“Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained” by Susie Hodge

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Defiant title, yes?  With this eye-catching title, Hodge obviously wrote this book for people who dislike Modern and Contemporary art.

 In her book, the author counters this criticism by claiming that while Modern and Contemporary art looks childish on the surface, these works contain potent commentary on the cultures it came from.  Working with this theme, Susie Hodge wants readers to educate themselves on why people from these eras made art that looked “childish”.

At the beginning of the book, Hodge provides a brief historical introduction starting from the Renaissance to the present.  Here, she notes that because of technological advances that happened (such as the camera), it would seem ludicrous for Modern and Contemporary artists to continue imitating the Old Master traditions and not play with the new inventions made available to them.  Furthermore, the Old Masters lived under the mercy of academy rules.  After all, Contemporary artists had more control over what they could create.  This cultural shift in power led to the experimentation we see today.  Filled with such examples as recent as 2006, Hodge portrays the artists as social activists with an awareness of a fast-paced modern world filled with new opportunities and problems.  Opportunities such as new technology and problems such as rampant consumerism and excess trash harming their environment.  The book includes a lot of artwork with environmentalist messages.

As Hodge dedicates two pages to her selected artists, she gives historical context on the work, the artist’s life, and where to go to find more from this person.  Since Hodge wants to defend these artists against the criticism that they made childish work, she dedicates a caption box to each art example explaining that while a child could make this, that same young person could never put powerful social connotations.  The phrase “Method behind the madness” comes to mind.

What surprised me from reading this book, came from her inclusion of artists such as Rene Magritte, Alexander Calder, Alfred Stieglitz, and the duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.  Because usually when people claim that “a child could have made that” it meant that the artist had no talent.  Just my opinion on what this accusation meant.  On Magritte and the others I named, you can tell that they brought a significant amount of skill to their work.
Overall, I enjoyed the book.  I liked learning about artists I had never heard of and I enjoyed reading about the historical context behind each artwork.  I did have some criticisms.  The book gave no bibliography of any kind that showed where she found her information.  Furthermore, with only a few Asian and women artists, do not expect a very diverse selection of people.  Lastly, I think Hodge contradicts herself when she claims a child could not have done that when she profiles artist who took direct inspiration from art by children.

Now that I have learned the context behind the artwork featured, I have grown to actually enjoy some contemporary artists.  This does not work for every artist I learn about, but that happens.  You can’t love them all.

Question:  You come across an artwork and you initially do not like it.  However, when you learned about the history behind this artwork, did you grow to like it?  Did you respect the message behind it?

Before you object over learning about the history behind an art era so you can understand it, remember: history involves people (and experts) analyzing why events occurred the way they did.  You have to understand the culture that inspired these events.

So, what’s wrong with enlightening yourself and making the past less opaque?

Update 2-9-2015: Added a link and altered another.

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