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Today I want to talk about art. It pains me to say this but — and I know this is a broad generalisation — the Internet just doesn’t get art. Most online discussions of art, especially modern art, miss the point entirely.

Part of the issue is that the Internet has taken art out of the gallery and brought it everywhere. While this can be a wonderful thing, for off-the-wall pieces of modern art, it can expose them to people in a context that makes them hard to appreciate.

Take the article linked above. Tracey Emin, a critically acclaimed British artist, has an installation piece called “My Bed”. While it is, in essence, a messy bed, there is a lot more to it than that. Emin created it in the middle of a three-day breakdown; the soiled sheets, empty vodka bottles, and other items are not recreations but the real thing. It is an incredibly honest and powerful piece. Emin is putting her most private life on display. And AOL’s headline? “Messy bed is worth millions”. That just misses the point.

While modern art suffers the most from this misrepresentation, even more accessible forms of creative expression like Hollywood movies are affected. In particular, movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, and other films where the main character is a likeable anti-hero are often subjected to Tweets and articles accusing them of glorifying their subjects. Scorsese is not celebrating Belfort; he is taking down the people who do.

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Let’s look at why that’s the case.

What I’m Calling Art

Any good discourse is built from common foundations, so let’s start simply and consider what I mean by art. Some things are unquestionably art: the Mona Lisa, other great Renaissance works, most things painted by someone with an Italian sounding name, and anything Andy Warhol touched.

What is, and isn’t art, though, is normally a much trickier question. To me, and this definition is open to disagreement, art is about intention and emotion. If someone creates something and intends to make other people feel something about it, then it’s art. If there’s no intention to create an emotion, then it isn’t. This is what separates an Ikea instruction manual from the poetry of W.B. Yeats.

Art is Another Language

One major reason the Internet struggles to understand art is that it’s created in another language.

Just like every other field of human endeavour, art has its own special language. If you’re a scientist, the word theory means something completely different to you than it does to most regular people: just consider how people talk about the theory of evolution Dinosaurs? Google Gives an Answer from Creationism, Not Science. Here's Why... Dinosaurs? Google Gives an Answer from Creationism, Not Science. Here's Why... Google is apparently a creationist organization – one that thinks dinosaurs are used to indoctrinate children into believing that earth is millions of years old. Read More . To a scientist, a theory is a hypothesis that has withstood repeated attempts to disprove it. To a layperson, it’s just an idea that may or may not be true. Thus, the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution and plenty of other things we understand to be as close to scientific fact as possible are theories, but so too is my theory that Patrick Stewart is actually a giant lizard.

If you speak the language of science, calling “Patrick Stewart is a lizard” a theory is laughable. However, if I drunkenly say down the pub, “My theory is Patrick Stewart is a giant lizard”, I’ll get laughed at, but no one will bat an eye that I used the word “theory”.

The world of art is similar, except that the language of art is primarily visual rather than verbal.

Taking The Wolf of Wall Street again, while the story taken out of context may seem to celebrate Belfort, when taken together with how the film is shot, how Belfort is portrayed on screen, and everything else that goes into a movie other than the script, it’s clear that Belfort is the villain. It’s the same with Emin’s bed. While at the surface level it is just a messy bed, that’s like saying this article is just a random collection of unrelated words. Everything in the bed stands for, and means, a lot more than just it’s outward appearance.

The Relatable Example: Hollywood Movies

Before getting to the crazy, out there, staple-yourself-to-the-cobblestones-in-Moscow world of modern art, let’s take a deeper look at the most popular forms of art in modern culture: Hollywood movies.

Some people will argue that Hollywood movies like the latest big budget superhero film The Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review for Geeks The Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review for Geeks The Avengers are back, this time doing battle against a murderous AI. But is The Avengers: Age of Ultron worth watching? Read our spoiler-free review below to find out. Read More don’t count but they’re wrong. Even a film like Mad Max The Mad Max: Fury Road Movie Review for Geeks... One Long Crazy Car Chase The Mad Max: Fury Road Movie Review for Geeks... One Long Crazy Car Chase 30 years after Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, George Miller revisits post-apocalyptic Australia with a new Mad Max movie. Is Mad Max: Fury Road worth watching? Read our spoiler-free review to find out. Read More was created with huge amounts of intention for the express purpose of making people feel something.

One of my favorite movie critics, Film Crit Hulk (once you get past the ALL CAPS and Hulk references – it’s worth it, trust me) wrote an essay the four levels of how we consume movies. In what way we understand and enjoy a film is tied directly to the level we view it at. No one level is superior to the others – they are just different takes on the same piece of media.

Film Crit Hulk’s four levels are:

People Who Experience Movies in a State of Childlike Naïvety

According to Hulk, these are the people who have a strong sense of transference when they watch a movie. They feel like what they’re seeing is real, even though they intellectually know it isn’t. These are the people who cheer when the hero wins and write angry tweets when a favorite character dies. They’ll often avoid sad or scary films because they don’t like how they make them feel. They tend to view art as an indulgence rather than an intellectual pursuit. It’s a very naïve, but also fun, way to experience things.

