My Contrarian View of Contemporary Art

“Conversations in Contemporary Art,” Barnard Magazine, Summer 2018.

Contemporary pseudo art’s stranglehold on the culture is reinforced by countless prestigious institutions—among others, my alma mater Barnard College.  Since 2011, Barnard has been offering alumnae and friends a “lifelong learning” course entitled “Conversations in Contemporary Art” [more], aiming to demystify such work through an insider view of the artworld.

Taught by art historian Kathleen Madden ’92, the program was initiated by Diana Vagelos ’55, a generous supporter of the college, and Joan Snitzer, director of the college’s visual arts program. Vagelos (who also collects art with her husband, Roy) says of the course: “It helps people overcome ignorance of what’s happing in modern art, which is so different from what most have been brought up with.” Indeed!

An article praising the program in the Summer 2018 Barnard Magazine prompted me to pen the following letter to the editor:

The view of today’s art espoused by Kathleen Madden ‘92 [in “Conversations in Contemporary Art”] is one that many art lovers question. We do not think that visual art made in our own time, in a familiar cultural context, should require expert intervention to be appreciated. Nor do we consider the primary role of art to be getting us “to talk about the issues of the day.”

As I argue in Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, the primary role of art was always to embody important values in a directly graspable and emotionally compelling way. Today’s “conceptual art” requiring expert explanation grew out of the explicitly “anti-art” gestures of the 1960s. It was not art then, and it should not be considered art now. Programs such as Barnard’s “Conversations” sadly perpetuate its false claim.

I’m happy to report that the letter was published in the Fall 2018 issue of the magazine. Judging from a discernible uptick in sales of Who Says That’s Art?, I suspect that at least a few of my fellow alumnae were responsive to my contrarian view—as was a classmate who had posted a class note in the Winter 2018 issue about the book’s “highly critical view of much of contemporary art.”

Any chance that Snitzer, as director of Barnard’s visual arts program, might be curious enough about my Commonsense View of the Visual Arts to search for a copy of the book in the Columbia University Libraries catalog and inform her students about it? My guess is (to borrow the immortal words of Eliza Doolittle) not bloody likely—given the sort of paintings Snitzer herself produces, pictured here.