Herald Journal Columns
Oct. 17, 2005, Herald Journal

Decoding modern art, sort of

By LIZ HELLMANN

Ever been to a museum and wondered why you bothered spending $15 to see what you could have seen at the local landfill?

Maybe I just lack culture, but “modern art” can look more like modern garbage than anything else.

Some say art is in the expression, the experience you see in the piece. It communicates deep meaning about the artist.

If you look closely, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the artist’s life.

All right, I’m an open-minded person, I’ll try anything.

And so, with an open mind, I wander into an art museum in Chicago my senior year of college.

A few friends and I were in town attending a conference, when we decided to take a break from the lectures and spend our last afternoon soaking in the city culture – aka roaming around the terribly windy streets, gazing at impressive skyscrapers nestled next to manmade parks in search for something that could bring us “culture” on a college student’s budget.

Since there were no “Ramen noodle” café’s (Ramen noodles are the staple of any good college student’s diet – they take seconds to cook and pennies to buy), we stroll into one of the art museums.

Admission was free, at least monetarily speaking.

In other words, there was no charge to be let into the museum, but you still had to stand in line to get a ticket.

When it was our turn to receive our “free” ticket, we realized your body received a free pass, but your conscience did not.

Signs were posted everywhere explaining that the museum was run on donations. Donations of which the museum was “extremely appreciative.”

That’s worse than just making us fork over a couple bucks.

Now, the burden was placed on us. Are we going to be the kind of people who walk in without laying a single cent down? Would we turn our back on the boys and girls of this neighborhood who need the museum to stay open?

Are we going to rip out the roots of this positive structure by refusing to donate to this noble cause?

Even after handing over several dollars, the pang of guilt remains. What is education worth to us? $5, $10, or $20?

What should have been a simple fee for entering the museum became a test of our moral character.

Trying to forget our ordeal, and justifying our monetary amounts, we meandered our way past the standard art museum exhibits.

Once past the various photography, sculptures, and paintings wings, we descended into the last section of the museum.

We became a bit concerned the farther we walked down the stairs. What had begun as a journey down a well-lit, well-marked stairwell, had become a journey into a black cave.

Suddenly, we were in a sort of maze, in which long hallways zig-zagged through walls painted black, with hardly any light at all – I’m convinced it was a warning of the twisted environment we were about to enter.

Just as we began to think we should turn around, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. We followed it into a sprawling room, with high ceilings and white walls, identical to the ones upstairs.

But there was one major difference between the room and ones upstairs.

What hung on the walls upstairs I recognized as art. The objects and paintings these walls seemed to collect were, well, indescribable.

Staring at an aluminum sheet contorted in bizarre fashion, with bits of Styrofoam nailed to it, and paint spattered on it, I tried to think about what sort of meaning it could possibly hold.

Truth is in the eye of the beholder, and the meaning an object possesses is only useful if you know what that meaning is.

But I was at a loss, so I tried to imagine what the author of the sculpture might have been doing while concocting such an oddity.

I tried my hardest to “see the vision” in the piece, to learn about the artist.

All I could see was a person getting up early in the morning. He walks out to an alley, and begins rummaging through a dumpster.

Upon finding the prize scrap of aluminum, he triumphantly marches to his studio.

He stops on the way to pick Styrofoam packaging out of a refrigerator box on the curb.

Giddy with delight, he takes his newly found treasures to his studio and begins twisting and hammering them together.

He is almost finished when he hammers his thumb. Angrily, he jumps up, knocking a paint can down, which spatters the statue.

As his thumb throbs, he stares at the sculpture, confident he has portrayed modern man’s angst in all its glory.

Ah, but he has failed. Because I stand before it today, not with a feeling of angst, but joy.

I laugh because I have no idea what the meaning of the piece is, but I find it amusing to picture the middle-aged artist hopping around his studio, grabbing his thumb, paint spilling everywhere.

Maybe that ultimately is why modern art is interesting. Since it seems impossible to me to garner one precise meaning from it, the fun is in making up your own meaning.

I’m sure serious artists would shudder if they read my layman’s approach to the subject, and probably liken my writing to words carelessly spattered across a page.

But, in my opinion, it’s a risk they take by trying to convey complex emotions using Styrofoam and paint.