Wednesday, December 26, 2007


In the comments with readers after my last post I wrote,
if you go online and look at the 2,284 drawings in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you will be stunned by the amount of unmitigated crap in their collection....the ratio of money to talent at the MOMA cathedral is downright asphyxiating.
Some of you scolded me for hyperbole.  After all, would the distinguished Museum of Modern Art really acquire "unmitigated crap"?  Surely I'm just applying outdated standards to pioneering works?

In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I'd post some of the offending artwork to see whether my open hearted readers can point out the mitigating qualities I'm missing.  Here is a selection of masterpieces currently enshrined in the collection of MOMA:

As I browsed through dozens of crummy drawings such as these, I noticed that whenever I was tempted to give a drawing the benefit of a doubt I found I had to deduct points for pretentiousness. For example, MOMA does not appear to own a single drawing by Disney, yet it proudly features many lame drawings of Disney subjects by inferior artists:

Why should MOMA display such drawings while turning up its nose at Disney's original work? Perhaps the answer can be found in a press release issued earlier this year, wherein MOMA touted "a psychological collage made by slicing and reconfiguring the pages of Walt Disney coloring books." The drawings in MOMA's collection ain't lowbrow Disney entertainment, buster, they are psychological collages.

To be clear, MOMA has many exquisite pieces.  But someone at MOMA obviously believes that no matter how badly a picture is drawn, it can be redeemed by an intellectual purpose.  This puts a heavy burden on the picture's intellectual purpose. Regrettably, these drawings and their "intellectual purpose" both strike me as unmitigated crap.

However, I am confident that my network of art lovers out there can explain what I am missing.


Edward Kinsella III said...

I studied conceptual/fine/body/performance art at a fine art school for about a year. The excitement of going to art school to learn to make interesting pictures was quickly destroyed. I felt that everything I actually liked in art was being put down and laughed at. Almost everyone around me was making pictures that didn't show much at all, but as I was told "Said so much about the artist's self." I didn't get it. I didn't understand how a Rembrandt and a guy squirting paint out of his ass could be put next to each other. It didn't make any sense. I gave this new kind of art a chance, and tried really hard to like it because apparently everything else was cliche and had been done before. After one year, I couldn't take it anymore and enrolled in an illustration program at another school. I had found my place.

I don't think bad drawing by established artists should be automatically put down. I think there was and still is a small group of extremely talented conceptual artists. These artists make images that could be called bad drawings by someone looking for something pretty, but in actuality have great ideas behind them. Just like with any movement, there are many followers. Maybe because the drawings are essentially "bad drawings", it is hard to distinguish what is actually good from what is bad.

It also seems that there are many artists that just make pretty pictures. A marriage of the two is a great thing, but I think there is still room in the world for the other two extremes. I feel that if its called a good piece of art.....prove it!

deryke said...

OMG sooo true. you shoiuld do that for all the BIG museums.

peacay said...

Well, the MoMA would have little competition from me at the auction house.

Although I'm not really qualified to comment in many ways, I often find the fare on display at modern art galleries to be the least accessible in a general sense - I suppose curators feel a pressure to range widely in both style and (inadvertently) quality as they try to tap into the current trends.

But seeing some of those Yoshitomo offerings, you have to wonder whether or not places like MoMA have as adequate a vetting process for purchases as might be considered prudent.

Best of the silly seasonings to you David!

Mark said...

I cannot wrap my brain around why this stuff is called good. I mean c'mon.

harald said...

At one time or another I learned that the purpose of a modern art museum was to show what was being done currently. I don't think it excuses purchasing it.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts; "Modern" art or whatever they call it nowadays, is more writing then visual art. The visual part is just a pretentious add on to try and give the concept more meaning. Occasionally, OCCASIONALLY, there are pieces of "conceptual" art that strikes us and is moving, but more often are these con-artists who write a statement about absolutely nothing, for the sake of watching people eat it up for lots, and lots of money. Most of this mitigated crap is the latter- I would wager at least 1 of them is just an average guy who wanted to see just how far he could go on a Bullshit Boat, and needless to say I think he's pretty far away. This stuff belongs on an old yellowed fridge at Grandma's, not in a gallery.

