Art for Art’s Sake: Do You Like the Painting, or The Name at the Bottom?

Do you like abstract art? Do you like these two paintings? Can you decide which one is worth 75 million dollars? It was the red and blues squares on the left, not the triangles. (The other two sold in the tens of millions at previous auctions.) Yes, it would take Alex Rodriguez, on his 25 million a year contract, over three years to save up enough to buy this masterpiece of color and inspiration. Maybe it’s worth that kind of money to the collector who purchased it recently at a Sotheby’s auction, but that seems like such a large sum of money for a decorated canvas. It’s basically unimaginable money for the newly famous 99%ers. We don’t have millions to spend on art, so college kids put up framed posters of Scarface and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Adults find nice, unobtrusive floral or nature prints for 50$ at Ikea or the familiar wine bottles with French words at Bed, Bath and Beyond to round out their newly mortgaged wall space. Perhaps we have some of our best black and white photos of honeymoons or vacations, but nobody is putting their million dollar, original Pollock or Miró above the couch.

I taught an art class back in spring for my kindergartners to show off their English skills for their parents. We studied the big names and the big paintings. The kids loved to come up front and do their best imitation of Munch’s deliriously effusive—“The Scream.” I enjoyed the class so much; I asked to continue teaching it once a week to all three of the kindergarten classes. Now, we have studied over 20 artists from all over the world. The kids always surprise me with their talent and ability to see new things in these famous images. However, they do find it hard to do portraits or reality. Abstract art suits their capabilities of representation much better. They find it more freeing to draw things as they want them to be (i.e. abstract) not as they actually are (i.e. still life or portrait).

Abstract art is one of the newest forms of painting. Some credit Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky or any of the diverse and talented painters of the early 20th century with starting the movement. One thing is for sure—it is still popular enough to garner multi-million dollar figures at global auctions.

There are so many levels of abstraction. There are the intersecting lines of Mondrian, the cubism of Picasso, the nudes and colors of Matisse, the surrealism of Dali, the pop art of Warhol and Johns, the visceral bluntness of Dadaism and many more varieties. Art is what is made. Art is emotion and desire and passion. Art lives in us all, and we all find different outlets for our art. Did you ever see a man on a riding mower? You think he doesn’t look at the lawn afterwards and smile the smile of a man who knows something looks better from his efforts? Did you ever make a doodle and feel proud? Children draw what they see, and without a filter of reality. Art is important. Art is expensive. Or maybe it’s just popular art that is so expensive.

I saw the price tag of Rothko’s “Royal Red and Blue” and couldn’t believe that three colored squares on a backdrop pink context could sell that high. I had heard of his work, but never really seen more than one or two, and didn’t realize he had a plethora of these ‘multiform’ paintings. He basically believed that to truly and subjectively experience art, one must take all form and concrete images out of the piece. It must be flat yet deep, colored yet blank, simple yet complex. He painted them very large, so that it would envelop the viewer and they could ‘experience’ the painting.

I didn’t believe him. But, the more I looked, the more emotions I kept feeling through these vortexes of colors, through these palettes of sensation. I found myself understanding, but frustrated that I didn’t do it. A classic argument toward certain abstract art is: “I could do that,” or “My five-year old could paint that.” And in this case, with Rothko, I think you could try. But, would it actually succeed? Would your colors be as vexing and soothing and delicate? Would you pick colors that clashed too harshly or blended too dimly? Did you ever think about painting Campbell’s soup cans or signing your name onto a urinal or coating a canvas with black and calling it art? Well, somebody did, and they are in the MoMA’s all around the world now. The funny thing is: Rothko criticized the Warhol generation of painters and didn’t like their style. Sinatra hated the rockers of the 60’s. Age begets wisdom; wisdom begets the mistaken belief that you did it the only good way.


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