A recent excursion with friends brought me to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. With the random wire sculptures and the torn canvases, the splotches of paint dripped or flung, and even the pantyhose filled with potato, I disliked looking at anything. In fact, I mocked the so-called art. My friends who also didn’t enjoy the experience made the mocking that much more fun. I thought this “modern art” was vapid and meaningless, and was sure some of the artwork was created while the artists were high.
But it got me thinking. Why do I, and so many other people, dislike “modern art”? What is it about the videos of animated speaking lips, or the series of clock portraits lining entire walls that causes disdain, even repulsion, in many people?
In looking back at my experience, I remember a few pieces of art that I actually enjoyed. One was of this series of black smudges. I thought they looked like mutant versions of human chromosomes; a friend thought they looked like Rorschach ink blots. Who knows what the inspiration was? But we enjoyed that artwork, or at least, didn’t feel the need to mock it. In fact, we even praised the effort.
Another piece of artwork we accepted was a simple series of four or five metal bars near the top of one of the walls. It was a prison cell window, the background beyond painted a sunset sky, calling to mind a world beyond whatever prison we find ourselves in. I even took a picture of it, one of the few I bothered to take that day.
Researchers have wondered this: why do some people dislike modern art, while others spend money, sometimes millions, on a canvas of squares and circles?
One theory that may answer this question is “terror management theory” — this theory states that people need to have a meaningful view of life to manage their worries or fears about their mortality.
This means that modern art, with its apparent lack of meaning to many viewers, clashes with our need to feel meaning in life. This is not to say that those who dislike modern art have no meaning in life, but rather, see no meaning in the artwork, and therefore, find no value in it.
In a study regarding modern art and meaning, subjects completed a questionnaire that assessed their need or preference for order and certainty. Half the subjects were then asked to respond to open-ended questions about their own death, while the other half responded to questions regarding dental pain. All participants then rated untitled and relatively unknown paintings belonging to different genres, including abstract modernism.
The researchers found that people with a strong need for structure and certainty were more likely to negatively rate the abstract paintings — especially when primed to think about their mortality.
In another study, subjects were given the same mortality questions and personality assessments as those in the previous study. The subjects were then asked to view Jackson Pollock’s abstract painting “Guardians of the Secret” and Constantin Brancusi’s photograph “The Beginning of the World.”
Half of the subjects saw the artwork with their titles, while the other half viewed the art with mundane titles, like “#12.” Subjects then rated how much they liked or didn’t like the artwork, how much the piece appealed to them on a “gut” level, and how interested they would be to see similar pieces in the future.
The researchers found that subjects primed on their mortality and who had a high need for structure disliked the abstract painting, “Guardians of the Secret.” This dislike was related to the seeming meaninglessness of the painting, and the lack of a descriptive title made the dislike deeper.
However, mortality-primed subjects did not necessarily dislike the photograph, which consists of an egg resting atop a table. This may be because the piece contains recognizable objects (like the egg), and meaning can therefore be derived from it, or at the very least, familiarity can be derived from the piece.
The studies overall suggest that modern art may want to encourage viewers to think about the world differently and beyond normal experiences, it may not be able to do so for certain people. When a piece is given meaning, however, either via the artwork’s subject matter or even by a descriptive title, viewers are more likely to enjoy the work, or at least tolerate it.
These studies suggest that something like the mutant chromosomes I saw was something I could enjoy, or at least, not feel the urge to mock, because I could at least tie the objects to something I was familiar with: photographs of human chromosomes courtesy of all the biology and genetics classes I took in college.
Artists can learn from this — attaching meaning to their work can make their work more enjoyable and relatable to viewers. Yes, meaning is probably better derived from the viewer, but artists can coax things along, even just by adding a descriptive title.