Anonymous said...

Precisely why I show old Jello ads in my gallery and people walk in and don't get it. They are expecting pretentious new art, and I just won't show it. New art, yes, of course, but not the junk that replaces first class visual satisfaction with second rate intellectual goo.

Love your blog. You make me think AND laugh, which is a winning combo.

David Apatoff said...

Edward, I am with you; I have no biases against one exteme or the other. I am deeply moved by some conceptual/fine/body/performance art, as well as more representational work. There is good and bad work at both ends of the extreme (although my experience is that there is more hubris on the avant garde side of the spectrum.) By the way, I enjoy your work very much.

Thanks, Deryke. It would be fun, wouldn't it, but it would also be a full time job and we strive for a more positive message around here.

David Apatoff said...

Good to hear from you, peacay. To tell the truth, one reason I was particularly indignant in this week's posting was my recent visit to your blog posting on Flora Sinensis. As pure art, the illustrations in that 17th century book about indigenous sub-tropical plants in China were far superior to much ot the art currently hanging on the walls of MOMA (I loved, for example, this beautifully designed picture). But while so much of the MOMA art is self-centered and inward directed, I love the fact that the Flora Sinensis pictures were simultaneously a constructive buildling block of botanical science.

Happy new year to you. I look forward to following Bibliodyssey in 2008.

Li-An said...

Well, these works need some explanation to understand. Something very boring for me: art with "how and why" notice. Conceptual art is going in a no way out road.

Gary said...

You see, what you've just done here is underlined the point that you made in the previous Krazy Kat pos, underlined it in big black bold marker pen.


Drawing is fine art, a fine drawing is art to behold, scribbles can be, but not all scribbles are fine art, not even close sometimes.

David Glassey said...

An artist friend of mine stated to me once that conceptualism may have started with Leonardo's notebooks and Michaelangelo's unfinished sculptures.

Kagan M. said...


Jason Waskey said...


I looked at the whole collection to get my own take on what you had to say. Thanks for the link-- I wouldn't have found it on my own.

Some thoughts...

A good portion of the collection contains great pieces, and the quality of those pieces is directly related to the year in which it was produced. After the 40s, the overall quality of the drawing in the collection takes a nosedive.

The artist you chose many of your particularly bad selections (Nara) is over represented. I suspect that the museum would be divesting itself of most of the collection over time.

While I don't really have much of an issue with a good deal of the work represented (including Nara's work), I was really surprised at the exclusion of some truly important "Modern" artists from the collection. No Hopper? No Benton?
Heck, what about Ware or Speigelman?
All drawers, some represented elsewhere in the museum.

And finally, I would point out that the focus of the collection (especially from a point in the fifties onward) is not on representing drawings that stand on their own-- rather the focus is on archiving of works on paper (collage, photos, etc)-- many of which are studies for more complete works. I think that focus is rather telling-it renders much of the collection an after thought, the institutional equivalent of a 'behind the scenes' DVD feature of a hollywood blockbuster.

For me the crime isn't even the quality of what's in the collection-- that is entirely subjective (although I believe you and I are pretty much on the same side of the spectrum), and not terribly productive.

The crime to me is that the museum clearly doesn't treat drawings themselves as equal to other forms of visual expression, and that's truly sad.

Thanks for your site, and have a great holiday season!



Anonymous said...

If you think the MOMA is full of crap, you should go to DIA:Beacon. It is literally a warehouse for childish one-line ideas and pretentious art apologetics. Garbage rationalized with bullshit (to coin a phrase).

With fifteen great instructors and the DIA floor space and budget, a new american rennaissance can be started. Instead we have rooms and rooms of cold dull sneering and smirking cynicism.

MOMA and DIA are protectorates for an ideology and its investors. The Rockwell show at the Guggenheim was the shot across the bow in the war that eventually will topple the modernist edifice. At least this is my hope.

Jack Ruttan said...

