critics and interpreters are attaching meaning where none exists.

I fully acknowledge that this is unfair to Ufan, and that, whatever the result, there is much greater intention in what he is trying to do with his art. The question is not whether Ufan and artists mean to be profound – clearly they do – it’s whether their works provide enough of a base to support such profundity.

Lee Ufan's "Relatum" (formerly "Phenomena and Perception A," 1969)

Ufan’s piece Relatum (formerly Phenomena and Perception A, 1969) is a case in point. In the piece, Ufan presents three rocks laid on a latex band marked as a measuring tape. As the Guggenheim describes it, “The weight of the rocks causes the band to stretch and buckle, disrupting the system of measurement it codes and reminding us of the capriciousness of rational truth: what you see is a result of where you stand.” The curator of the Guggenheim continued to gush about the stark and brilliant sentiment that this piece supposedly exudes.

Does it make me a philistine if I wonder how someone can glean all that from a few rocks on measuring tape? With this piece in particular, I puzzled over how so minimal a presentation could evoke such complexity and insight. It doesn’t help that a piece of such “depth” is conveniently located next to the Guggenheim’s snack shop.

Am I truly missing something when the curators go on about how a particular piece emphasizes the “reflective nature of impermanence” when all I see is a piece that ought to be called “broken skate ramp”? Ufan himself attaches great philosophical significance to ideas like creating “a controlled accident,” but the result is another rock, this time on a broken pane of glass. He offers a painting that is nothing but a series of vertical lines made in pencil, and analogizes life and humanity as a series of lines and dots. Something may be lost in translation, but it all ends up sounding like mumbo-jumbo to me. It rings of the vague descriptors and murky, dime store existentialism that could be attached to almost any conceivable work of art.

Broken Skate Ramp?

Art and the Importance of Context

Perhaps the best response in favor of Ufan, his colleagues, and the critics interpreting his work, is the idea of context. A series of brush strokes on a substantially blank canvas may seem trivial to the uninformed. Nevertheless, they must be viewed in conjunction with the prior movements which makeup the backdrop that all artists are working against. One cannot understand these pieces in isolation. Placed in the proper context, these statements can become clearer and potentially even more forceful, and when contrasted with the call and response of the larger art world, their significance shines through.

This is a fair argument, and one I have firsthand knowledge of in a different area. I have often struggled to explain to others why “anti-humor” appeals to me. Anti-humor is a brand of comedy where the “joke” is often the fact that there is no joke. The quintessential example of anti-humor is the shaggy dog story, where an elaborate setup does not end in an uproarious punch line, but in a lame pun or some other form of anticlimax. The comedy lies in the very idea of ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The concept of this brand of humor has completely baffled some of my friends and cohorts. My attempts at explanation often result in responses of “how can it be funny if the point is that there’s no joke” or simply, “I don’t get it.” Much of the grist for anti-humor’s mill comes from subverting people’s expectations for humor and the structure of comedy. It’s comedy’s version of Dadaism, and in order for the humor to really come through, you have to understand what it’s subverting.

Andy Kaufman is one of the best-known devotees of anti-humor.

The same might also be said for Modern Art. That it is a means of subverting expectations of what art is supposed to be. It is intended to challenge the preconceived notions about art and exhibition generally. Its practitioners use unique and unusual methods to portray their works and present their ideas. Modern artists do not necessarily work in the expected medium, and when they do, they frequently do so in an unexpected manner. Lee Ufan may be aspiring toward what could be termed “elegance in simplicity.” Understood in the proper context, these pieces that fail to speak to me, a member of the great unwashed masses, could send a powerful message to those informed enough to hear it.

Yet, I often find the arguments about the importance of context and perspective with respect to modern art unavailing, on the grounds that the art ought to, in large part, speak for itself. My resistance to this mode of thinking not only conflicts with my love of anti-humor, but it also puts me at odds with my own views on literary interpretation. I have often argued against the interpretive approach of “deconstruction” on the basis that what the author meant, what the author was trying to express and accomplish, matters. Do these self-contradictions make me a hypocrite? Quite possibly. At base, however, I believe I am concerned about the same sort of problem in each case.

