Man vs Critics: Modern Art

There are some truly great mysteries in life.

Are we alone in the universe?

What happens after we die? 

Did aliens build the pyramids? According to the history channel, yes. 

Why do so many people listen to Lewis Capaldi? 

The biggest mystery of all to me, however, is the world of modern art. I have never been able to understand why some paintings, which at a glance look like something I could have produced when I was either in nursery or at the pub, can sell for massive amounts of money. Mark Rothko’s No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), which to me is about as simple as a painting can get. It’s a canvas with some blocks of different colours, a Microsoft Paint job if I’ve ever seen one, but was sold at auction in 2014 for 186 million dollars. Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A went for 200 million dollars in 2015, and it looks like a toddler has wandered into a room that his parents are in the middle of doing up and accidentally kicked over several tins of paint.

Simply put, I don’t get it.

But there must be something to it, right? People aren’t paying incredible, exorbitant amounts of money for these paintings for no reason, there’s obviously something missing, something that I’m just not seeing. There are museums around the world dedicated to this stuff, galleries filled wall to wall with works of art that people flock to see and appreciate. 

I don’t get it, but I want to.

So, to that end, I thought the most prudent thing to do would be to take a trip to go and see some modern art.

There are a lot of very famous art museums dotted around the globe. The Louvre in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

I didn’t go to any of these places. 

Instead, I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Both because I am poor and can’t afford to go to any of those other places and because of the unfortunate global pandemic which is still ongoing. 

I’m not putting down the National Gallery, by the way. It houses works by the likes of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Real big-time stuff. I just wanted to make clear I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage to any art Meccas of the world.

I thought the best way to truly test my ignorance and see if I had any hope of ever understanding modern art was to write down my thoughts while there and compare them to the thoughts of some actual art critics. If I wasn’t that far off what some of them were saying, maybe there was still a chance that I could become an art connoisseur, a sophisticated admirer of the finer things in life, able to appreciate the subtleties of each brushstroke, the intricacies of the work on display.

Here’s how it went:

Man Laughing (Portrait of Tom Morris) (Samuel John Peploe, 1902)

Logan: “This painting was particularly appealing to me because the gentleman who is the subject of the painting looks like someone I would run into down the local pub. One of those guys who comes over to your table absolutely sloshed and starts telling you his life story, giving you advice or making strange and unwelcome comments while swaying back and forth uncomfortably close to your face. I can relate to this one.”

Art critic Charley Parker: “Peploe’s textural paint surface and strong geometry are wonderful, his painterly realism with its darker palette and subdued compositions, I find extraordinary. Every mark, every stroke, every dab of colour adds to the whole; nothing is wasted or inessential.”

This guy and I are both fans at least, maybe for different reasons though. 

Lobster Telephone (Salvador Dalí, 1938)

Logan: “I love lobsters, I love phones. I love this”

Art critic Duncan Ballantyne-Way: “A work that epitomises the decadent humour of the Surrealists, Lobster Telephone revels in the audiences’ bewilderment at its simple incongruity. The combination of items never normally associated together produces something playful but quite menacing.” 

That’s basically what I said.

Row of Cottages (Joan Eardley, Date unknown)

Logan: “I had a look at this painting, then I had a look at the description of the painting on the plaque next to it on the wall. Are there f*ck any cottages in this painting, I’m not having it. There is not a single discernible cottage to be found anywhere in this painting, never mind an entire f*cking row of them. F*ck off Joan.”

Art critic Christiana Spens: “By combining the freedom of abstract expressionism along with the familiarity of local places, Eardley invokes a wild sublime in these Scottish scenes that remain unique and arresting.”

Joan Eardley should be arrested for lying about there being any cottages in this painting, it’s false advertising.

Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach (Pablo Picasso, 1932)

Logan: “I tried to approach this painting from several different angles, literally. Picasso says there’s a nude woman here, I see an egg, an anchor, a few triangles and what appears to be a sort of child’s cartoon drawing of a sea-serpent. I don’t want to be a contrarian since I know Picasso is incredibly popular, so I’ll say it’s pretty cool regardless.”

I couldn’t find anything anywhere specifically related to this exact Picasso painting (I bet all the Picasso paintings in the Tate Modern have a Wikipedia entry at the very least), all I could find were articles that said Picasso is one of the greatest and most influential painters of all time, that his works are essentially untouchable, and I am an idiot for not appreciating his style. So, there you go.

