Modern art

On concluding my article of the series “The age of mediocrity”, I classified Pablo Picasso more as a skillful psychologist and expertin marketing and advertising than a painter. I never envisaged him as a great painter because – in my sinful ignorance – I believed, and still believe that a necessary qualification of any painter is the ability to draw very well indeed. I repeat: very well. A talent that is not widespread and perhaps inaccessible solely through “muscular” obstinacy. Something like the “musical ear”, a gift. In reality, it is not easy to reproduce a true likeness of a face, a galloping horse, a human figure in a less than conventional position, the movement of waves on the sea, a waterfall, etc. 

However, of all the items of a generic “age of mediocrity”, that which gave me the most work in order to arrive at some kind of conclusion – on my own account – was the definition of what art is; how to interpret the reaction of the public when faced with a painting or sculpture; the difficult “explanation” of the sensation of beauty and the vast nomenclature that arose following classicism. Anyone who wants to understand the meaning of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Concrete Art, Abstraction, Primitivism, Pop Art, Minimalism, etc., will face great difficulty in establishing boundaries between these various “schools”. And to further complicate such a slippery subject, the “post-” variations should also be taken into account, given that the artistic species is highly mercurial. 

There is, however, a common thread in all these movements: the more modern the work, the less the need for the physical and mental “sweat” of the artist. To put it another way: the more modern the painting, the greater the degree – dispensing with effort – of abstraction, subjectivism, valorization of quantity over quality, and absolute need of advertising for sale of the “product”. Without advertising, nobody is a “genius”. Actual genius is the brain behind the promotion of the painter. 

If, just for fun, someone who had never before wielded a paintbrush – and even despised the art of painting – made some quick marks on a canvas, with closed eyes, and asked Picasso to sign it, the painting in question would be worth millions of dollars, thus proving that it is not the picture that is important, but the “brand”. In this hypothetical experience, so-called and perhaps naive “connoisseurs” of the style of the famous painter – seeing the authenticity of the signature, by Picasso himself, a joker – would say that, with this canvas, the “genius” once again showed the versatility of his talent. 

Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Those few people who purchased his paintings, for next to nothing soon after his death, had the maximum financial interest in exalting the genius of the painter. The more highly they praised his work, the greater the value paintings would have that were acquired after his passing. Without doubt, Van Gogh was an extraordinary person, but it is strange to think that his pictures only came to be so highly valued after his death. Further proof that “financial psychology”, so to speak, has an immense influence on the valorization of works of art. The question must be asked whether the genius of the Dutch painter, when he was alive, was so non-apparent to connoisseurs of the time, that it was necessary for his pictures to change hands in order to be worth a fortune? Do “art dealers”, who are only familiar with the business of “dealing in art”, have a better “eye for art” than real scholars of art?

I would feel more comforted if I knew that the genius of Van Gogh had been recognized when he was still alive. He was a tragic man who suffered greatly, which only inspires our sympathy. And with a detail: he knew how to draw. His good character, sensitivity and personality deserve the greatest respect, but his example is proof of the fact that money has contaminated and dominates the world of the arts. Paintings and sculptures have become more of a financial issue – just like the actions of corporations -, than an issue of actual art. Here lies the explanation of why I have included visual arts in my series of articles on mediocrity in general. Money has introduced mediocrity into the arts. 

Leonardo da Vinci took five years to paint the “Mona Lisa”. He painted for just a few hours in a single day, continuing little by little on others, striving to achieve perfection in details. In any case, a considerable amount of time to paint a single picture. In counterpart, Picasso even said, according to quotes on the internet, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it”. 

As any museum is always vast, only a fast-working and roguishly “abstract” painter could fill it alone. With some twenty or thirty paintings a day, Picasso would be able to deliver the goods in a few months. Proof of the fact that it was quantity that interested him, and the mere declaration, by the artist himself, of the existence of  a deeply emotional “meaning” in those few brush strokes. So profound that it was only felt by him. Believe it if you want to.  

Tom Stoppard, an observer of modern art, even said that the only criterion for distinguishing a painting from a modern sculpture would be the following: “if it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it it’s a sculpture”. 

Richard Schmid, probably a connoisseur of the subject – because he is mentioned on art sites – said that “I honestly believe students of painting in the next century will laugh at the abstract art movement. They will marvel at such a drawn-out regression in the plastic arts”. 

Al Capp, in his distinctive, more brutal and direct style, said that “abstract art is produced by the talentless, sold by the unscrupulous, and bought by the utterly bewildered”. 

Another harsh critic of modern art even said that “trying to understand modern art is like trying to follow the plot in a bowl of alphabet soup”. 