I think the MOMA is doing archives, a continuing sampling of where American art has been through the years. One can't always tell from contemporary standards of 'excellence." Critics and audiences of any day often ignore threads which turn out to be important later.

Monetary and 'name' value is where I have the most problems with contemporary art, but though I illustrate for money I think there's a bad schism between the worlds of illustration and fine arts, which needs to be mended. Better art criticism would help, for a start.

Josh (musarter) said...

I agree with much that is being said. I think Jack Ruttan's comment is really insightful. Why the distinction between fine art and illustration still exists I don't know. These days illustrators tend have more craftsmanship and actually communicate.

Ambigous interpretation is cool but sometimes it is nice to just see something that is done well or is beautiful. I'm not saying all modern art is not done well or does not require skill; it just seems that a lot of it is overly pretencious and inaccessable to anyone who doesn't closely follow the art world and movements.

Tom said...

It's not just MOMA in N.Y. that tries to promote garbage by calling it art, David. MOMA in San Francisco has an a real men's urinal mounted on the wall, in a prominent display location, with a crumpled bag of kitty litter on the floor below it. Yeah, that is now considered art by another so called "legitimate" modern art museum!! I was hesitant to walk into the men's restroom at MOMA, skeptical as to what might be hanging on the walls. As for those scribbles that are suppose to be important graphic statements by important modern artists, I see similar statements on the inside doors of toilet stalls in most public restrooms. Need I say more on the subject?!!... it deserves less than 0, on a scale of 1 to 10! But I agree that it needs to be addressed from time to time.

Tom Watson
retired illustrator

RJ said...


Once again, you are right on target. Excellent post.

By the way, in the June 2007 issue of Art in America (in an article titled “Art schools: a group critique”), I recently came across a new term: "de-skilling". Evidently, the concept of de-skilling is something that is being embraced by many art schools, particularly in MFA programs.

If you or anyone else would like to see some more examples of de-skilled artwork, take a look at my most recent post on my blog, titled "Art on Vacation" (January 2):


Anonymous said...

All I can say is that I finally got around to watching "Art School Confidential" last night, and now I am more determined than ever to avoid drowning in a pretentious artspeak ooze over the course of my art history BA (and possibly MA, sigh).

I don't know yet how to distinguish "good" art from "bad" art. "Art School Confidential" really hammered home the point that craft, and even message, are totally irrelevant in the contemporary art world. Obviously this is just one point of view, but the works displayed in this post make me wonder what the hilariously (and infuriatingly) pretentious character called "Eno" would have to say about them. I can picture the thoughtful nods of his classmates now. The main character, Jerome, is clenching his teeth somewhere in the back. Do we art-lovers all just alternate between those three roles? Does anyone, including the artist, really know what is going on?

Anonymous said...

I saw Art School Confidential the other night and it does a good job showing how someone with true talent can get lost in a system where fame is controlled by money and people who have money but no artistic eye.

Even if something is done with little technical skill, I give it some merit if it looks like the artist actually worked hard and took a lot of time in the creation of the piece. The examples posted show no care, no talent, and no toil- they're trash.

Gregorio said...

I can't agree more unfortunately we have to wade through the rubble to get to the emeralds.

Anonymous said...

My god, I couldn't agree more. At the local museum, one of the things they had up was a Jeff Koons hastily colored coloring book page...I dunno, I I out of touch? I felt the same when I saw Lichtenstein so long ago, while the very comics he was using as his templates were looked upon as garbage. I am working on my MFA here at SCAD in Savannah, so I have had to take my share of contemporary art classes and, despite some amazing work produced during this period, it does seem that, in the search of the new, all that was produced was a lot of new crap.

Dude Can't Draw said...

[sorry for the delete/repost, I messed up my html tags]

As a completely unskilled novice artist, and a very skilled seasoned art appreciator, I've learned not to put parameters on what I consider "good art".

That's not to say I don't make that judgment call on individual pieces, but every time I've tried to quantify what it is about certain types of art I like vs. what I don't, something comes along to shatter that.

