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10 Years of FILTER: Issue #5 - EndNote: “Abstract Art Is Shit” by Conrad Keely

By Staff on February 10, 2012


10 Years of FILTER: Issue #5 - EndNote: “Abstract Art Is Shit” by Conrad Keely

2012 marks FILTER Magazine‘s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.

 In Issue #5  (released May/June 2003), FILTER began adding EndNotes to close each issue—basically a guest opinion, be it written, drawn, collaged, photographed, soliloquized, what have you. Conrad Keely, illustrator and founder of the Austin art-rock band  ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, set the tone with his brief but detailed analysis of abstract art vs. realism. [Editor’s note: Conrad later admitted to receiving “lots of shit” for this essay.] 



By Conrad Keely;  Illustration by Akiko Stehrenberger

I RECENTLY VISITED two museums in Sydney, Australia: the National Gallery, which housed an impressive collection of Victorian-era masterpieces, and the Museum of Modern Art. Walking through the fourth floor of the latter, we passed by one installation piece. It was a pile of coal on the ground. This, I thought, is what modernity has reduced art to-- a pile of coal on the ground.

Modernity, it seems, has robbed art of 20,000 years of development. Some modern artists I've spoken to don't even feel it necessary to look back upon the development of art. Art, as far as they're concerned, started in the 20th century, when someone declared "anything can be art."

can be art?

Visual art is about ways of seeing. It's one of those explicit truths whose simplicity makes it easy to forget or take for granted. When studying art on a theoretical level, we are often challenged to define art and the question is turned into to philosophical one: can it be defined, and what, after all, is art? These attempts to over-intellectualize something which is fundamentally intuitive have led many to believe this is a complex, or even unanswerable question.

But the truth is that art is definable. It does, and has, served a function for thousands of years now. It is concrete, living, and in many cases, quantifiable.

During the 20th century, a conspiracy took place to viciously defame the merits of the old academic art style. Gallery owners, drive by profit and greed, chose to back abstract expressionist painters because of their far more prolific output. No longer held by bounds of pressentation, they could finish a canvas in one day, where the old masters might spend one year on a canvas, sometimes longer.

The result was "modern" art.

Within this art form, the artist's idea, or "concept" takes precedent. Most of us were probably taught in art clas that we outh to be free to "express" outselves. And as wonderfully as this might serve to turn every human being into an artist, this really isn't what art has ever been about.

In fact, it is important to remember that art as expression is a recent development- at least, the artist's personal expression. Throughout history, it served three very specific functions -- it exemplified an ideal represented an object, or narrated a story. Even the first paintings done in caves were not abstract exercises in self-indulgence, but beauiful, sometimes sublimely realistic representations.

 Photo by Victoria Stevens 

I decided to try an experiment. A friend of mine has a four-year-old daughter who is bright for her age. I asked her to give me her opinion of which paintings she preferred. First, I would hold up a piece of realism, say, Alma-Tadema's "Spring." Then, I would hold up an abstract work, say, a Pollock or a Rothka. Without fail, each time she showed disinterest or perturbation in the abstract work and tended more to remark on the "prettiness" of the realistic piece. This led me to wonder, "Were we taught how to appreciate abstract art?" If so, it would appear that its appeal is intellectual rather intuitive. Its purpose is to alienate those "not in the know," (i.e.-the uneducated) and create an artistic elitism. But art, in my mind, ought not to be an elitist thing at all, but rather serve to elevate all of humanity.

I believe the beauty of the academic artistc tradition is endangered. No longer are students taught the fundamentals of draftmanship and representation, but rather to "tap into their feelings" or even "defy the rules," without ever having been tuaght them. Especially this farce called "installation," in which the observer is meant to glean, from a haphazard collection of objects, the artist's true intent. Honestly, do we really care?

Do the unadulterated eyes of a child see abstract art for what it really is: a bunch of paint thrown randomly on a canvas? Is a four-year-old child really going to see allegory to the artist's pain, or is she simply going to see a pile of coal on the ground? F

Access all previous "10 YEARS OF FILTER" features, Here

This article is from FILTER Issue 5