Scribbles on a canvas

Why you’re terrified of modern art.

Renee Ricevuto

May 5, 2023

Wasting my time scrolling through social media one day, I stumbled onto a post that piqued my interest. It featured an array of artworks, mostly with shocks of furious red scribbles on beige surfaces. In proportion to the figure standing next to them, they are larger than life, but on my phone, they were reduced to a thumbprint size, losing all the energy a big canvas should hold. Above these images was a caption explaining that shown were the paintings of Cy Twombly, a famed artist whose work is mired in mockery and derision. 

The responses were predictable and self-same. “My kid could do this!” “How could anyone call this talent?” But the one comment that stuck out the most was the persistent drumbeat of: “This isn’t art, it’s a money laundering and/or tax evasion scheme.” Over and over, this bit of folk wisdom popped up, seemingly revelatory, seemingly radical. But is it really all that simple?

This criticism of Twombly is not unique; anytime he or artists of his stripe are brought up, somebody is bound to tsk-tsk and blame money. “Modern art” has become the catch-all term for all the supposed hacks, hucksters, and clout-chasers looking to make a quick buck off a haphazard canvas. Any conversation on the value or historical context of someone like Twombly gets swept up in accusations of art flipping, inheritance taxes, and museum donations, if it is not simply tomato-pelted off the stage. Those who disagree are merely being pretentious. 

But there is another accusation here, one about Twombly himself, one that tells a lot more about how we feel about artists. Implicit in these claims is the idea that Twombly has committed the greatest artistic sin of all: he is not genuine. He does this all to make money; he is not saying anything; he is committing highway robbery and you are scrambling to give him more of your coins. He (and by extension, all other artists like him) does not care about art. 

If you are only taking price tags into account, it might be hard to see things any other way. Yet upon looking at Twombly’s history, a different sort of scribble emerges. 

Born in 1928, Twombly began his art career in the flourishing of abstract art after World War II, a breakthrough period that was itself an extension of the post–World War I art scene. It was during this time, in 1917, that Marcel Duchamp plunked a urinal in front of the Society of Independent Artists and called it art. The Society, which had formally declared they were willing to honor all submissions, outright refused to display his piece, which he named Fountain.

He did it to spark anger, to throw their own words back in their face, and it worked. Critics called Fountain indecent, and Duchamp didn’t make a dime; in fact, he lost money paying the submission fee. Yes, his work was irreverent and tongue-in-cheek, but it was not disingenuous. Fountain was the disillusioned artist’s response to the art world after the carnage of war brought about by senseless imperialism, nationalism, and military grandstanding. So too was Dadaism, the art movement Duchamp championed. To Duchamp, art felt like part of the problem: pointless, elitist, a futile makeup smear on a pig. And what better way to respond to this privileged world of frivolity than by simply mirroring what he saw around him? 

It was only decades later that the art world began to approve of Fountain, albeit in a surface-level way. Since Duchamp’s piece was “readymade,” it paved the way for artists after him to push the limits of what could be seen as art and allowed them to incorporate found objects into their work. Even if you’re not a fan of Fountain, there is surely some piece out there you enjoy that wouldn’t have existed or been displayed without it.

It was this war-stricken haze of Dadaism and Surrealism, as well as the influences of ancient Greece and Rome, that motivated Twombly’s work. He crafted his own brand of Abstract Expressionism based on myths, folklore, and architecture. One of his later pieces, Untitled, an oil painting that looks like scribbled-on chalkboard, was painted while Twombly sat on the shoulders of someone else who moved along the canvas—no child’s play for Twombly, who cared deeply about achieving seamless and accurate brushstrokes on a large scale. 

Like Duchamp, Twombly was despised for his work, which flew in the face of all previous artistic conventions. It did not become profitable until much later, so if he was simply in it for the money, then he probably should have gone to law school instead. 

To be clear, this is not to say that corruption in the art industry does not exist. Since the value of art commodities are often in convenient flux, it is easy to get away with any number of shady business practices. An art flipper can buy a work on the cheap and then sell it for an inflated price, while the original artist gets proportionally very little. Or they can donate the piece to a museum at that inflated price and get a tax write-off. If they really adore the painting they’ve donated, they can settle for partial ownership, like King Solomon offering to cut the baby in half, except in this case they still reap all the benefits.

But these practices aren’t unique to modern or contemporary art, and they do not automatically mean the art in question has no value. In the complicated matrix of above- and below-ground deals, it’s not just the Rothkos and Twomblys being passed around; even artists such as Salvador Dalí and Auguste Renoir have become pawns. Investigations by the federal government have revealed both sitting in the back rooms of a Philadelphia drug dealer’s home, just another set of totems for concealing criminal incomes. Yet the issue of money laundering, art inflation, tax evasion, and what-have-you is usually not brought up when it comes to these artists. Only when someone doesn’t like the art in question do they accuse the artist of making their piece merely for profits, regardless of whether the artist was alive to witness or profit from their art being used in such a way. 

