Traditionalist claims that modern art could just as well be replaced by a “paint-throwing chimp”

by Andrew Gelman on June 23, 2012 · 15 comments

in Political science

Jed Dougherty points me to this opinion piece by Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of art at Northwestern University, who writes:

Artists are defensive these days because in May the House passed an amendment to a bill eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. Colleagues, especially those who have received N.E.A. grants, will loathe me for saying this, but just this once I’m sympathetic with the anti-intellectual Republicans behind this amendment. Why? The bill incited a national conversation about a subject that has troubled me for decades: the government — disproportionately — supports art that I do not like.

Actually, just about nobody likes modern art. All those soup cans—what’s that all about? The stuff they have in museums nowadays, my 4-year-old could do better than that. Two-thirds of so-called modern artists are drunk and two-thirds are frauds. And, no, I didn’t get my math wrong—there’s just a lot of overlap among these categories!

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of art that I like (the field’s benchmark for what counts as art), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be artists’ insistence, during the cold war, that Abstract Expressionism was not a complete and utter joke. We know how that turned out.

Art has also failed miserably at its secondary goal of protecting us from terrorism. Did any prominent N.E.A.-financed researchers predict that an organization like Al Qaeda would change global and domestic politics for at least a generation? Nope. Or that the Arab Spring would overthrow leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? No, again.

How do we know that these examples aren’t atypical cherries picked by a retro salon-style artist munching sour grapes? Because in the 1980s, the art historian Philip E. Tetlock began systematically quizzing 284 art experts — most of whom were fine arts Ph.D.’s — on dozens of basic questions, like whether a Motherwell would sell better than a Rauchenberg, when a prominent art movement would diffuse, and what exactly was the point of that “Piss Christ” painting that everybody was talking about a few years ago. His book “Expert Art Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” won the American Fine Arts Association’s prize for the best book published on the arts.

Professor Tetlock’s main finding? Chimps randomly throwing paint at a canvas would have done almost as well as the experts.

Actually, I’d go further and say that a well-trained chimp could do better than the average installation in any given Whitney Biennial.

These results wouldn’t surprise Karl Popper, whose 1934 book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” remains the cornerstone of the artistic method. Yet Mr. Popper himself scoffed at the pretensions of the arts. As Popper put it: “My four-year-old could paint better than that Picasso guy. I could draw ugly women with both their eyes on the same side of their face too. I just don’t do it because it’s so stupid. Sure, Picasso gets the babes, but in the long run he is sooooooo falsified.”

OK, Popper sounds better in the original German. My point is: Government can — and should — assist artists, especially those like me who use history and theory to explain shifting artistic contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

But, please, none of this modern-art stuff. Everything was just fine in the 1870s before those newfangled Impressionists started in with all their gimmicks.

I disagree with Prof. Stevens—somewhat. I too am less than impressed by Jackson Pollock and am even less of a fan of the Abstract Impressionists. On the other hand, I love Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc., and I think Stevens went way over the top in wanting to stop progress at 1870.

Also, for full disclosure, I should admit that I applied for a job at at the Northwestern University art department in 1996 and got turned down. Actually, it was worse than that—they not only dinged me, they also refused to reimburse all my travel expenses. So maybe I’m just bitter.

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