Stupendous or Just Stupid?

2 Apr

Today’s post is brought to you by Editor Ed, frequent correspondent, small press publisher, author, and a great friend. He’s recently published the Sorcery Against Caesar, by Richard S. Tierney; Cthuhlu set in Roman times, it’s a great read. Check out more of his projects at Pickman’s Press!

Is modern art stupendous, or just stupid?  Certainly it’s a polarizing question: some people love it, some people hate it.  I’m somewhere in the middle; I don’t really understand it, but I can’t really dismiss it either.  That goes back to a moment in junior high, and a powerful lesson from an art teacher.

This question’s on my mind these days because I run a teeny tiny digital publishing company, and one of my current projects is a volume of collected poetry from an old pulp magazine.  I noticed that between the end of its first run in 1954 and its next incarnation in 1973, the poetry switched from almost exclusively traditional verse to almost entirely free verse (which I consider the literary equivalent of modern art).

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really like free verse. I don’t particularly enjoy it, and certainly don’t understand it.  I’ve recently been researching it on the internet and buying and reading books about poetry, but still haven’t yet figured out the appeal of free verse.  How can I pick the “best” of something when I can’t even tell what makes it good or bad?  For that matter, does the general population actually like it, or is it something that only literary critics and college professors appreciate?  Would the average person in the street even bother buying a book of free verse?

I was explaining this frustrating conundrum to my sister Genevieve over dinner recently, and she was growing increasingly exasperated with me.  “Who cares?” she finally said.  “If you don’t like it, don’t read it, and don’t publish it!”

“I can’t,” I protested.  “I have to figure this out.”

“But why?” Gen asked.  “I guess I just don’t understand why you care so much about this.”

I struggled for a few moments in silence, trying to find a way to explain it to her, and finally settled on an anecdote.  “Do you remember Ms. Haussermann back at Holy Cross?  Every now and then she’d—”

“Come in and teach art classes, yeah,” Gen said.

“Do you remember when she took us on that field trip to the art museum in Chicago?”  Gen gave me a blank look and shook her head.  “Okay, then maybe it was just my class.  I think it was sixth grade, Ms. Johnson’s class, maybe 1987 or 88.  Anyway, we went to this art museum and looked at all these paintings.  Even the impressionist stuff at least made sense—you know, Monet, Van Gogh, all those guys?  Even Picasso was kind of cool in a weird way.

“Do you remember when she took us on that field trip to the art museum in Chicago?”  Gen gave me a blank look and shook her head.  “Okay, then maybe it was just my class.  I think it was sixth grade, Ms. Johnson’s class, maybe 1987 or 88.  Anyway, we went to this art museum and looked at all these paintings.  Even the impressionist stuff at least made sense—you know, Monet, Van Gogh, all those guys?  Even Picasso was kind of cool in a weird way.

“But then we went into the Modern Art wing, and that stuff was just… bizarre.  I mean, simple squares and rectangles of color.  A chain hanging from the ceiling.  Some plaster sculpture of a guy and girl in bed.  And there was this one big painting—I mean it was HUGE, the size of a billboard, it covered almost an entire wall—and it was painted entirely black.

“And I remember standing in front of it, looking at it, and I said aloud, to no one in particular, ‘Well, that’s just stupid.’

“ ‘You think so?’

“I looked up to see Ms. Haussermann standing beside and behind me.

“ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s just black.  That’s dumb.’

“Ms. Haussermann said, ‘Try looking at from over…’  She took me by the shoulders and moved where I stood, all the while looking to the painting to the lights overhead and back again, even bending over a bit so she could see it from my point of view.  ‘… here. Now what do you see?’

“My voice trailed off because suddenly I did see. The paint was just black on black, but the brush strokes were in this huge, complicated, swirling pattern.  It was really cool, kind of like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, or like a paisley design, or… something, I don’t know.  I think I just stood staring at it for a while.  When I finally looked around again, Ms. Haussermann was gone—talking to another student or something, I guess.

“Anyway, ever since then, whenever I see artwork that seems dumb and pointless, I can’t help wondering if there’s something that I’m missing, that if I just look closer I’ll see something really cool, something that isn’t obvious.

“So that’s why I can’t just dismiss free verse poetry as bad and not read it, not publish it,” I explained to my sister.  “I mean, if so many people like it, there’s got to be something to it, right?  So what am I missing?  Is there some sort of ‘hidden brush stroke’ I’m not seeing?  Or is it really just bad?  I don’t know.  I don’t know enough to know.  Not yet.  That’s why I’m researching it.  I’ll tell you this, though…”  I leaned back and took a sip of soda. “I sure wish there was some kind of poetry expert ‘Ms. Haussermann’ to explain free verse to me.”

So what do you think? Is modern art pointless? Or does it mean something to someone, even if it’s not particularly profound? Let me know in the comments below! And after you type that, check our my books, and you can tell me if my art is pointless or not. 🙂 However, if $1.99 is too much to pay for a comment, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

3 Responses to “Stupendous or Just Stupid?”

  1. rebecca s revels April 2, 2021 at 7:28 am #

    My thoughts, for what they are worth. It is all in the eye and mind of the beholder. We look at a painting or sculpture and should feel something. It should, touch us in some way. Even if that way is an indifference to that particular piece. Personally, I have written both traditional and free verse poetry. The free verse, is like a world without boundaries. You are able to read it in a way that touches you. I wrote many with limited punctuation, so again, the reader could stop, start and hesitate at will. To where the words, like a painting, touch a part of their imagination and spirit and bring about an emotion.

  2. Kassidy Vargas April 10, 2021 at 2:12 pm #

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what you’ve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.You’ve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

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