Banksy’s latest prank — a painting that self-destructed as soon as it was purchased for $1.4 million at auction — has reignited discussions about the nature, purpose, and definition of art, with some claiming that it’s yet more proof that modern art is trash. As someone who spent a lot of time in college studying art history, I find that reasoning rather specious.
For starters, much of the art that we now consider “timeless,” “important,” or “classical” — the stuff that’s held up as “real” art as opposed to that modern crap — was often extremely commercial in its time. There weren’t necessarily any lofty artistic ideals associated with them (though some artists may certainly have had ideas for pushing art forward, starting movements, etc.).
During the Renaissance, guilds were frequent sponsors of artists. However, the art they commissioned was as much commercials or advertisements for their services as anything else. I wish I could remember the specific pieces, but I vividly remember my art history professor walking us through various paintings and sculptures and pointing out how particular elements were, in fact, intended to show off a guild’s power and prestige. In time, some of these pieces have come to be seen as “artistic” masterpieces, as something higher and nobler, but when they were created, they were essentially billboards.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t try to apply some objective standards when evaluating art. Neither should we be afraid to criticize art that we find immoral and objectionable or advocate for art that we consider beautiful and meaningful. However, our criticism ought to be tempered with some humility.
Art often gains value and importance over time, as later generations are able to better understand its social, historical, and aesthetic context — context that we’re simply oblivious to right now. (Conversely, art that’s considered important by its contemporary audience may easily fade away into obscurity within a generation or two.)
In other words, we shouldn’t be so quick to label all “modern” art as trash simply because we might think it vapid, unprofessional, silly, or inconsequential right now.
In their time, Van Gogh was considered a failure and an amateur, Monet’s impressionism was seen as a joke, El Greco was brushed aside with disdain and contempt, and J. M. W. Turner’s later work confused his contemporaries (to name but a few examples). It took decades, and even centuries, for their art to attain the status that it now possesses, that being the timeless and priceless work of masters. The same will almost certainly be true for some “modern” artists that are easily dismissed today.