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'Anyone could paint that' and 7 other myths about art

Our reticence to discuss art maintains the popular misconceptions that keep us from effectively engaging it.

By Paddy Johnson / August 6, 2009

Los Angeles

Art enriches our lives when we allow it to do so. But reflection, judgment, and participating in the struggle to articulate what art actually communicates isn't easy for anyone, and sometimes we let that thwart our experience. 

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That contemporary art seems to be anything an artist wants it to be can lead to a lot of confusion, most notably, the willy-nilly application of the term to anything with a creative impulse.

It also tends to inspire inaccurate comments such as "art is subjective," a frequent euphemism for "don't ask me to explain it."

This reticence to discuss art maintains the popular misconceptions that keep us from effectively engaging it. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Here are eight common contemporary art myths that disrupt the viewing experience.

1. Viewing work online or in reproduction gives an accurate account of the artwork.

At some point, many of us have made the mistake of thinking that replicas capture enough information to understand art we haven't seen in person. In truth, no amount of detail replaces the gallery experience. Space, texture, and light affect how we perceive the work. Viewing the work in person is essential. It weighs the aesthetic value of the object equally with the artist's intent. Conceptual art still typically requires a nod to the visual. There might not be a lot to see in Robert Rauchenberg's Erased De Kooning Drawing, for example (a piece in which the title describes the work), but only the act of looking at it in person illuminates it. De Kooning was the most prominent painter at the time that piece was executed, so much so that his legacy intimidated other artists. The actual erasure of one of his works was meant to break that down, thereby freeing artists to pursue other paths. Seeing the remnants of the drawing in person speaks both to the foundation upon which De Kooning's legacy was built and its mutability.

2. This work generated so much discussion, it must be good!

A lot of people talk about Lindsay Lohan, but this doesn't lead people to conclude that she is an excellent actress. The same rationale needs to be applied to art. Media starlets Damien Hirst, Banksy, and Vanessa Beecroft generate media spectacle around their personality and art designed to elicit a response. But the power of a media story is not the same as great art and shouldn't be mistaken as such.

3. Anything can be art!

French artist Marcel Duchamp didn't make every shovel art, just the one he labeled. In other words, while context and intentionality can earn a work the title of "art," an object that randomly evokes an artistic reference does not. If it's in a gallery, or if an artist says it's art, it is (even if you don't like it).