And, finally, what did the prince of painters, Leonardo da Vinci, say? He said that “where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art”. Elitism? No, simple recognition of the fact that the artist should add some emotion to the perfect technique of drawing and painting. 

In other words: without the “hand” of the true artist, the subjectivism of the painter is just not enough, however much he sincerely feels excited – the great excuse for the modern painter who only trusts in what he feels, not in that which may be sincerely felt by the public. 

The bottom line is that the essential function of art is to give rise to pleasure. Real pleasure, not the false pleasure required by fashion. At a piano concert of classical music, a pianist, even cold in feeling but endowed with an uncommon technique – so uncommon that it overwhelms the audience – will be a better piano artist than a key-hammerer, tremendously excited, sweating, groaning, eyes on target, but by playing everything wrong, almost punching the keyboard. 

If, in the case of modern art, that which matters is the emotion of the artist – and not the effect of the product of his hands on others – it is possible to imagine that science has invented a device capable of recording the degree of emotion and inspiration during performance of a musical piece. A device, of proven effectiveness, similar to that used today to measure blood pressure. Or similar to a current lie detector. The difference is that the latter indicates the existence of lies, whereas the other, more modern, would prove the real sensitivity of the artist. Let us continue, giving an example. 

The arrival in London of a new musical genius is announced with great fanfare; a foreign pianist – so brilliant that few listeners would have the ability to “understand” the profound nature of his art. His manager would say that the artist’s inspiration cannot be feigned, given that the aforementioned infallible device would be attached to his arm, showing evidence of the maximum degree of feeling that a human being can endure.  

In the advertising that would precede the inaugural concert of this newly discovered genius, there would be a warning that individuals lacking an exceptional degree of musical sensitivity should not even purchase tickets, as they would probably not be able to “capture” the depth of the art hidden in simple appearances. The presence of the great artist in the country would even be doing a favor to Brazilians. It would show our own people an artistic wealth that they had not noticed in their old folklore. Such a lack of interest in selling tickets to people without any artistic sensitivity would even stimulate demand for such tickets. Everyone buying tickets would be demonstrating how sensitive they are to artistic beauty.   

On the announced day, with a packed Royal Festival Hall, a “sincere emotions detector” would be attached to the pianist’s arm. After an impressive silence, the artist would begin to play, using only one finger: “Oh, can you wash a sailor’s shirt, Oh, can you wash it fine? Oh, can you wash a sailor’s shirt and hang it on the line?” 

The audience, dumbfounded, wanting to laugh but dreading being considered ignorant, would maintain a straight face but continue to observe the immense electronic panel – connected to the “sincerity detector” – in the hope of seeing an inadequate “sincerity” result that would authorize the booing imprisoned in everyone’s throat. The device, however, would confirm the maximum level of artistic emotion felt by a human being. The extraordinary inspiration of the pianist would thus be duly demonstrated. With this, those in the audience would only complaint silently to themselves: “I really am extremely ignorant, but I would not confess this to anyone. I will give a standing ovation”.

 And if the artist suffers a stroke, his heart unable to withstand so much emotion, and drops dead on completing the special concert? There would be a long theoretical discussion on the brilliance of pianist and the mysterious reasons that made the artist choose this style and not another. Among others, the questions raised would include “Why was it necessary to ask whether someone can wash a sailor’s shirt? What is the symbolism involved?”, and so on. 

Of course, I am exaggerating in this example; however, in substance, it is that which occurs with the excuse that artists only have to think about what they feels in order to express their art. Only think about themselves. They are not concerned whether or not the public felt authentic pleasure. If there is pleasure on the part of the public, it will be the pleasure of “being up-to-date, one of the crowd, a follower of fashion”. 

Going back to painting, everything was going very well in Classicism, until a technical novelty arose, outside the art world, which shook the pacific panorama that emphasized the art of drawing things as they are seen by the eyes: photography. With a simple “flash”, anything could be “drawn” with an accuracy of line and balance of proportions that only a Leonardo da Vinci could achieve. The spread and improvement of photography was the saving excuse of many artists who, despite their enthusiasm for painting, could not draw. 

The path – or shortcut – was open for the man who admired the arts, identified himself emotionally with them, and would like to be part of that mysterious world, full of temptations. The women of the time – the late 19th century and early 20th century – felt a special attraction for artists, generally impetuous and free of restrictions in matters related to other men’s wives. Today, they probably prefer the “artists of finance” and mass sports; far more profitable, or should I say attractive to them. Painters were, then, almost always men. 