I used to turn my nose at minimalism. How ridiculous to put a couple lines on a canvas and claim it's art. Then I run across the "Hard Edge" movement and am blown away by the architectural beauty and simplicity of the likes of Lorser Feitelson or Karl Benjamin.

Sometimes it doesn't matter whehter it's "good" or "bad", simply that it is. On an aesthetic level I despise Dadaism and avoid it as much as possible. However I feel we're all indebted to its existence as it keeps everyone on their toes, challenging us to look beyond convention and not accept things at face value.

Just because it's hanging in a museum, no one is imploring you to like it. Art has no more or less value than is given by the audience. If someone appreciates it as art, it's art to them. And just because I can't for the life of me understand why people like certain genres of, say, Renaissance art no matter how skillfully done, that doesn't invalidate their place as art pieces. Same goes for you not connecting with certain contemporary art pieces, no matter how unskillfully done.

Nina said...

Thanks for posting these pictures! I used one in a posting about the history of geometry. I appreciate the research that went into selecting them.

DB Dowd said...

David, you are a subtle and informative explicator of images that you favor. I enjoy your writing very much, very often. But you veer into unnecessary and immoderate pronouncements with language like "unmitigated crap." Part of the reason that illustration has yet to find its place in serious writing and thinking about visual images is that its proponents often suffer from a crusty form of anti-modernism which is beneath you. I am not fond of many of the images you posted, but Ed Ruscha (Hollywood is a verb)is no slouch. Looking at/reading images of the sort you posted then denounced requires a different set of criteria than strictly formal and communicative ones. Often this requires engagement with different cultural territory. Typically I am brought up short by much of what I see in contemporary precincts, and I do not think it is a strong period for art by a long shot. Illustrators, by and large, are engaged in a different cultural activity, which is why museums like MOMA do not collect them. One can be diffident in the face of these things, even irritated, but harrumphings of the sort you have dumped on your readers here play to their biases and lower the standard of discussion, which you have done so much to elevate. If you want to engage in a debate with contemporary art, you will have to take it more seriously in order to make progress. I would skip it, and focus on the work you love, and write about so well. Regards.

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, li-an, gary, david, et al., It's good hearing from you.

rj, I had my own encounters with "de-skilling" in art school. A famous abstract artist instructed me to close me eyes when I drew. When the result wasn't adequately "de-skilled," he had me close my eyes and draw left handed. It can be an interesting exercise on a one time basis, but its value wears thin awfully quickly.

David Apatoff said...

db, I have the highest regard for your thoughtful analyses of art and illustration, and I am flattered that you show up here, so I take it seriously when you suggest that I "veer into unnecessary and immoderate pronouncements with language like 'unmitigated crap.'"

It seems to me the central dilemma of judging art in our era is how to balance open mindedness, tolerance and respect for different tastes on the one hand against vacuity and total lack of standards on the other. Both extremes are essential; if you forsake either charybdis or scylla, your taste and judgment (and even your enjoyment of art) will suffer.

I haven't met anyone yet who has found perfect equipoise between the two, but in our era the overwhelming presumption seems to be in favor of the former, and in my view the quality of much of our recent art has suffered as a consequence. Survey the MOMA drawings and see if you agree,

I agree that our default position should always be the serious and patient consideration of the strange and the new. Personally, I enjoy a variety of post modern, abstract, conceptual, and performance artists. I could just as happily have a blog showing and talking about contemporary "fine" art that I enjoy.

But if a person evaluates the strange and new and (even under the default standard described above) still finds no redeeming value, then I believe that the term "unmitigated" is the appropriate term. As for the word "crap," I used it not because it is fun to say, but because I think we owe it to good artists to distinguish the good from the bad, the profound from the superficial, the sincere from the lazy. And when we have done so, to rescue their work from the swamp of subjectivity in no uncertain terms.

People have been schooled to believe that all art is valid, and besides a sensitive person wouldn't say things such as "unmitigated crap." You might legitimately add that such terms will be counter productive because I am more likely to be dismissed as a "crusty anti-modernist." That is why every once in a while I try to remind people that I like Christo, Beuys and a host of other more avant garde artists.

