The Garish School?  Yes, Matisse was a laughingstock—until Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased this painting in 1905.

Everyone knows the ‘story’ of modern painting: how brave ‘experimenters’ kept pushing the envelope of color and primitivism and hedonism, how the inevitable ‘movements’ kept moving forward, forward, forward in spite of bourgeois close-mindedness, in spite of Nazi and Soviet Realist opposition, how the cutting-edge manifestos and theories manifested themselves brilliantly in strange and original masterpieces of the new—which to this day only scientific geniuses and the very hip can comprehend.

We all know this ‘story.”  It’s been repeated so often that to question the basic premise of this story would be heresy.

Here’s the theme of the story:

1. Modern art had to develop the way it did, step by step, movement by movement.

2. Moral representation was replaced by painterly hedonism.

This is the all-important theme, and this theme, as much as modern art itself, is part of us, and, by now, even ‘the uncool’ have bought into its coolness, and the rich, based on painting price tags, have, of course, bought it, too.   The iconography has worn us down, simply on account of its being seen enough times, and the icons of modern art have become our vision and our story—whether we are pleased by it, or not.

It is almost as if we have been invaded by the iconography of modern art, and just by having been seen enough, the invaders have won, for this is all iconography asks:

‘I came, I was seen, I conquered.’

Modern art has been converted into coin—the blockbuster prices of Van Goghs and Picassos and Pollocks and Warhols, if nothing else, convince even the doubters: something is here, something is going on.   But what is going on?  What really is ‘the story?’  Is it the one we are told, over and over again?

Shakespeare is performed all the time, all over the world, and no one doubts that this is so because Shakespeare is good: there is depth and truth in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s work doesn’t cost a pretty penny; there is no coin to own.  Shakespeare belongs to the people’s hearts and minds; Shakespeare doesn’t belong to iconography in the crude sense of an invading army: the visuals of its armor gleaming in the sun.  The poetry of Shakespeare does not belong to our eyes, but to our souls.  By its very nature, Shakespeare’s poetry cannot be owned by one museum or one man, the way a modern painting, worth millions, can.

Art that we cherish as a society belongs to everyone.

Genius belongs to everyone.

Manifesto belongs to some.

Some art belongs only to a few, the few who can manipulate it and buy it.  But art that interests the few, and belongs to the few: is it really art?  Or is it agenda?  Manifesto?   How do we know what art is really worth?  Does great art really have ‘worth’ in the material sense?

Can we put a price on The Mona Lisa? If DaVinci’s painting went on the market tomorrow and were ‘sold’ for a certain price,  how much would that ‘price’ be based, not on the work itself, but on its iconographic status, on its status as a recognized icon? And how could its ‘worth as art’ possibly be separated from its status as icon?

Wouldn’t the price fetched by The Mona Lisa dwarf what a Pollock or a Warhol goes for these days?  But The Mona Lisa, as well as most old art treasures, would never go on sale, and therefore the ‘art market’ isn’t a real market—it’s very artificial and weighed towards those newer works that do not belong in the category of The Mona Lisa, a painting that will never be ‘for sale.’

It’s not that Andy Warhol could not compete with The Mona Lisa, but that no market can ever tell us what art is worth, (or not worth) to a society.  Art either belongs to society, the way Shakespeare does, or it does not; the rest is merely iconography and market manipulation: artworks facilely converted to coin by private enterprise.

One could certainly invest in works of anti-art, because anti-art does not truly belong to the people—which makes it a great deal for an investor who wants to own something that no ordinary person could, or would, own.   Money, circulated coin, belongs to people, even poor people, occasionally, but the yacht and the painting can only uniquely belong to the wealthy in their desire to display what they own.

Is modern painting anti-art? Is this the very reason why certain elites love it?

Andre Derain is a forgotten modern master, a Fauvist right there with Matisse, better known and more important than Matisse in his day.  Why is this garish colorist and primitivist painter, as garish as Matisse, forgotten by everyone today?  Because Derain doesn’t fit ‘the story.’ The Nazis loved him, and wined and dined him in Germany, in 1941.