In the Car (Roy Lichtenstein, 1963)

Logan: “Pop-art is the one art style I actually know and can say with confidence that I like. Mostly because it’s all bright, colourful (which appeals to my childish magpie brain) and comic-booky. It’s all surface level, I don’t feel like I need a PHD to understand the meaning of the paintings. Like this one, In the Car. There are two people in a car, a guy and a girl, going fast, and the guy is looking at the girl. Simple and easy. More like this please.” 

Art critic Skye Sherwin: “An early work derived from comic strips, this features Lichtenstein’s recreation of the mass media’s Ben-Day dots printing process.

The artist has zoomed in on his source material, upping the drama of the man’s predatory glance and the woman’s hard gaze. Blown up to huge proportions and realised smoothly by the artist’s invisible hand, Lichtenstein’s beaus vibrate with the energy of the confident, capitalist post-war US.” 

Ok. Maybe it’s not quite as simple as I made it out to be. I don’t see any confident capitalism vibrating from this painting, but what do I know.

F*ck all, it would seem.

Portrait of Maurice (Andy Warhol, 1976)

Logan: “I like this one a lot. It’s by Andy Warhol, one of my favourite figures of the 60’s counterculture scene, and it’s a slightly psychedelic painting of his friend’s dog. Ticks all the boxes for me. Pretty confident there’s no hidden meaning or subtext to this painting either, it’s just Andy Warhol’s pal’s dog. This would take pride of place on any wall in any house I lived in.”

Again, I struggled to find any criticism or analysis of this individual painting, which reinforces my idea that it is a simple painting of a dog with no greater meaning, and that the critics maybe thought it was beneath them to waste their time talking about dog artwork. Those rascals. 

L’Appel de la Nuit (Paul Delvaux, 1938)

Logan: “There is certainly a lot going on in this painting. A fair amount of nudity, some skeletons, eerie, desolate landscapes and a woman with a tablecloth over her head holding what appears to be some sort of ancient bong. It’s unsettling and also amusing at the same time. I wouldn’t hang it up in my own place because I’d be afraid the art would come to life at night and murder me in my sleep, but it’s still kind of cool.”

Art critic Rebecca Fattell: “For surrealists like Paul Delvaux, this critique and re-examination of the “known” or “normative” was accomplished by getting past the repressive function of the mind and gaining access to an unconscious realm – the realm of imagination, poetry, madness and desire – to reveal a double reality: a fantastic, unconscious reality that existed but was overlooked by a society beholden to utility. Ultimately, Delvaux aimed to bring the two realms of the conscious and the unconscious together and remake a reality exclusively subsumed to rationality and utility into one (a sur-reality).”

This paragraph is even more unsettling than the f*cking painting. 

At a certain point, I decided I’d had enough art for the day. It was swelteringly hot inside the gallery, and the hordes of people dressed in cardigans, brown trousers and loafers (despite the weather) were starting to make me feel seriously uncomfortable. The way they shuffled silently from painting to painting was zombie-like, and I was worried they would recognise that I didn’t belong in their domain before tearing me to pieces. My odyssey in the art world came to an end. 

I’m still not entirely sure where I’ve landed on modern art. On the surface level, I can enjoy and appreciate a lot of it. The bright, bold colours that are found in Pop-art. The pure insanity flowing throughout the works of Salvador Dalí. The abstract weirdness of Picasso. It’s all quite charming in its own way. But charm doesn’t explain why people are willing to part with millions and millions to get their hands on this stuff. 

The only reasonable conclusion I can come to is that all these people who are spending incredible amounts of money on art are extremely stupid. Either that or they are all involved in money laundering.

I’m joking, of course. This experiment has made it clear to me, that like most things, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If someone is willing to pay all that money for a painting, they must really love it. Or they really, really want to impress someone. 

All I know is if I had enough money, I’d go back to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. I’d make an appointment with one of their curators, and I’d explain to them how much I desperately want to purchase Joan Eardley’s Row of Cottages. I’d tell them how much I love it and how much I would cherish it, looking upon it fondly each and every day. I’d tell them I’ll pay any figure, whatever it takes to get that painting home with me.

Then, when I got home, with Row of Cottages in tow, I’d take it out into the back garden, where a large bonfire would be waiting. 

And I’d throw it right f*cking in. 

Written by Logan Walker

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