I think that at this particular moment in the history of art in this country, the greater danger is from permissiveness rather than from intolerance. You would probably agree that the vast majority of money, fame, headlines, museum space, academic attention and respect all go to contemporary abstract and avant garde art, as opposed to illustration, commercial art, comic art or other pictures tainted by capitalism and traditional skills. We would probably disagree over whether museums ignore illustration because it is a "different cultural activity." After all, museums reach out to embrace the different cultural activity of graffiti artists, Polynesian craftsmen, the mentally ill, children, outsider artists, and computers. Apparently the only cultural activity that is too "different" to tolerate is art in the service of commerce. I view that as more an act of hubris than taste or principle. In the face of such an art establishment, it is difficult for even a judgmental lad like myself to feel guilty of intolerance.

The single greatest thing about a blog, as far as I am concerned, is that it gives the author the gift of liberty. As Camus said, "liberty is the right not to lie." However, I don't underestimate the responsibility that comes with liberty. I do believe that Ruscha is a truly minor and formulaic artist, but I would gladly hear from people who see more in him, or in the work of the other MOMA artists represented, than I do,

DB Dowd said...

David, for whatever it's worth, I have continued to reflect on this exchange and elected to post on it myself at
I invite your click and rejoiner(s). Great work, even as I joust with you a little. As should be clear, I appreciate your work. Best DB.

Catherine A. Moore said...

Hey kenmeyerjr... I'm starting the M.A. program in Illustration at SCAD in March!

I tried to find the graphic novel "Art School Confidential" at the Madison Public Library, and while they had the DVD and the screenplay, no book. Says something about their concern for the art, I think.

Topher said...

First off, your blog is very insightful, and I think this is a great discussion!

However, I agree strongly with Bowd when he writes:

"..[the] harrumphings of the sort you have dumped on your readers here play to their biases and lower the standard of discussion, which you have done so much to elevate. If you want to engage in a debate with contemporary art, you will have to take it more seriously in order to make progress."

For me, with all due respect, the labeling of some of these drawings as "unmitigated crap" is deceptive, as they are taken out of context of the artists body of work. I see the statement as pretentious in itself.

I feel the outright exclusion of work that does not fit into a given box is counter productive. As a result it seems you may be missing the point (as I see it, at least). These drawings speak to a greater context than that of "drawing".

For example the Disney drawings - of course they are not as accomplished as the originals. Yet, and maybe I'm going out on a limb here, perhaps they reflect the assimilation of those images into culture, as seen through the pencil of lesser draftsmen. The fact that they are bad drawings may be the very point. But that certainly doesn't make them "unmitigated crap."

One may ask, why do we need to see originals anyway? We know they're accomplished drawings already. There's something to be said for looking at the same idea from a different angle.

While I may feel MOMA's made some iffy choices at points, and I don't resonate with a few pieces, I would hate to oversimplify the dialogue just because I don't understand it initially.

Dude Can't Draw sums it up nicely when he refers to Dada:

"I feel we're all indebted to [Dada's] existence as it keeps everyone on their toes, challenging us to look beyond convention and not accept things at face value."

David Apatoff said...

Christopher, I can't blame you for agreeing with Bowd; I'm having trouble deciding whether I agree with him or me more. I would urge you and others to visit his excellent
blog where he and I have continued our discussion. Please weigh in if you are so inclined.

As for your other comments, you have a generous and patient approach to "different" art, and it is hard to argue with that. If a drawing looks bad on its face, you assume that it might be rescued by some "context" that we don't yet know about, or that the fault may be yours because "I don't understand it initially." I tend to share your caution "initially," but I also believe that the whole point in developing the judgment and taste to evaluate work is to be able to draw conclusions eventually. Besides, if a drawing is going to make me work hard to understand it, it has to promise a commensurate reward at the end. I agree with you and Dude that Dada rewarded our efforts. Do you see a significant reward here?

I posted this "quest for mitigation" in the hope that someone would write in and explain the value of these works. Instead, everyone writes in and says "it is possible that they could have hidden value we don't understand so we must give them the benefit of the doubt." Does that suggest something to you?