We can’t spoil a good story, now can we?  The Nazis supposedly hated modern art.  That’s one of the pillars of ‘the story.’

The modern painters ostensibly stood for freedom, not for reaction, and this ‘story’ must be upheld, even if it makes no sense, even if freedom is only being used as a word, and art is not really free, anyway.  The important thing is how ‘the story’ plays on the street.  That’s the important thing: how it plays.

Another modern master who is never included in ‘the story’ of modern painting is James Whistler.  Why?  Because he, too, doesn’t fit ‘the story.’   Whistler is at the absolute forefront of modern painting, and yet artists like Manet and Monet and Matisse completely overshadow him when modern painting is discussed.

Look at Whistler’s modern art creds:  1. Exhibited at the Salon des Refuses with other icons of modern art, such as Manet.  2. Was involved in a highly public libel case with art critic John Ruskin in which Whistler’s “Art for Art Sake” ideals were put on trial against Ruskin’s Victorian morality.  3.  Was one of the first painters to use color and painterly interest for its own sake.  4.  Was an extremely well-known,  talented, and controversial painter.

Why, then, doesn’t Whistler ‘fit the story?’   How often do you hear  Whistler’s name when the history of Modern Painting is outlined?



Because Whistler was his own artist.  Whistler belonged to no movement and Whistler obeyed no manifesto.  He didn’t paint one way, and therefore did not fit into any pedantic directionalism.

Whistler’s painting (1874) which John Ruskin hated.  Whistler worked in many styles.

We tend to assume that every Modernist art movement and manifesto is progressive, when the truth is, Modernist art movements and manifestos are retrograde and reactionary, whirlpools of slick pedantry which kill individualism, common sense, and art.


  1. July 28, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    I think the official story of the moder artists standing for “absolute freedom” fits in well with Thomas Frank’s early work in books like “The Conquest of Cool” and “Commodify Your Dissent”–where he talks about the way market capitalism coopted the counter culture and turned it into the latest marketing trope. I kind of read the story of modern art as the early version of it, and also the one that demonstrates how market capitalism inevitably leads to fascism, or is even fascistic and elitist in its seedling form.

    True freedom in society is presented as the state of affairs where a few “brilliant” (or well connected and sociopathic) individuals are allowed to accumulate as much wealth as they possibly can, even at the expense of the majority, with absolutely no restraints placed upon them. True freedom in art is presented as a state of affairs where the “brilliant artist” creates obscure works that are understood only by an enlightened few and are then purchased by the finacial elite. Since I am a political radical, I have no problem noting that the very accumulation of wealth that allows for some rich person to spend millions of dollars on a painting of any sort is morally obscene in a world where billions go hungry every day.

    There is also a whole cold war element to the rise of non-representational “modern art.” The CIA directly funded a lot of the international journals and newspapers that pushed this stuff as the ultimate and new during the post-war years, in order to seduce the intellectuals of Europe away from the evil influence of communism. And for the young aspiring artists, the sales pitch from the west was far more appealing that the soviet-bloc prescriptions a la social realism. On the one hand, you can be a brilliant genius following your own individual muse. On the other, you must create a certain type of realistic work that aims only to glorify the masses.

    Personally, I find the forced split between one or the other to be tiresome. I like social-realism quite a lot. I am pretty sure Walker Evans would be placed in that category and I can look at his pictures for hours. But I also love Van Gogh and Picasso. I regard Pollock and Warhol as nothing but marketing scams. I fundamentally distrust the critical acumen (and honesty) of anybody like Silliman who brags about weeping over his face to face encounter with a Pollock, because it represents some sort of transcendent example of human accomplishment.

  2. horatiox said,

    July 29, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    The modern corporate-art-business is obscene. Ho-wood producers buying and selling Pollock drip-masterpieces for millions should outrage us . Nothing’s likely to change that state of affairs, apart from radical politics, either links oder rechts (or …..jihad).

  3. Suhas Nimbalkar said,

    June 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

    When you see a painting, old or modern if you FEEL something within you that is ‘art’. Period.

  4. David Sarkies said,

    August 21, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the nature of art. There are a lot of things that I have never considered when thinking about art, Thankyou for sharing your thoughts.

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