The art world – when sincere and authentic – really has an interesting facet. Its insights are frequently right. Freud confessed that he rarely made some kind of discovery without  some poet having been there first. True art is good in this respect: it attains “without deliberately wanting to”, by intuition, areas not yet reached by science. It flies, although falling frequently, whereas the scientist goes on foot. 

With the advent of photography, there was also the emergence of “smart painters”, who only wanted a quick and easy path to fame and its by-product: money. It was artistic “democracy” that would allow any audacious artist, without any drawing talent, to bold facedly “appear” and draw attention. “The order now is to scandalize!”. The more shocking his work – in non-conformance with the normal appearance of objects – the greater the “scandal” capable of attracting attention, with good business consequences. 

With as view to confronting the most distrustful or skeptical observers, who said that there was only audacity in the work, not art, there were two clever excuses: 1) those who want the exact reproduction of a landscape or object should take a photo; and 2) in the arts, what really matters is the feeling of the artist, not the visible physical product of this emotion. 

It was Pablo Picasso who, with great frankness, raised the argument that, in painting and sculpture, what really matters is the emotion of the artist, not what we know as “mere reality”. In his opinion, the painter can even paint with his eyes closed, provided that he is “inspired”. The general public should not be concerned with appearances. It should only “feel” the same as that “felt by the artist”. He stated this nonsense with such conviction – extraordinary psychologist that he was – that some millionaires began to buying his paintings, thus giving rise to immense valorization of any picture with the signature “Picasso”. He afforded himself the luxury of saying that he was not sufficiently rich to have a “Picasso” in his home. 

There follow some of his quotes, taken from the internet: 

“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them”. 

“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen”. Remark: he was a joker. 

 “The people who make art their business are mostly imposters”. 

“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” 

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing”.  

“Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?” 

What explains, then, the permanence of modern art and its high economic value, even though easy, brief, shocking and out of touch with visible reality? 

In my opinion, the explanation lies in the personality of the artist. In audacity, firmness, bold faced effrontery, “charisma” and “marked personality”, as was the case of Picasso, a great psychologist. Or in integrity and compassion, as in the cases of Vincent Van Gogh and his friend Paul Gauguin. It is impossible to read the biography of these two without being touched by such sensitive souls. Did they know how to draw? They knew enough; more than the average attained by people who are not artists. However, they were people of immense integrity.  

The character of artists “contaminates” their work positively or negatively. It has a great influence regarding their acceptance by the public. Including their political leanings. Picasso himself benefitted from this. He had interesting ideas and was frank in his opinions, as we can see in the above quotes. If he had been a man of right-wing sympathies or a Nazi, he would never have been considered a famous painter. “Guernica” gave him a boost. The same occurs in other arts: the personality of the artist “contaminates” his or her work, for better or worse. 

Abstraction is more appropriate ground for philosophy, not painting. I think that, at least for a long time, human beings will still require some degree of virtuosity, difficulty and hard work on the part of all painters. In sports competitions, the circus, cinematographic performances and the writing of tales, novels, chronicles and poems, it is expected that artists express themselves with an extraordinary degree of skill. I cannot accept that a writer just “feels” refined emotions in his mysterious head, only writing nonsense, or even things that are incomprehensible to the writer himself. Hence the general well-founded prejudice against modern art that is not pleasing to look at and can mean anything: – “It’s too easy. Based on this, even I deserve a prize…”, more sensible people think.   

Now a brief word about music. Of all the arts, I think that it is the less susceptible to deceit. Musical mediocrity cannot stay afloat for very long, as it can be assessed in a matter of minutes. It sinks because there is no financial advantage in keeping it afloat, when it pleases practically nobody. It is only necessary to listen to a new piece of music for one minute in order to decide whether it is worthwhile to continue listening. The scale of its production and the size of its public are such that it is not worth spending on advertising for music that nobody wants to hear, or even less buy in disc form. On the other hand, in the case of modern painting, there is a restricted market of rich buyers, the paintings functioning as a store of value, when the name of the painter is very well known. The painting is physical, palpable, concrete and exists, as if it were a negotiable instrument. On the other hand, music that nobody wants to hear is mere noise, of no interest to anyone; there is no way that it can be turned into a gemstone. 

There only lingers a doubt with respect to jazz. Most people do not like it, as there is no identifiable melody. In my opinion, jazz should only be used as a composing technique. The musicians would continue improvising without an end in sight, but when, by chance, the errant instrumentalists “stumble upon” a new melody, they would develop it, thus composing a “normal” piece of music. 

Summing up, modern art has its use in the manufacture of decorative items, toys, furniture, book covers, etc. Not as great painting or sculpture. 

This article was written in Portuguese and translated by John Upson      ( 


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Francisco Cesar Pinheiro Rodrigues
retired judge

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