I loved going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as a kid, as an adult - whenever. The one time in my life I cut school and spent a day just roaming, totally irresponsible - I went to the Museum of Art. But there was that wing that I just didn't "get", the modern and post-modern art wing. Impressionism I get, and appreciate very much. Even Picasso's strange cubist constructions tell a story that is in-and-of-itself beautiful and worthy. I don't need someone to tell me what the work means - though if I should happen to read a critic's thoughts on Picasso, often my enjoyment is deepened. But the work stands for itself, it is what it is.
And then came that villain, Duchamp. He signed a urinal and put it on display, called it art. It's in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I've seen it myself. It's just a urinal. There's nothing different about it than than any other urinal of the time in Paris. Later Duchamp put an empty jar on display (and signed it) calling it a sculpture of Paris air. And people call this art.
I've always felt like I was somehow deficient and hopelessly middlebrow because I thought this was utter folderol. But I've just read this article on Slate that finally made clear my objection all this time. Abstract art, like that of Duchamps or Mondrian or other scallywags of their ilk, steals art from the artists. The point, the message, even the beauty of the work is no longer in the work itself, but instead - in the interpretation of the work. Before Duchamps, any viewer could have an authentic experience when viewing a piece of art - the work is what it is, no interpretation is necessary. Since Duchamps, art may or may not be in-and-of-itself meaningful - but it may require special interpretation by an elite class of acolytes, trained in the "real" meaning of art. Those who are ignorant of the arcane subtleties of the art world will be helpless to "appreciate" art without assistance from the acolytes; without a guide to point the way, Duchamps urinal sure looks an awful lot like a urinal.
But the Emperor has no clothes. In the past I felt robbed by post-modern or abstract art, because it was something that required no skill of the artist. Any jerk could sign a urinal, after all, and I'm reasonably certain that with a canvas, some paint, and a straight-edge, I could myself do a painting like Mondrian's abstracts. Even Koko the gorilla could manage artwork that was more skilled. But now I see that it's not the relative lack of craftsmanship that really burns my bagel - it is instead the theft of ownership of an authentic and meaningful reaction to artwork. No longer can the viewer (and that means you and me) enter into an experience with art by ourselves. We've been hoodwinked into believing that art is so rarified and special that only insiders can point out the quality of the Emperor's robes - that our taste is too crass, too unrefined to even detect the fact that his silk cape is so light and airy. The very fact that we see the Emperor as naked, these art jerks tell us - lets them know that we are cloddish and unrefined.
I call bullshit. I don't need a critic to tell me what I should think of that damned urinal, it's a urinal. I can, all by myself, enter into an appreciation of art, and authentically experience its joy, beauty, subtlety and message. I do not need a guide, and no matter how many simpering courtiers tell me otherwise, Marcel Duchamp has no clothes on.