Modern art. Oftentimes, these works seem like garbage compared to the works of old. Some modern pieces seem valueless compared to the works of the greats like Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Oftentimes, modern art seems like something any kid could throw together, while older works show forth the talent of the artist.
This, however, could be a mistake. I’d like to propose an alternative view: modern art is an attempt to depict the undepictable, to show forth that which cannot be understood.
While, of course, this will not apply to all modern art, I believe this can be applied to at least some of these works.
Let us say that an you want to draw the concept of hope. How would you go about depicting courage? You could depict a scene with courageous people. You could depict a scene were people are fighting, struggling for their freedom against all odds, knowing that they will not win but hoping that their message will live on. The soldiers know that they will not survive the battle, but they hope that one day their side will prevail and their children will know the freedom they are striving for.
This is one way of depicting a courageous scene, but this isn’t really depicting courage. Yes, it is depicting courageous people, but this is different from depicting courage itself.. While an individual example of courage has been painted, the virtue of courage itself has not been shown. It’s the same point Socrates brings up in the Meno: “Suppose that I […] ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of bees”. Courage is not limited to only happening at the Alamo (no matter what we Texans tell you), but it can be shown in many different ways throughout time. The Alamo is just one example of courage.
While another virtue, hope, could be personified or depicted by a symbol (like an anchor), again this is not a real depiction of hope. Hope is not a person or an anchor; hope is a concept, an idea. While hope could be depicted in this way, it would not be an accurate depiction of hope itself.
Thus, immaterial qualities and ideas cannot be depicted in a traditional way. While the intangible concept of hope cannot be physically depicted on a canvas, perhaps the best way to depict hope, an abstract concept, would be through art which is itself abstract. As Michel Henry says in regards to Wassily Kandinsky, “[…] the abstract content that painting seeks to represent is ultimately a content entirely foreign to the world“.
Thus, I would posit that some abstract art seems unintelligible because it is trying to be a tangible depiction of an intangible concept. You can’t depict hope itself on a canvas, but you can at least try to depict hope abstractly through other means. Thus, abstract art is trying to depict something, but it’s only depicting something abstract.
I don’t necessarily believe this applies to all modern art, and it certainly doesn’t show that abstract art is beautiful or that it’s better than the art of the Renaissance. I just think that it’s good to see and consider different perspectives on issues sometime, and this was one perspective that I failed to to see for a long time.