Issues with modern art & intellectual accessibility?

Some more musings on art.

The other week I visited the Tate Modern in London with a friend. We were walking along Southbank on a Saturday night, and realized it was open and decided to stop in- we were there, it’s free, it was on our maybe list of things to see… Yes. Our maybe list. Despite my love in general of art, museums, and history, I always have reservations of modern and contemporary art (and any other art historical classification that may apply…). I think this comes from a number of places- my general background growing up, working in an art museum that displayed BFA and MFA work each year, generally my love of more classical art. But sometimes I can appreciate it, or like it, or understand it. I can understand the effort behind it, the thought process, what a piece represents, the fact that this piece represented a new way of thinking, or invention of a new technique. Or sometimes you’re just drawn to a piece emotionally.

But I think with modern art there is also just as many pieces that I don’t get, understand, can’t appreciate, and don’t like, and it all comes with an air of pretentiousness, and is inaccessible to those who may not already be invested in the art world in some way.

An example.

Fast-Air-Duct-Cleaning    10406981_10155111915665587_1653772005164321378_n

One of these photos is an image from google of ‘air duct’ the other is a piece of art in the Tate Modern.


Some of you may be wondering what my issue with the piece from the Tate is. The point is that everything is art; it depends on the viewer; on the moment; on the context. And this is where I think art becomes elitist and inaccessible. Up until this point I had been admiring Dali, Picasso, various photographs, interesting sculptures. I didn’t necessarily like them all. But I could admire them. When I got here, I got a bit angry. Here we are at a time, when most museums are trying to be increasingly accessible, fun, appealing, engaging, and this can come off as isolating, or even a bit insulting. How is a working class person supposed to engage with something like this? All I could imagine was a construction worker walking through the gallery, maybe a bit confused, maybe not, and coming  across this. How is this air duct any different than ones he just installed earlier today? Why is it worthy of being called art? What did the gallery pay for it? Why is it worth more than anything he handled that day, and got paid much less for doing so?

I am encouraging friends, family, strangers, that museums are fun, have something for everything, that art is accessible! You don’t have to know what those lilies in that Renaissance painting represent, but you can still admire the skill of the artist, identify with the figures, think that puppy is cute. Not here. I think this is the line where it becomes confusing, elitist, and inaccessible, and the general public has trouble identifying, and may resent the art/museum world. This is where tax dollars are being spent? It’s hard to talk about art, and that there’s something for everyone, when this is what people’s view of art can be, and it can be so intellectually isolating. And it shouldn’t be.

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Ever seen an art piece or show that made you angry, or just wonder ‘…why?’


2 thoughts on “Issues with modern art & intellectual accessibility?

  1. If everything is art, then nothing is art.
    And then that makes art museums “nothing” museums. No one wants to go to the nothing museum.
    As you mentioned Art being reliant on context, I think art museums should also stress the point about delivering context. The information on *why* Salvador Dali’s work was important needs to be just as accessible as the art itself. And when it isn’t there, it comes off as stuffy and pretentious. This goes beyond art, too. If I go through a classic museum’s gallery of pottery shards – it’d be nice to know the context around those shards and what makes them more important than any other piece of clay. When a museum presents something and doesn’t give you that context, it seems just as pretentious because it puts an expectation of knowledge on the viewer, which will make it less accessible to the general public.

    To me, I think it’s because most Modern Art museums focus on being galleries first and museums second. Their focus is on getting the art seen, not getting the art explained. Even Art that exists “without explanation” needs that to be stated.


    1. I agree- I do think context is huge and can make a world of difference, especially when that information is presented in a range of ways, with a range of different visitors and learning types in mind. I do think though that even without any context, someone without any background might be able to admire a DaVinci, for example, based solely on technique perhaps, but this seems impossible with many modern art pieces, notably like the one I posted above. (but I’m certainly not advocating for contextual information to disappear-it’s vital).

      And I definitely agree about Modern art museums- they do seem to want to separate themselves. I did wonder a bit as I was writing this post: ‘Maybe accessibility isn’t even the issue- maybe they don’t even want the art to be accessible to everyone.’ Because it certainly feels that way sometimes. Although I don’t know if they would admit this at this current juncture.


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