'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.

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. 

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).

4. Value is completely subjective.

No, it's not. There are methods of evaluating art, and just because gallerygoers respond differently doesn't mean these methods don't exist. Assessing value, however, isn't always easy.

More than anything else, frequent viewing and discussion develop a skilled eye. Experience tells a viewer what to look for. Avid gallerygoers are far more likely to distinguish a knowing nod to a cliché painting from a poorly executed work because they've seen enough of both to know the difference.

Similarly difficult, distinguishing an attractive Flickr photograph from a fine-art print is likely to make the head spin for anyone who is an expert on one but not both of those. Only knowing the conventions of both gives a viewer enough knowledge to make those distinctions.

5. I don't know enough about art to talk about it.

Anyone can discuss art well; few of us, however, look at it long enough to be able to do so. Trust your instincts, talk about what you see – don't be afraid to be wrong. The beauty of an opinion is that you can change it as your response evolves.

6. Anyone could do that.

This sentiment is typically refuted with the argument, "But you didn't." A more common version of the myth circulating art circles, "It's too easy," completes itself with "to take a compelling photograph," or "to make a good collage." In each case, the viewer is actually complaining that it's too hard to separate the good from the bad. There's no easy answer to this dilemma, except to look at enough art to develop a mature eye.

7. Elitism rules the art world.

Actually, this one is true, but the unspoken fallacy here is that it doesn't also rule every other field. If it's not a barrier to your participation in other pastimes, don't let it affect you here.

8. Most artists are "ahead of their time."

The idea that the art world understands something regular folk do not is false. Artists don't have any special vision into the future and there is no such thing as an art visionary. It does no one any good to mythologize artists. They are just human. Even Leonardo da Vinci made the basic mistake of mixing oil and water. As a result, his 15th-century mural of the Last Supper is now peeling off the back wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Paddy Johnson is the founder of Art Fag City, a blog providing New York art reviews, news, and event coverage. She is also an art critic for The L magazine, where an earlier version of this essay appeared.

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