When it comes to literature, a given author writes their work with some particular intention – some message or mood or sentiment that they intend to express. Deconstruction turns that deliberateness on its ear, abandoning authorial intent as a valid factor in interpretation. My fear about this technique is that it leads the interpreter too far afield. Due in no small part to the inherent vagaries of language generally, and the English language in particular, deconstruction allows those who employ it to read into otherwise clear text whatever message or point they wish.

This is a problem that rarely arises in comedy. While certain types of humor, particularly satire, make larger points and present issues of interpretation, at its core most comedy comes down to the binary issue of whether a joke is capable of making you laugh or not.  In literature, by contrast, gleaning the larger point of the work is the heart of the matter for an engaged and interested reader. Deconstruction turns this into a perilously open-ended inquiry. While it’s perfectly fair to take into account what the author actually achieved versus what they intended, completely disregarding the intended meaning of a work can lead to interpretations that seem practically divorced from the actual substance of the text.

My issue with modern art is the other side of the same coin. A pile of rocks, even when the author’s intent is documented or well-known, could mean absolutely anything. This lends these pieces to such a limitless plethora of interpretations as to render them almost devoid of any inherent meaning. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is not a bug, but a feature, and the absence of grounded meaning is what modern artists desire to express. It still leaves me unmoved. I still look at that pile of rocks and feel unchallenged, as though the author is not truly speaking to me, and it lessens the work in my eyes.

This Ufan piece entitled "Dissonance" consists of metal rods and rocks.

By that same token, if I need some extrinsic details as to what the author meant in order to truly appreciate a work of art, then the work itself feels somewhat incomplete to me. Certainly not all art is self-contained. Indeed, one of the fundamental tenets underlying fair use doctrine in American copyright law, and a rationale behind much of the copyright reform movement generally, is the idea that all works depend to a certain extent on context and influence, borrowed from elsewhere and necessary for understanding. All art is viewed through a cultural lens that is essential to give the work, be it visual art, cinema, literature, or music, a comprehensible meaning.

What bothers me is that often modern art takes this idea too far. If what you offer is figuratively, and sometimes literally, a blank canvas that merely invites the viewer to project their own meaning, then in what sense have you truly expressed something as an artist? Similarly, if a piece makes no sense on its own, if its meaning can only be discerned from outside sources, then in what sense have you truly created something expressive? While, to a certain extent, all art must be viewed in context, to some extent it must also speak for itself.

Critics, Curators, and Seeing What Is or Isn’t There

Moreover, the vague superlatives used to describe such pieces only prompt me to cast a skeptical eye toward the pieces themselves. The Guggenheim’s own website describes Ufan’s style in terms of “[h]is distilled gestures, manifesting an extraordinary ethics of restraint, [that] create an emptiness that is paradoxically generative and vivid.” It’s difficult to discern what such doublespeak even means.  If the words used to describe a work seemingly have no meaning, then what does that say about the work itself? More than anything, this sort of description invites inquiries into whether the experts of the art world truly view these pieces with more acuity and depth than your average museum-goer, or whether they’re lost in a world of smoke and mirrors.

True, some ideas are too complex or too visceral to be adequately put into words. These are the gaps that art is supposed to fill. Particular kinds of art – visual art and music for example – can reach out to the viewer or listener on a more emotional, instinctive level. They can convey a concept, one poignant and fully formed, that defies a more particular dissection or academic break down. It may simply be that these feeble attempts to translate the essence of a piece of visual art into raw text are the truest example of a picture being worth a thousand words. These curators may simply be falling short, or at least using the more eclectic phrases in their linguistic toolbox, in an attempt to use language to capture something truly ineffable.

One of Lee Ufan's paintings that was featured in The Guggenheim exhibition.

