Sunday, October 23, 2005

Modern Art in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Red Horse (sculpture) by Alexander Calder
I scarcely remember my parents taking me to the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. After recently going there I now understand why my childhood visit was unmemorable. Modern sculptures are strewn across the garden like a tornado dropped a giant trash heap onto an ornate garden.

Four-Sided Pyramid (sculpture) by Sol LeWitt
Yes, I am unsympathetic to the legions of starving artists who invent these monumental eye-sores, but not without reason.I have a theory that modern artists are successful only insofar as they can rationalize why their "art" is indeed art. Of course anybody can weld irregular pieces of steel together, but it takes a creative huckster to explain how those pieces of steel represent the "brutal modern element" -- and do it convincingly. In other words, the skill is not the art itself, but the persuasive rationalization of the art.

Stele II (sculpture) by Ellsworth Kelly
There was one piece in particular that I found insultingly drab. Its title is Stele II, by Ellsworth Kelly. It is supposedly based on a French kilometer marker, and named for a type of commemorative stone monument used during ancient times. And it is, without exaggeration, a twelve foot high and one-inch thick piece of weathered steel. That's it. Again, I maintain that it took more time to defend this as "art" than it did to construct it.

Nevertheless, the more I think about it, the more I understand it. Truly it is easier to work with a blank slate, which is what Stele II really is -- an unassuming steel canvas. The dark-gray abyss pulls me in, and my imagination with it. It compels me to ascribe meaning to it, independent from the artist's intended meaning. Does it represent the cultural emptiness and subordination felt by Vichy France? Or does it represent the postmodern nihilism France engendered following WWII? Who knows? It is simply compelling to play an active role in its interpretation.

Moondog (sculpture) by Tony Smith
In the end, modern art is what its audience makes it. It is so entirely subjective that it is impossible to wholly condemn it.

Untitled sculpture by Joel Shapiro
But some of it is just rubbish.


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