What is art? I think we’ll never have a definitive answer. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The best answer I’ve found comes from Pablo Picasso. In his 1923 Statement to Marius de Zayas, he wrote that “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” (De Zayas was a Mexican intellectual, gallery owner, and illustrator who first met Picasso in 1910.)
For Picasso, art is not life, but a representation of life, i.e., a lie. And for him art has a duty to deliver truth, thereby distinguishing it from entertainment, which may contain elements of truth but is intended primarily as diversion. His dependent clause (“at least the truth that is given us to understand”) may be a nod to Christian humility, but to me it constitutes a broader acknowledgement of our limitations. Even Shakespeare, guilty of Titus Andronicus, must have realized that his intellect was too bounded, his craft too inadequate, and the demands of audience and artistic form too confining to convey the truth of all he thought and felt. Art is good for the soul, but it gets us only so far.
So when evaluating modern art, what better definition to use than the wise one put forth by its founder? It gives us a basis for judging the quality of new, often mystifying work: how skillful is the lie, and how profound is the truth?
If you’ve seen Up Van Goghs with a Fire Hose, my only post from Europe, you know how I feel about modern art. But let me be fair: more than 99 percent of the so-called art in any age is forgettable. While Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley were writing poetry still worth reading today, the United Kingdom’s poets laureate were Henry James Pye and Robert Southey. Yeah, that’s right: who? And for every Pye and Southey, there were thousands more scribblers even grad students don’t read anymore.
As I roamed the modern art exhibits in the National Gallery of Denmark, the Rundetarn in Copenhagen, the National Gallery of Norway, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, I applied Picasso’s definition to what I saw, hoping it would help me identify the half-percent of recent output that might still be looked at a couple of centuries from now.
Turned out it wasn’t very helpful.
Much of the time I couldn’t figure out what the lie was, much less what truth it revealed. Take for example Atsuko Tanaka’s “Sakuhin” (“Work of Art” or “Performance”), created in 1955 and reconstructed in 2011:
Looking at it as sympathetically as possible, the only lie I could think of was “pink sheets are always tacked up to walls!” and the only truth I could come up with was “wind is a form of energy.”
The other possibility was that Tanaka was being ironic: she was aware of Picasso’s definition and called her lie-less, truth-less installation “Work of Art” to undercut his definition, her life’s work, or both — and (with all respect to the Moderna Museet’s curators) to mock anyone stupid enough to buy the thing.
If that was the case, she was part of a line of hucksters that, to my knowledge, started with Marcel Duchamp and his “conceptual art.” Duchamp, whose works enjoy pride of place in the Moderna Museet, would take an ordinary object like a shovel, comb, or urinal, put it in a box or suspend it from the ceiling, give it a title, and sell it for as much as the market would bear. From my perspective that’s not art, that’s theft. The object was designed and manufactured by others. He added nothing but his name, paving the way for Warhol, Koons, and others whose “artistic vision” follows similar logic:
1. There are lots of people with more money than they will ever need, including museum curators.
2. Those people are constantly looking to diversify their asset portfolio.
3. Art is an asset.
4. In keeping with Carlo Cipolla’s first basic law of human stupidity, we inevitably underestimate the number of stupid individuals in any demographic, including the super-rich and museum curators.
5. Therefore all I have to do to succeed in art is to pick an ordinary object, package it cleverly, and market it to stupid rich people and curators.
Another popular genre of modern art is the earnest, often political, piece. You can readily identify the lie and the truth, but as a rule the lie is uninspired and the truth is trite. Take, for instance, this work from 2016, hanging in the Rundetarn as part of an exhibit on modern responses to the Protestant Reformation:
Hey, too bad they didn’t make a poster! I’d have loved to put it in my living room between the one of a yellow smiley face and the one of a kitten clinging to a tree branch.
I did see some stuff I liked. Lise Blomberg Andersen’s “Work in Progress” from 2016 was also at the Rundetarn.
To me, the work’s unfinished aspect is a way of showing that the work of life is unfinished — so many more cups to pour for someone, so much routine, etc.
And then there was Francis Picabia’s 1925 “First Meeting” at the Moderna Museet. Here’s how much my job has poisoned my thoughts: I looked at this painting and thought “Unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature! Someone call the Title IX office!”
Ultimately, my search for great modern art in Scandinavia proved disappointing. There were too many works like Tanaka’s, lacking in lies and truth and leaving me with a desperate need to provide them. In Tanaka’s case, I just couldn’t help myself: