To say that modern art is an acquired taste is the understatement of the century. Today I visited the Tate Modern, the most popular modern art gallery in the world, and what a disappointment it was. The only work that I even came close to appreciating was Jackson Pollock’s “Yellow Islands”, painted in 1952 and photographed above. There is a cryptic quality to the juxtaposition of black and white, interspersed with the occasional yellow island that simply captures one’s attention and invites the viewer to stare at it for hours in an attempt to decipher its meaning. Then it dawned on me: maybe there is no intrinsic meaning to be deciphered after all.
Pollock’s sincerity certainly adds credence to this nihilistic possibility. In 1947, when asked about his creative process, he confessed: “When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place.” It’s no coincidence that from conception to execution, the work below was finalized in a matter of minutes. First Pollock placed the canvass on the floor, then he poured and dripped black paint, followed by white, crimson and yellow. Finally, before the paint could dry, he raised the canvass in an upright manner so that gravity could add the final touch. Throughout this entire process, by Pollock’s own admission, not a single, discernible rational thought went though his mind.
Nevertheless, art critics vehemently disagree. They have said that by painting in such a fashion, Pollock allowed his thoughts and feelings to be expressed directly and intuitively, as if through a stream of consciousness. Moreover, the abstraction itself is a means by which the artist deals with the unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century and the incomprehensible threat of nuclear holocaust, abandoning traditional artistic concepts in lieu of a new lexicon with which to describe the terrifying and abominable reality of his time.
And so with this magical hocus pocus, that which had no apparent meaning gains layers upon layers of transcendental, political, economic and social significance. What matters most is not the work of art itself in any objective sense, but the interpretation that one ascribes to it. Following this logic, Marcel Duchamp places a urinal in the middle of the gallery and labels it as modern art. Call me old fashioned, but a urinal by any other name is still just as fetid.
Give me Reubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Monet, Renoir, Van Eyck, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, but please spare me from Duchamp and his band of relativistic twentieth century snake oil salesmen. Tate Modern, what a disappointment. Anyone who wants to admire some of the best works that European painting has to offer would be well advised forget the Tate Modern and visit the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square instead. There a rose by any other name is still just as sweet.