People Who Have Moved Past Childlike Naïvety but Seek to Recapture It

The second group is somewhat similar to the first, except that years of exposure to movies has reduced the emotional effect. Just watching a film no longer brings about the strong sense of transference. They want to go back to the emotional highs of the first films they saw but aren’t able to. These are the people who rewatch films from their childhood to try and recapture it.

It’s at this level, and the preceding one, that people can watch The Wolf of Wall Street and tweet about how Belfort is portrayed as a hero.

People Who Can Contextualise Their Emotional Experience Intellectually

The third group are the people who go beyond just seeking a childlike experience and reflect on their emotional experience intellectually. As Hulk puts it:

THEY UNDERSTAND THAT ART ISN’T ABOUT INDULGENCE. THEY UNDERSTAND THAT THROUGH DRAMA, ART IS A GREAT WAY TO COME TO TRUE KNOWLEDGE OF LIFE AND PURPOSE. THEY COME TO UNDERSTAND THAT THE BAD THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN ART AREN’T SO MUCH ABOUT EMOTION AND ENTERTAINMENT, BUT GIVING OUR SOULS THE KINDS OF VALUABLE EXPERIENCES WE NEED. ART CAN HELP US UNDERSTAND LOSS, LOVE, DEATH, STRIFE AND HAPPINESS.

This is the first level where people really begin to understand the art. They are the people who talk about themes, semiotics, intention, and all those other words that are so often dismissed as “over-thinking”. Most actual movie criticism falls at around this level. It’s recognising that just because a character is portrayed as a hero, it doesn’t mean he is. Portraying someone as a hero and then undermining it with other techniques is a very powerful way to make a statement; it is what Scorsese does in The Wolf of Wall Street.

People Who Understand the Craft of Making Movies

The final group are people who deeply understand the craft of making movies. These are the people who have made movies for years, or have otherwise dedicated their life to them. When they watch a scene they don’t just feel emotions, they see how they are being made feel emotions. They understand what each camera movement, cut, and every other effect is meant to achieve.

What This Means for Modern Art

Everyone appreciates art from a different position and at a different level. With movies, the majority of people are somewhere between level two and three. I know that’s where I fall. I love movies enough that I like the intellectual exercise of trying to understand them Love Movies? 4 Awesome YouTube Channels You Need to Watch Love Movies? 4 Awesome YouTube Channels You Need to Watch While there are a lot of YouTube channels that focus on reviewing movies, there are some YouTubers who go beyond simple reaction videos and dig deep into what makes films special. Read More , but I also like just switching off and rewatching Zoolander for the 52nd time. Movies have such a place in popular culture that it’s hard not to become somewhat educated about them. The majority of people inherently understood that Belfort was not actually being celebrated.

Modern art, however, doesn’t have that privilege. When most people see something like Richard Prince’s New Portraits series or Emin’s My Bed, they approach it from a place of naïveté. They just see a bunch of stolen Instagram images or a messy bed. They don’t see the decades of artistic development, cultural commentary, or creativity that’s gone into it.

The Internet — and certainly the loudest voices on the Internet — just doesn’t get art. They haven’t seen enough art to develop the toolkit and understanding of the language necessary to see it as more than the sum of its parts. They just see the messy bed. The worst part is that the Internet has the power to expose people to wonderful art, it’s just that the one’s that make it into the public consciousness are often the most ou-there works, rather than clever and accessible ones.

Shakespeare is written in the same basic language as a trolling forum post, while art is written in the visual language of our culture. It’s not the letters that make Shakespeare wonderful, but what he does with them. It’s the same with modern art. You just need to step back and see it.

End Credits

Art is one of those touchy subjects that everyone has an opinion on Worse Than Hitler: Why Do Flamewars Happen? Worse Than Hitler: Why Do Flamewars Happen? Why are flamewars so common on today's web, and is it really a new phenomenon?  Read More . You’re entitled to yours and we’d love to hear it.

Do you think art is unfairly portrayed online or is it ridiculous what modern artists get away with? Can an Instagram screenshot ever be art or has there not been a decent artist since Da Vinci?

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

  1. littlemuch
    November 18, 2015 at 5:57 am

    For me, most of the modern art is just a bunch of lazy people making a mess and calling it 'art'. Personally for me, art is not just about the feeling, but also the creativity effort to make something real become unreal.
    Painting a realistic still-life is art, shipping a messy bedroom to a gallery is not.
    Photography is art, printing stolen instagram screenshots is not.
    "They just see a bunch of stolen Instagram images or a messy bed. They don’t see the decades of artistic development, cultural commentary, or creativity that’s gone into it." What creativity?
    Like I said, I might consider them art if they put some creativity effort to make it unreal.
    For example, instead of just recreating real-life size messy bedroom, recreate it in miniatures. Instead of just printing instagram screenshots, recreate them by paint or collage.

    • Harry Guinness
      November 18, 2015 at 11:27 am

      I think effort is a very poor measure of artistic merit. And there is plenty of creativity in Prince and Emin's pieces. Making something unreal hasn't been the trend of art for the past few decades, it's been all about making things real. Collages and painting just don't cut it in modern art anymore (though arguably Prince's Instagram stuff is a collage).

