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John Robson: Modern art is garbage, and here's more proof Modern art isn’t randomly ugly and lacking

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

John Rogidson National Post

Modern art isn’t randomly ugly and lacking it does it on purpose

How’d you like to be the guy who paid $8.3 million for a fake Rothko, “Untitled (1956)”? Or more precisely, the chairman of the board at Sotheby’s who did so? You’d think he’s the sort of person who’d know real from fake and bad from good. If these distinctions have any meaning in modern art and haven’t been transvalued, deconstructed and dumped into a jar of the artist’s own piddle.

Which brings me to another question. If the painting was good until you discovered it was by Pei Shen Qian, why’s it suddenly bad now? I grant a certain non-aesthetic value to objects d’art associated with people famous on other grounds. Even genuine, well-attested Hitler watercolours fetch five-figure sums despite their mediocrity. But it doesn’t work when the person is famous for being an artist (or, worse, for being famous).

A Jackson Pollock shouldn’t be worth more because it’s by him. Ditto a “Rothko.” According to Wikipedia that would be Mark Rothko (1903-1970) who “refused to adhere to any art movement” but “is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist.”

I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know you got to “adhere” to art movements. I thought the way you sang, sculpted or pickled sharks, put you in a certain category, so you’re chucked into the abstract rubbishist bin if you paint abstract rubbish and you don’t get a vote on it.

Evidently that’s a hopelessly bourgeois view. But I know hideous when it affronts my gaze. And the core of this scandal isn’t the fakery. It’s that modern art isn’t randomly ugly and lacking in discernable merit. It’s that it does it on purpose.

All art has a message. “Art for art’s sake” or “all in the eye of the beholder” is an infinite regress or a contemptible evasion, a brazen peddling of fake relativism. Including that trite “Untitled” name.

A painting, poem, novel or a song says something. And “modern” art, not art produced recently but art promoting self-consciously “modern” values, says life is horrible. That’s why it’s ugly. Offensiveness, however trite, is content. (Hence all those bold artists doing Piss Christ and dung Virgin Mary don’t do Mohammed. They know perfectly well retreating into “Like, whatever, man” wouldn’t fool even an Islamist.)

The fake Rothko reported in last Wednesday’s National Post is clearly angry and unpleasant. But if you wouldn’t hang it on your wall if it weren’t “a Rothko”, dahling, you shouldn’t hang it on your wall if it is. It belongs in the bin where, with comic frequency, the charlady puts such stuff. The reason you can’t tell a good modern art from a bad fake is that all garbage stinks.

Modern art is mad, bad and dangerous to know. And apparently to buy as well.

Such diatribes invite a patronizing “You don’t understand art.” But at least I know enough to tell when I’ve been slapped in the face with a canvas, or ripped off in the spirit of pop icon Andy Warhol’s “Art is what you can get away with.”

The alternative is to admit we’ve been had, not just artistically but philosophically and ethically. And then we’d have to go back to liking art that makes us better and happier.

A surprising number of people who know very little about art know they don’t like that.

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