Still, I cannot help but wonder about the extent to which highfalutin words are a result of either reading into what is not there, or buying into a herd mentality. For all the flowery modifiers used to describe it, a rock may be just a rock. For all the fawning crowds that come to see it, sheet metal may just be sheet metal. For all the grand significance attached to them, indiscriminate lines on a canvas may be worth no more than my own absent minded doodles on notebook paper. A sufficiently interested or invested mind can take these bare inputs and imbue them with any meaning imaginable. Human beings are adept at seeing what we would like to see, where it’s there or not.

To the point, I do wonder how many people who champion such works truly “get” them, and how many simply want to appreciate these pieces so badly that they’re capable of convincing themselves they understand. I have no doubt that there are true believers. Yet, at the heart of the “emperor has no clothes” story is the message that when the rest of the crowd claims to see something, even something illusory, we can convince ourselves that it’s really there. This self-deception can happen even when that belief is contradicted by our own two eyes. Surely not all modern art, nor its critics, can be painted with this same broad brush, but how much of this avant-garde art has true substance and how much of it is the product of our collective, lionizing blindness?

The Modern vs. The Masters

Part of this query stems from the inevitable comparisons between modern art and the more classical, celebrated, and familiar works. One need only look at the pieces in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection to see the contrast. Monet’s swirling impressionist paintings, Van Gogh’s dream-like vistas, and Picasso’s stark figures are all on display. The works of these great artists grabbed me before I had even bothered read the nearby little placard informing me who created them.

Picasso's "Woman Ironing" on display at The Guggenheim.

This also held true for artists like Kandisnky, who was no stranger to subverting the norms which dictate that a work ought to depict something real or familiar. He created evocative pieces that utilized color and form to create dazzling paintings. The Guggenheim features a number of pieces from his “Bauhaus Period” that experimented with pigments and geometric figures. Though these pieces contrast with the neighboring works of Monet, Van Gogh, and even Picasso, they still manage to burst with life and artistry. The way his “Several Circles” pops off the canvas in a flurry of intersecting shapes and hues demonstrates that one need not adhere to the rules of classical form to create an artistic masterpiece.

Kandinsky's "Several Circles" was one of the pieces that most impressed me at The Guggenheim.

I have to remind myself that these artists also pushed the boundaries of their time. The audio tour described how even Picasso’s more traditional works played with perspective and off-kilter presentations. I read about how a seemingly innocuous painting of a countryside village was considered vulgar in its time for depicting peasant life at all, and particularly in such unromantic terms. Perhaps the critics of the day looked at these now renowned works with the same puzzlement with which I now see Ufan’s art. Whether or not Ufan’s pieces in particular are of true merit, this historical perspective behooves me to at least continue to strive – to keep an open mind and make a good faith effort to appreciate such art on its own terms, even when I fail to do so.

Ignorance as a Barrier to Entry

Maybe I’m the modern art equivalent of Roger Ebert, who declared, with all the understanding of a middle-schooler dumping on Shakespeare after reading The Bard for the first time, that video games could not be art. In his subsequent explanation for this view, he only revealed his ignorance as to the subject-matter he dismissed. Each additional critique served only to reinforce the idea that while he may be a definitive film critic, he was truly out of his element when it came to this unfamiliar medium. There is a depth and genuine artistic quality to the works he derided, and this depth simply eluded him. Perhaps I am doing the same here. Perhaps by invoking these criticisms I am only exposing my own inability to understand.

I am the first to admit that both my education and knowledge regarding art are anything but extensive. I am, at best, a dilettante. I cannot, nor would I, claim that I can truly see Ufan’s work, or any art, in perfect perspective. I see his works absent the context of the larger movements in art to which he and others were both influenced by and fought against. At base, it may be that I am just too uninformed, too uninitiated, to be able to validly criticize modern art.

This fluffy box was one Ufan's works that I did like, possible because it reminded me of the weighted companion cube.