  2. Phid ippides
    November 12, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    I think the author of this article is missing something fundamental by criticizing those who belittle certain works of modern art. If art is defined as something a) created with b) the intention that others "feel something about it" (a definition with which I would disagree), then why can't people criticize it if what they feel about it is negative? After all, no one said that an audience's feelings toward art need be positive. And to argue that one must "know" or "learn" about a work of art before one can criticize it is also bunk. After all, who would decide whether or not a person knew enough about it before criticizing it? And wouldn't that mean that art could only be commented upon by the learned, thereby relegating it to an esoteric realm?

    In the end, I think that people have every right to belittle works like that of Tracy Emin if they want, even if they don't know anything about it apart from what they see. I think that most people inherently judge art primarily upon three factors (pretty much in this order): a) whether it has pleasing aesthetic qualities, b) the amount of skill they believe was involved in its creation, and c) the profundity of the expression that is conveyed. Based on these, I can understand why people would dismiss Emin's work as little more than a "messy bedroom".

    • Donald
      November 12, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      I couldn't have said it better myself. I think most people DO understand what artists like Tracy Emin are trying to do. I GET modern art, but some things (especially minimalistic) are completely unappealing to me as there is no emotion or level of skill involved. However, that's just my taste for art, and clearly there are plenty out there who are quite the opposite.

    • Harry Guinness
      November 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      I should have clarified more above. To feel a *specific* emotion. I don't think Emin wants anyone to dislike her bed (though Prince did want people to feel angry).

      And to criticise art with any authority one must definitely know about art in general. In the same sense that to criticise food you must have some understanding of cooking. Yes, you can say I like this, I don't like that, but the criticism has no merit. It's just a personal taste rather than an actual critique.

      Also, aesthetic quality is no measure for art. There is plenty of ugly, great art (arguably Picasso). Similarly, the skill they believe was involved in the creation is also a poor measure especially as it's often hidden. Photography is just pushing a button after all!

      People have every right to belittle Emin, I just think it's a bit ignorant. It's one thing to say, "I don't get this, it does nothing for me" which is totally fine, but it's another to say "no body should get this, it sucks".

      @Donald, Your reaction is perfect. You seem to recognise that you have a taste and that there is something to get even if it doesn't match yours. Which is what I wish more people were like!

      • Phid ippides
        November 18, 2015 at 9:37 pm

        Well, I think you're running into dangerous territory if you hold that only the learned can criticize art, and that those who do without special knowledge "have no merit". This is especially true with public commissions; imagine a room full of "learned" bureaucrats deciding that all sorts of public funds go toward this or that "great" artist, regardless of whether the masses - who will be forced to look at it on a daily basis - think that the artist is no good at all.

        I do think that people who are learned can better judge a work of art in *some* respects (e.g. historical importance), but this is not the same as being the only ones who can criticize it.

        Also, for every one work of "ugly" or unskilled work of art that has been celebrated by the public, I can give you 10 works of "beautiful" art that have required high amounts of skill. Simply put, aesthetics is an important consideration in art's value (though not the only one) since aesthetic beauty tends to attract, inspire, and motivate people.

        As for Emin's work - I criticize it not only for its lack of skill, but also for its message, which isn't all that profound. I also criticize it as a means of vicariously criticizing parts of society that would hold such a work in high esteem. Basically, we're talking about Emin's work not so much because of the work itself, but because of people's reaction to it. If other people want to fawn over this kind of work, then they have every right; but I also have every right to think it's all pretty ridiculous.

  3. hildyblog
    November 12, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    There is certainly art that is being produced in the modern era but far too much of it is just craft, construction, and branding. Especially branding (as the Suicide Girls nailed in the Richard Prince article you linked to).

    Going back a few centuries, most would say that Caravaggio's Sill Life with Fruit is art. But few would say the actual arrangement of fruit on the table is art and I suspect he would have been hard pressed to find a patron to pay for the arrangement itself rather than the painting.

    In the modern world, if I presented a gallery with my soup can on table installation entitled Andy Warhol, I'd be laughed (or kicked) out. If Tracey Emin did it, it would be "art" and therein lies the rub.

    Zoolander is art, Emin and Prince aren't.

    • Harry Guinness
      November 12, 2015 at 8:46 pm

      Okay so let's look at what you're saying a bit more. I think to dismiss Prince as "craft, construction, and branding" is a bit hasty. Prince's reputation is well and truly earned; he's had a long and storied career.

      As for the Caravaggio point, art has moved on a lot since then. While Caravaggio's arrangement may not be art, there's nothing to say a piece of art cannot be an arrangement of fruit. Also, a patron's willingness to pay is not the measure of art. Monet struggled for them in his lifetime but we justifiably celebrate him today.

      I also think you're selling your Warhol soup can short. I think there'd be a killer installation in reinterpreting Warhol's stuff and taking it back to the real world. Emin doing it doesn't necessarily make it art. She started out from the exact same place as everyone else does in the art world: from nowhere.

      Also, Zoolander is 100% art.

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