Update: The slide deck for this article was selected as a Slideshare Top Presentation!
Like many people, I never cared much for modern art.
It seemed an odd little world, inhabited by people who talked funny, spent all day being mesmerized by walls, and who'd snortle at the taste of uncultured brutes like me.
But fate flung me on a free fall into the heart of modern art, and I re-emerged a convert, somewhat. I now believe that learning about modern art can make all of us more creative.
*Skip straight to the visual presentation below if you'd like.
A $44 Million Dollar Doodle
My free fall began on a drab afternoon in the office, back in 2013, when a New York Times story sent me flying aghast:
Yes. Someone had paid US$43.8 million for Barnett Newman's "Onement VI" (pictured above), a painting I found no more intricate than the wall design of my parking lot.
Forty-Four Million. American Dollars.
As it turns out, this isn't unusual. This Mark Rothko painting auctioned for $46.5 million:
Such valuation was as incomprehensible to me as the physics of black holes, or the mechanics of financial derivatives. And the mystery shrouded me.
Not two days later, I happened upon a book written for the sole purpose of unraveling this mystery: What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz, the Arts Editor for the BBC.
Gompertz has a knack for making the abstract clear and concrete, and fun. And I was sucked into a most unexpected and entertaining fall into the of modern art. I would learn much about creativity, beauty, perception and even capitalism.
The main takeaway: at the pulsing heart of modern art - and of creativity - is the impulse to rebel: to break rules, defy convention, and shun propriety... to respond to any "you can't do that" with a "I gotta try it then!"
And in fact, everywhere we look - in science, politics, technology, fashion, etc. - we find the impulse to rebel powering innovation and progress. Linus Pauling, a scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, once urged students to challenge their professors: "If the professor is always right" he asked: "how could knowledge ever advance?"
Let the stories of these masters inspire the rebel in you.
Challenge the definition of "appropriate subjects". Use old materials in new ways no one ever imagined. Remix elements nobody ever thought compatible. Show the world a different way to see itself.
Modern Art is not worth $millions. Because money cannot measure its value.
Note: Modern Art can also enrich your Visual Vocabulary
Besides awakening your inner creative rebel, learning about modern art (and art in general) will also expand your visual vocabulary - the troves of images you can reference, re-jiggle and refashion to your own purpose.
This is important. With technology bringing exquisite displays to our computers, phones, tablets (and now watches), audiences often expect - and demand - visual feasts. If you can stage such feasts, you will be in demand.
And Modern art supplies a never-ending menu of visual treats that you can stir and mix into eye-popping feasts.
Popular recent works have shown us that everything is a remix, and that great artists steal. In his new book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that good writers acquire their skills not from the divine or magical, but from reading fellow, mortal writers: "They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash."
In the same way, as you absorb the vast inventory of shapes, colors and compositions that centuries of art geniuses have experimented with, you gain a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash.
Like Volkswagen did with their ad:
- I would later discover that, in the crazed market for art masterpieces, bids for single paintings can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
- John Berger's Ways of Seeing (Full series available on Youtube) is a profound (and often difficult) exploration of how "the way we see" art and images has evolved along with technology.
- Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton is a book that a museum curator recommended to me with great enthusiasm, though I have only read the first couple of chapters.