The Decline of “Museum-ed” Art

“Musuem-ed” art of the contemporary era is declining in quality, requiring less time, skill, and effort to create than the masterful works of the past.

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You’re standing before a giant canvas that has just sold for tens of millions of dollars. For something worth so much, you were expecting to see the epitome of realism, so realistic that you might have thought it was an extension of the room or a real person facing you. You were expecting to see vivid brush strokes with such emotion that you could feel them as you walked by. However, this is far from the reality.

This piece is Onement VI, painted by Barnett Newman in 1953 and sold for a record-breaking $43.8 million. The painting is enormous, standing at 2.5m x 3m. However, the canvas depicts nothing but a monotonous blue, a single white line slashing through the middle.

When we look at classical pieces of “museum-ed” art from the likes of 15th-century Leonardo da Vinci and 17th-century Jan van Huysum, it doesn’t take long to understand why their works are so highly priced. The techniques in each piece are of the highest quality, utilizing skills that would take a lifetime to perfect. From depictions of humans to flowers, each artist used their own unique talent and creativity to paint a truly otherworldly perspective of reality. 

One of da Vinci’s most famous paintings, the Mona Lisa, has been praised by artists worldwide for its skillful techniques and is estimated at over $1 billion. Da Vinci applied his detailed studies of human anatomy to develop a mathematical system that determines the perspective of the painting. His mastery of the arts allowed him to perfect the technique of “sfumato,” which creates seamless transitions between light and shade. His observations of the sky and environment as a scientist helped him to paint the complex landscape of the painting. All of these combined methods make the Mona Lisa a true piece of “museum-ed” art, worth the amount that it’s been valued at. 

However, beginning in the 20th century, museum art began to take a strange turn. Now, pieces that lack the skilled craftsmanship of the past can still obtain astronomical price points even when they seem to show or mean nothing at all. Artwork no longer has to be masterfully drawn to garner high valuations but instead can be virtually anything.

Take, for example, Jackson Pollock, one of the most well-known artists of the contemporary art era. Pollock’s No. 5 piece is supposed to represent forces that are constantly moving without beginning or end. Despite this, the actual artwork is a ginormous 2.4m x 1.2m canvas with nothing but random splatters of differently colored paint. Completely contrasting the elaborate techniques that da Vinci used, Pollock’s painting was made by simply dripping, splashing, and pouring paint on the canvas. While there is no doubt that this still counts as art, the piece was sold for an astonishing $140 million, a price higher than the masterful works of Claude Monet and Jan van Huysum. Monet’s most expensive piece, Mueles, painted in 1890, sold for a little over $110 million. To create the piece, Monet used a complex method where he painted the same scene over and over to effectively capture the changing lighting, texture, and colors of the passing seasons. Huysum’s most expensive piece sold for only $4.7 million, despite the fact that he had dedicated his entire life to studying flowers in order to paint them. Completely unlike the “museum-ed” art of the pre-contemporary era, which required years of meticulous practice, research, and understanding to create, most contemporary art can be done without extensive techniques or study and still be priced higher. 

Another famous piece of “museum-ed” contemporary art is Interchange by Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning. The 2m x 1.7m abstract canvas, painted by de Kooning during his figure studies of women, is supposed to represent a sitting woman. The painting doesn’t seem to have any meaning beyond this, depicting irregular slashes of color and unfinished lines, yet it stands as the second most expensive artwork ever sold, at $300 million. The first is da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was painted employing many of the skillful techniques he used to paint the Mona Lisa and took 11 years to complete. De Kooning simply used quick gestural moments to paint sporadic patches of color, doing so little, yet his work is valued at a price comparable to that of da Vinci’s and far higher than any classical painting ever made.

While there is truth in the many that say “museum-ed” contemporary art is still a form of art, there is little reason why these low-effort pieces should be priced similarly to, or significantly higher than, classical works that required both time and skill to create. Pollock’s No. 5 and de Kooning’s Interchange both feature techniques that need little to no practice or work to employ, yet reached incredible prices similar to those of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi and Monet’s Meules, paintings that utilized a lifetime of study and time. Essentially, contemporary artists are able to get away with attaining extraordinary valuations on their pieces without putting in much effort to paint them, almost mocking the great classical artists of the past or innovative, younger artists of today who put their everything into the works they create.

With how things currently stand, the era of contemporary art has swept in a new wave of “museum-ed” pieces that require less and less time and skill to produce, yet are still selling at tremendous prices. Trying to force the exorbitant prices down is nearly impossible, but trying to influence people’s opinions on the actual value of contemporary works can help change the price disparity between low-effort contemporary art and high-effort art pieces. Introducing “museum-ed” art that truly requires great amounts of effort and skill to create, whether from the past or modern-day, may help to increase exposure and subsequently increase appreciation for these works. Over time, museum-goers may begin to realize the absurdity of contemporary art prices and the true value of actually masterfully painted pieces. If a person’s opinion cannot be forced to appreciate the skillful craft of artists who actually put time into their art, providing them with the resources needed to change their opinion may be enough to sway them.