In Defense of Modern Art

The average Modern Art spectator.

Every time I look at Modern Art in a museum, I hear people whisper their disapproval.  Appalled at the work’s simplicity, they claim that they could have made it in 2nd grade in 2 minutes.  Maybe that’s true.  However, mockery of Modern Art springs from a misunderstanding of value and what deems a work “museum-worthy”.

Adam Smith argued that the amount of work you put into something determines it’s worth. He explained the “Labor Theory of Value” in Wealth of Nations:

The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter V).

I can attest from personal experience that effort ≠ value.  From childhood through my freshman year in college, I spent countless hours in ballet classes.  I worked really hard. Yet I always missed a beat in dances and never perfected my split. No matter how hard I tried, I looked more like an awkward giraffe than a swan in dances like the one I performed from Swan Lake.

A much more accurate theory of value is a subjective one.  Because 1,000 hours of ballet class ≠ a graceful Swan Lake.  The Subjective Theory of Value implies that things do not have inherent value, and their value isn’t tied to the maker’s effort. Instead, how much people desire, need, or enjoy something sets it’s value.

My college drawing professor, Duane Keiser, started his “Painting a Day” project based (likely unknowingly) on subjective value.  For two years, Keiser completed a painting every single day and posted it on his blog.  He’s gained a huge following, but he’s also received massive criticism, mainly from artists and art aficionados skeptical that an artist can complete a good painting so quickly.

Subjectively of course, I adore his paintings. They’re studies in the mundane things that surround us, the things we rarely take time to examine.

Duane Keiser, "Dandelions"

Duane Keiser, "PB & J"

Duane Keiser, "Lollipop"

The labor theory versus subjective value argument goes back pretty far in art history. James McNeil Whistler, a significant artist in the Aesthetic Movement (1868-1901) went to court over this very principle when he sued art critic James Ruskin for libel over criticizing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Ruskin essentially accused Whistler of throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face).

During the trial, Ruskin’s lawyer asked Whistler “Did it take you much time to knock off Nocturne in Black and Gold?”

When Whistler estimated it took him a couple of days, the lawyer retorted, “The labor of two days, is that what you ask for two hundred guineas?”

Whistler famously responded that the price is for “the knowledge of a lifetime”.

And that’s why paintings like Malevich’s Red Square: Peasant Woman end up in museums. Not for the time it took him to color a square red, but his vision to think past the Renaissance.

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8 Responses to In Defense of Modern Art

  1. Highland Rose says:

    Yes Yes Yes! All you wrote is true. I, in an unbiased manner, LOVE how you write. You’ve just shown me how to appreciate a red square.

  2. Aaron says:

    So is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” incorrect? Isn’t in the meeting of the minds of the artist and the audience? Value is determined by the consensus?

  3. Krista says:

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder is consistant with subjective value.

    “Value is determined by the consensus?”- do you mean in terms of museums? Or what?

  4. Aaron says:

    I meant the consensus of the artist as the producer and the audience members as the consumers. I was thinking more in terms of the art market and less of museums validating artistic “value”. Beauty isn’t JUST in the eye of the beholder, it’s in the meeting of the minds between the artist and the beholder?

  5. Seth Goldin says:

    Neoclassical economics has revised its theory of value and adopted the Subjective Theory of Value. Smith was a classical economist, and as such, operated on the Labor Theory of Value. Interestingly enough, Marx operated on the Labor Theory of Value as well, yet took it to quite different conclusions than Smith.

    I love Smith, having actually read much of The Wealth of Nations for the first time recently. Despite his endorsement of the Labor Theory of Value, which is excusable for his time, he has so much insight into the nature of positive-sum trade, how free markets are best to lift the poor up out of poverty, how slavery is impractical, how mercantilism is wrong, the gains in productivity from the division of labor, the provision of public goods, and welfare analysis. So much still applies. Smith is wonderful.

    This post didn’t go where I expected it to go. Now, sure, we can apply the Subjective Theory of Value to art, but let’s remember exactly what that entails, in terms of economics. I may find an empty room with one yogurt lid pinned to each wall, as I recently encountered in NYC MOMA, totally worthless, and you may think it’s brilliant. What matters is how we’re funding that art. Let’s abolish the NEA. David Boaz explains.

  6. Franics Plump says:

    I enjoyed your post, Krista! But, I can’t help but disagree with you.

    Who is to say that your giraffe-like ballet dance moves were not a personal expression of the difficulty you had with learning traditional ballet techniques? You seem to acknowledge that your ballet dancing capabilities were universally acknowledged as bad.

    If you had a group of admirers who swore that you were a trailblazer in the school of ballet and insisted on paying you money to perform for them, would you not think that this was a seriously delusional group of people?

    I have no problem with acknowledging people’s subjective desires, but shouldn’t we express our opinions as to what goes into our taxpayer-funded museums or public areas? (Have you seen the $1.5 million New York Ave. Project here in DC?!) Seems to me that whispers of mockery in museums across America is more impolite than it is misunderstanding of subjective value. In fact, disdain for modern art is an explicit expression of subjective value.

    For the record, however, I do think those Keiser paintings are fantastic.

  7. Krista says:

    Seth- the question of the Subjective Value of Art needs to be answered and accepted before we can abolish the NEA. See, if I really, truly believe that some “universal artist truth” is just a myth, then I cannot justify imposing my artistic sensibilities on someone else. The NEA imposes it’s sensibility on the public, because it deems some work more important than other work.

    Franics- I did not mean to imply that everyone perceived my dancing as bad. Rather, I meant to indicate that hours of work do not always result in value. In the ballet case, the hours of work did mean something to me. The exercise had great value for me and my family, as I learned discipline and they saw me work towards a goal.

    You may very well be correct that the mockery of Modern Art in museums is an expression of some kind of majority subjective value. Government funds many museums; in a sense, government is a minority imposing its affinity for abstract art on the majority.

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