Five reasons why modern art seduces — and confounds — us

We’re dazzled, and sometimes frazzled, by our encounters with contemporary art. Marc Mayer, former director of the National Gallery of Canada, draws back the curtain to show what’s behind the art that can be so fascinating and yet so confusing.

Former National Gallery Director Marc Mayer explains why understanding contemporary art is challenging

'Fountain' by French artist Marcel Duchamp. Art curator Marc Mayer considers Duchamp to be a ‘great liberator,’ who perfected obscurity. ‘I can imagine him really enjoying that people are trying to figure out what he deliberately did not mean for you to figure out.’ (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

*Originally published on April 27, 2020.

Marc Mayer is the former director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, and art has been his life's work. So it might be a little surprising to hear him say this: 

"We can't really see art for the artworks. We're all about the artworks… I've dedicated my life to these things, and never really thought about what's going on in the background."  

It was a deep encounter with nature that awakened his interest in 'the background' — or the forest floor, of the art world. For years, Mayer has owned a run-down farm in New York State that, over years of neglect, had become a forest itself.

Marc found himself the steward of this forest.

'Just as you can’t see the forest for the trees, you can’t see art for the art works. We must understand forests, not just trees, in order to protect our quality of life,' says Marc Mayer. (Submitted by Marc Mayer.)

Mayer was struck by reading The Hidden Life of Trees, the bestseller by German forester Peter Wohlleben, and the 'woodwide web' of interconnections throughout the forest. He was also fascinated by The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf's award-winning 2016 biography of the Prussian polymath, Alexander von Humboldt, who had a eureka moment atop a volcano in Ecuador in the early 19th-century.

Mayer relates the story and the impact it had on him. 

"[von Humboldt] said: Mein Gott! Nature is a living whole and not a dead aggregate! And then you could hear this collective 'duh', from all the Indigenous people of the world. You Europeans are just figuring this out now, in 1806? Something we've known for thousands of years? Well, anyway, I was just finding it out at the same time, too."

Mayer decided to apply this principle of interconnectedness to the world of visual art and culture.

In March 2020, Mayer shared his findings publicly for the first time in a talk organized by MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto) entitled, Modern Art Explained, Its Secrets Revealed

Mayer identifies five elements that he sees as integral to the formation of contemporary art as we know it today. 

1. History

Mayer starts with history, since, he says: "history is in the background of all human affairs."

He identifies the French Revolution as the catalyst for a transformation in the role and the work of artists. Artists trained to entertain the aristocracy found themselves both freer and less stable in their profession in this 'modern' world. And they found common cause with scientists.

"The scientists are the model Modernists. And a Modernist is someone who says: to hell with the past, to hell with the mystifications from the past. We want to know what the truth is. ... So that requires a scientist to be free. They need to be autonomous. Otherwise, science doesn't work," says Mayer.

'Moulin sur une rivière' (Landscape with Mill), a late watercolour by Paul Cézanne. His remarks about painting often fused the spiritual and scientific: 'Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations, and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting.' (Wikimedia)

"This is very attractive to modern artists. This is how to be modern, is to be like a scientist. And so an awful lot of what we know about modern art and what it really is, what's going on in the background, is the scientific method adapted for artistic uses."

2. Originality

In the realm of science, Mayer says, originality is everything. A discovery can only be made once. Further discoveries might build on preceding, but even those must be able to demonstrate some new standard of knowledge.

Mayer says there's a 'cult of originality' in art.

"We're obsessive compulsive about this in the art world … artists are the freest people in the world today, the freest profession. They're far freer than scientists, as any scientist will tell you. But they're not free not to be original."

3. Obscurity

Just as the work of scientists is obscure because their subject — nature — is difficult, the work of artists is also obscure, Mayer argues. The difference is that while scientists are inadvertently obscure, artists are deliberately obscure.

There are good reasons for this, he maintains: a work that is challenging or mysterious "slows down the viewer", and distinguishes artworks from other visual media (like advertising, or pornography) that are designed to be assimilated immediately.  

Marcel Duchamp said of his piece entitled Bicycle Wheel: 'To see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting…I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in a fireplace.' Marc Mayer argues that obscurity helps to slow down the viewer. Perhaps that’s true of the artist as well. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

On the other hand, obscurity can fracture the relationship between artist and audience. Mayer explains why approaching and understanding art can be so hard:

"It's supposed to be hard. The reason it's supposed to be hard is that the artwork itself isn't the be-all and end-all ... The artwork is just the match. Your brain is the cigar. That's what you're enjoying," Mayer explains.

"All this wonderful stuff is going on in your head. It's not going on on the wall. The wall, the object on the wall, or on the floor, or in the air or whatever, is just initiating a process of ratiocination that is really cool and lots of fun. And it's a way to escape our mundane world."

4. Nomenclature

Mayer says that while the Latin and Greek roots in scientific terms may seem pretty impenetrable, the naming conventions exist for the sake of precision, so scientists from different countries could 'speak the same language'.

In art, there's a similarly strange nomenclature. And according to Mayer, "it doesn't mean a thing! These things are meant ironically very often."

'Retroreliefs' from 1935 by Marcel Duchamp; designed to spin on a turntable. 500 sets were made, and 300 were lost in the Second World War. They didn’t catch on commercially, but scientists and filmmakers loved them for their optical effects. (AP Photo/Keystone/Georgios Kefalas)

He says that while names and 'isms' often have low information value in and of themselves, he says that they can be fun to decode, and that they're necessary.

Mayer compares this necessity to a hockey game.

"You say well, that first player from the blue team passed the puck to the other player from the blue team. And then that nasty one, that really aggressive one from the orange team, took the puck from him. You can't have a conversation like that. You need to know the players' names. There is a fallback plan if you don't know the players names in hockey. That's numbers on jerseys. Well, there's no numbers on any jerseys in art, or art history. So you have to know the names." 

5. Democracy

Mayer argues that liberal democracy is a key force behind the development of modern art. He cites the ideal of the individual citizen as the base unit of power in a democracy.

Mayer sees the individual artist as the base unit of cultural power in a democracy. He isn't naive about the fact that democracy and Modernism both have a ways to go before equality and mutual respect are realized. But he is optimistic that the art world has learned to be more inclusive and less bound by an academic formalism over the past 20 years or so. 

"I think the art world became very interested in what women had to say when they were making art about being a woman, as opposed to making art about being an abstract expressionist, and [in] what Indigenous people were [doing]. What kind of ideas are we going to get from them? From queer art?," asks Mayer.

Understanding artwork is supposed to be hard, says Marc Mayer. 'Artwork is just the match. Your brain is the cigar. That's what you're enjoying.' (Submitted by Marc Mayer)

"And the global art world — has the art world actually globalized? Yes, to a certain degree, but [in some ways] not quite yet. What that meant was a rush of new originality, a rush of new ideas, a rush of new kinds of obscurity, and suddenly our once moribund, formalist, ironically formalist art world was alive and thriving as it is today. Democracy is what's going on in the background."

In his talk, Mayer lays out the movement of currents he believes have been going on in the background of the art world for 150 or more years — but (for the most part) he's careful to keep his opinions to himself. 

But Marc Mayer clearly has a hunger to get a conversation going. That may be why he concludes his talk with a question to his audience: 

"Given the foregoing, and presuming that you agree with me… is this the culture that we want?" 

More about the guest in this episode:

Marc Mayer has been Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, Director of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, Deputy Director for Art of the Brooklyn Museum, Director of the Power Plant in Toronto and, most recently, Strategic Advisor to MOCA Toronto. He is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster based in Toronto and Delaware County, New York.

* This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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