So why do we need to blame the artist and their art in some circumstances and not in others? Why claim certain artists aren’t in it for the “right reasons”? Well, part of the answer stems from the fact that sometimes, they aren’t. It would be dishonest to claim that the quality or substance of contemporary art has never been influenced by the green-eyed whims of the market, or the even greener eyes of artists strapped for cash.

A prime example of this dates from not too long ago. During the boom and bust of the early 2000s financial market, paintings became collateral as art flippers bought cheap and sold dear based on cash flow. Well-connected artists were incentivized to churn out as many pieces as possible with paper-thin excuses for their existence.

Galleries began to furnish their beige walls with even beiger compositions, some of them thrown together in a matter of days. All claimed to push the envelope while not really saying anything. Lazy, minimalist, and too bland to be completely unpalatable, these grayscale nothings weren’t looking to be yelled at like the works of Duchamp, Twombly, and Rothko—or infamously slashed in half like Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. Art critic Walter Robinson dubbed the trend “zombie formalism,” and many others have mulled over its aesthetic impacts since. One darling of the movement, Lucien Smith, admitted later on that the work he made during this period was not genuine, the ultimate sign of betrayal.

This may confirm the skeptics’ worst suspicions: it’s all a ruse, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a pretentious fool. However, critics were able to sort out what was legitimate and what was not, and they were unafraid to mark the point where the unconventional became trite. Rather than daftly praising the new slew of artists to show off their acquired cultural taste, they wrote incisive takedowns with sharp teeth. Sometimes, a person or group may appear pretentious when actually, they care so deeply about their chosen field that they become inscrutable to those on the outside. Art critics have always been deeply concerned with the state of art, for better or worse. People like Twombly, Newman, Rothko, and so on had spearheaded new art movements, not piggybacked off cash-laden profiteers, and many cared to make the distinction.

And the distinction does matter. Mark Rothko’s art, for instance, never took him only a matter of days. His multi-chromatic compositions, controversial for their seeming simplicity, are actually quite complex. Each painting, each shape or stripe, is built up with layers of carefully tinted paint, all mixing to form a new color that is meant to pull the onlooker in with its chimeric depth. Like Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, some of Rothko’s paintings have found themselves at the wrong end of a boxcutter, torn to shreds by angry viewers who perhaps expected a Rembrandt in their place. 

Another appeal of Rothko’s works, not easily seen in photos online, is their scale. His paintings are meant to be seen in person, where they can fill the field of vision. Many people, upon seeing Rothko’s body of work up close, “get it,” and they are not simply trying to appear smart or discerning; genuine feeling reveals itself. It’s suffocating, it’s elating, it’s somber, it’s something.

That is what I’m told because, truthfully, I never “got” Rothko. I’ve seen his work in person, I’ve read about the hidden complexity, but no sparks flew in my chest when I was swarmed on all sides by his colors. He is simply not to my taste, which is completely fine, and fine for anybody else as long as they don’t stray into vandalism. 

Honestly, it bothers me that I don’t understand Rothko. Not because I’m pretentious or want to look smart and discerning; rather, I care a lot, and sometimes that looks the same on the surface. 

I am an artist. I have spent hours in a color-splotched haze, mixing, painting, mixing, painting, accumulating colors along the way like an off-kilter kaleidoscope. It’s a sort of fugue state, where I emerge with paint in my hair, an appetite I didn’t notice until then, and sludge on my fingertips that will end up on the light switch if I am not careful. 

I have made pieces that people understood, and I have made pieces that caused viewers to tilt their heads to the side and go, “What is that?” Both took the same amount of time. I know the gripping fear, halfway through a project, that I am wasting my time. No matter what the finished product looks like, I am rarely satisfied. 

I have never attempted to paint a Rothko, but I can imagine what it’s like to be Rothko, painting a Rothko. I know he spent years on paintings only to have people scoff and say their kid could do it or call him a fraud. Or even worse, take a knife to his canvas. 

Simply put, I am an artist, and as an artist I want to honor the work Rothko put into his work. I know he cared, so I want to care as a result. Trying to “get it” has less to do with the art itself and more to do with respecting someone who has groveled in the paint like I have.

I think there is a deeper reason why people are so quick to call Rothko, Twombly, and all the rest frauds. Nobody who hates them and who thinks their art is objectively abysmal wants them to be genuine artists. There is something extremely depressing about the fact that we can put effort, that we can put in our thousand hours, and still not be guaranteed a piece of art that will be universally liked or understood. We want to think if we work hard enough, we will have a result that will reflect what we put in. But hard work does not guarantee good work, and plenty of genuine art has seen birth and death on the threshold of mediocrity. Nobody wants to think they could be the hardworking idiot slaving away at a passion project that will never get off the ground. It is easier to say the artist didn’t care than to deal with the difficulty of the fact that they did, and yet still couldn’t make something you liked. 

Renee Ricevuto is a second-year undergraduate at Hunter College studying English literature.