There are esthetes who appreciate the cross-eyed cartoons of Pablo Picasso, the random dribbles of Jackson Pollock, and even the pickled pigs of Damien Hirst. Some of my best friends are modern artists. You, however, hate and detest the 20th century’s entire output in the plastic arts, as do I.
“I don’t know much about art,” you aver, “but I know what I like.” Actually you don’t. You have been browbeaten into feigning pleasure at the sight of so-called art that actually makes your skin crawl, and you are afraid to admit it for fear of seeming dull. This has gone on for so long that you have forgotten your own mind. Do not fear: in a few minutes’ reading I can break the spell and liberate you from this unseemly condition.
First of all, understand that you are not alone. Museums are bulging with visitors who come to view works they secretly detest, and prices paid for modern art keep rising. One of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings sold last year for US$140 million, a striking result for a drunk who never learned to draw, and splattered paint at random on the canvas.
Somewhat more modest are the prices paid for the grandfather of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), whose top sale price was above $40 million. An undistinguished early Kandinsky such as Weilheim-Marienplatz (43 by 33 centimeters) will sell for $4 million or so by Sotheby’s estimate. Kandinsky is a benchmark for your unrehearsed response to abstract art, for two reasons. First, he helped invent it, and second, he understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an esthetic movement that also included atonal music. Kandinsky was the friend and collaborator of the grandfather of abstract music, composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), who also painted. Schoenberg, like Kandinsky, is universally recognized as one of the founders of modernism.
Kandinsky attended a performance of Schoenberg’s music in 1911, and afterward wrote to Schoenberg:
Please excuse me for simply writing to you without having the pleasure of knowing you personally. I have just heard your concert here and it has given me real pleasure. You do not know me, of course – that is, my works – since I do not exhibit much in general, and have exhibited in Vienna only briefly once and that was years ago (at the Secession). However, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy. In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music.
Kandinsky was entirely correct in his judgment. An enormous literature exists on the relationship between abstract painting and atonal music, and the extensive Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence can be found on the Internet. For those who like that sort of thing, as Abraham Lincoln once said, it is just the sort of thing they would like.
The most striking difference between the two founding fathers of modernism is this: the price of Kandinsky’s smallest work probably exceeds the aggregate royalties paid for the performances of Schoenberg’s music. Out of a sense of obligation, musicians perform Schoenberg from time to time, but always in the middle and never at the end of a program, for audiences flee the cacophony. Schoenberg died a poor man in 1951, and and his widow and three children barely survived on the copyright royalties from his music. His family remains poor, while the heirs of famous artists have become fabulously wealthy.
Modern art is ideological, as its proponents are the first to admit. It was the ideologues, namely the critics, who made the reputation of the abstract impressionists, most famously Clement Greenberg’s sponsorship of Jackson Pollock in The Partisan Review. It is not supposed to “please” the senses on first glance, after the manner of a Raphael or an Ingres, but to challenge the viewer to think and consider.
Why is it that the audience for modern art is quite happy to take in the ideological message of modernism while strolling through an art gallery, but loath to hear the same message in the concert hall? It is rather like communism, which once was fashionable among Western intellectuals. They were happy to admire communism from a distance, but reluctant to live under communism.
When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia write-up on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. When you listen to atonal music, for example Schoenberg, you are stuck in your seat for a quarter of an hour that feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair. You cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow, rather than admiring it at a safe distance.
That is why at least some modern artists come into very serious money, but not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music. Non-abstract composers, to be sure, can become quite wealthy, for example Baron Andrew Lloyd Webber and a number of film composers. American Aaron Copland (1900-90), who mainly wrote cheerful works filled with local color (eg, the ballets Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring), earned enough to endow scholarships for music students. Viennese atonal composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) had a European hit in his 1925 opera Wozzeck, something of a compromise between Schoenberg’s abstract style and conventional Romanticism. His biographers report that the opera gave him a “comfortable living.”
After decades of philanthropic support for abstract (that is, atonal) music, symphony orchestras have given up inflicting it on reluctant audiences, and instead are commissioning works from composers who write in a more accessible style. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, the shift back to tonal music “comes as large orchestras face declining attendance and an elderly base of subscribers. Nationwide symphony attendance fell 13% to 27.7 million in the 2003-04 season from 1999-2000, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League.”
The ideological message is the same, yet the galleries are full, while the concert halls are empty. That is because you can keep it at a safe distance when it hangs on the wall, but you can’t escape it when it crawls into your ears. In other words, your spontaneous, visceral hatred of atonal music reflects your true, healthy, normal reaction to abstract art. It is simply the case that you are able to suppress this reaction at the picture gallery.
There are, of course, people who truly appreciate abstract art. You aren’t one of them; you are a decent, sensible sort of person without a chip on your shoulder against the world. The famous collector Charles Saatchi, proprietor of an advertising firm, is an example of the few genuine admirers of this movement. When Damien Hirst arranged his first student exhibition at the London Docklands, reports Wikipedia, “Saatchi arrived at the second show in a green Rolls-Royce and stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of (and then bought) Hirst’s first major ‘animal’ installation, A Thousand Years, consisting of a large glass case containing maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head.”
The Lord of the Flies is an appropriate benchmark for the movement. Thomas Mann in his novel Doktor Faustus tells the story of a composer based mainly on Arnold Schoenberg, whom resentment drives to make a pact with the Devil. Mann’s protagonist cannot create, so out of rancor sets out to “take back” the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, by writing atonal lampoons of them that will destroy the listener’s ability to hear the original.
Many critics maintain that Picasso’s famous painting originally named “The Bordello at Avignon” (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) was the single most influential modernist statement. In this painting Picasso lampooned El Greco’s great work The Vision of St John. Picasso reduces the horror of the opening of the Fifth Seal in the Book of Revelation to a display of female flesh in a whorehouse.  Picasso is trying to “take back” El Greco, by corrupting our capacity to see the original.
By inflicting sufficient ugliness upon us, the modern artists believe, they will wear down our capacity to see beauty. That, I think, is the point of putting dead animals into glass cases, or tanks of formaldehyde. But I am open-minded; there might be some value to this artistic technique after all. If Damien Hirst were to undertake a self-portrait in formaldehyde, I would be the first to subscribe to a commission.