If so, I am not alone. When walking through the Guggenheim, a middle-aged man with graying temples and a quizzical expression asked me if I understood one of the works on display. I did my best to explain to him my fairest approximation of Ufan’s message. I tried to elucidate, as the gentleman put it, “what’s the point?” He simply shook his head at my explanation. He described how at another museum, one of the pieces on display came about as the result of an artist shooting a single high-pressure blast of paint on a blank canvas. He shrugged his shoulders, gave me a look of incredulity, and said, “can you believe this is what they call art?”

There is a struggle for anyone creating art, regardless of medium, to make something that is both transcendent but also accessible. These two competing interests often conflict with one another. Every author wants to write a story with nuance and subtlety, but must balance these aims against the goal of ensuring that the reader still understands the message. Every musician must weigh the complexity of an intricate musical phrase against the demands of making something melodic and pleasing to the ear. A visual artist must find a middle ground between creating a work that challenges the viewer, defying their expectations, and making something that simply goes over their audience’s heads.

If Ufan can be said to have strayed too far toward the latter, then I believe he does so unapologetically. If an artist genuinely believes in the greatness of what they’re creating, or perhaps just feels compelled to create independently of any audience reaction, then the goal becomes simply to make a work that the artist himself is satisfied with. Many of the great artists who are now household names – Van Gogh, Thoreau, Poe, Bach, Dickinson,  – were ridiculed or flat out ignored in their own times, only for later generations to discover their talent. Some artists create with no regard to the response, with the pursuit of creating art being a worthy one in and of itself. Others create knowing that certain individuals, those well-versed in that illuminating context, will understand. For those artists, that’s enough. Still others look at these giants of culture who were unappreciated in their lifetimes and create with an eye for the ages, in the hopes that eventually, the world will catch up and appreciate their work. For the time being, however, the result is often that people like me and my puzzled friend from The Guggenheim are left scratching our heads.

*     *     *

The question remains – what makes great art? However fractured the views, enough consensus exists to consider certain works “classics” and teach them in our schools. Indeed, enough consensus exists to feature this modern art exhibition at one of the most prestigious art museums in the world. It’s enough to prompt myself and thousands of others to spend time and money exploring it. So what are the standards by which we are to judge? What measuring stick can we hold art against?

The firmest conclusion I can reach on this issue is the one that contract law portends – that art is something so individual that no exhibition and indeed no school or movement of art is either beyond one’s ability to appreciate nor inherently flawed, fallow, or false. Some people see Ufan’s rocks on the measuring line and not only understand, but genuinely feel his sentiments on time and life and existence. Others see only a few strewn chunks of sediment and a stretch of rubber tape. Neither view is invalid, at least not in and of itself. Ufan himself attempted to express the notion that the truth of the matter depends on one’s perspective. Here, art is no exception.

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6 Responses to The Untrained Eye or The Art Museum Has No Clothes?

  1. rottenartist says:

    This is the most thoughtful exploration of the challenges of contemporary art that I’ve ever read.

  2. Fernando says:

    I’m impressed with the essay. I must say I visited the exhibit and found it one of the most exhilarating and moving exhibitions I’ve ever seen. And perfectly curated for the shape of the Guggenheim building. Very individual experiences indeed.

  3. Chanel says:

    Beautifully written piece; I can’t say how much I know exactly what you mean! Reading this was like seeing my own jumbled and incoherent thoughts on the topic transformed into clear and provocative articulations. Way to hit the nail on the head

  4. Mom says:

    I too struggle with modern art, but I feel the obligation is on the artist to express him/herself in a somewhat accessible manner, not for me to have to dig into the far recesses of my brain to find the answer. As to what constitutes great art, I agree with you that time is the best judge of that. Great art endures, the rest falls away. My guess is that no one will remember Ufan’s rocks in 50 years. As to what constitutes the best art, I will give you the answer I gave when I was doing wine tastings. The best art is the art you like.

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