Arguing art: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Any time I get a chance to go to a museum, I take it. While not artistic myself, I do enjoy seeing all kinds of creative things, like paintings, sculptures, dioramas, and more.

This often puts me in the position of defending some kind of art to someone who may not get it (think so-called “modern art”). My philosophy is simple: If it makes you feel good when you look at it, then it is good. Still, even I have to admit there are some really crazy things in the world of art.

One time we went to MASSMoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a truly wonderful place where you never know what you will encounter. They once had a car hanging from the ceiling.

Right as we got in, I noticed a stepladder with an open can of paint and a wet paintbrush on the little fold-out shelf. I thought that was a little odd but I figured that the maintenance guy was on his break.

After we’d toured the museum, we passed by that stepladder again and it was only then that I realized that it was actually “art.” How about that.

This is like the exhibition I read about where the garbage on the floor — empty coffee cups, McDonald’s wrappers, and the like — was art as well. The janitor got reprimanded when he tried to sweep it up.

True story: A 91-year-old woman wound up inadvertently vandalizing a $116,000 piece of art. The piece, hanging on the wall of a museum, looked like an empty crossword puzzle. Alongside it was a sign that said, simply, “Insert Words.” So that's what she did.

The management decided not to press charges because “she didn't mean any harm.” Very similar to the stepladder I saw at MassMOCA. Is it art or isn't it? Who knows?

This is where it gets hard to defend modern art. Does that mean the mess in my garage is art? Or the overstuffed closet, the sink full of dirty dishes? Using my rule — does it make you feel good when you look at it — I'd have to say no.

But then you look at something else and you have to think twice. Again at MASSMoCA, there was a display on the wall of just the bottoms of the typical brown bag you’d pack your lunch in. Doesn't sound like much but the way they were arranged was quite attractive, so there you go. I never would have thought to do that but it really did work.

One artist you probably have heard of is the late Thomas Kinkaid. Not long ago, he took the art world by storm with his quaint, homey pictures of little log cabins or rustic houses nestled by babbling brooks or at the base of snowy mountains. He even had a chain of stores — there was one in Albany — where artists trained by him would put the finishing touches on his original canvases that you could buy.

I remember reading interviews with people who bought his work, and it all came down to the fact that, when you looked at one of his paintings, you knew exactly what you were looking at. It didn't have to be explained to you before you could appreciate it. No one wants to feel stupid, especially when simply looking at a picture. Which brings up my all-time favorite art story.

I had roped my friend who is not a fan of modern art into a visit to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in Manhattan. We were having a good time looking at everything until we came upon a very large, white, square painting.

For all intents and purposes, it was just a large canvas painted white. In effect, it looked like the starting point for a picture; certainly not like an actual finished work. The straw that broke the camel’s back was in the write-up on the little card that described the painting.

“Without doubt,” the card said, “this is by far the greatest work of this artist's career.

Upon reading that my buddy had enough and we had to leave. How can you defend something like that?

In the book “Breakfast of Champions” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. one of the characters finds himself in a similar situation, having to defend a painting that consists of nothing more than a white rectangle with an orange stripe running down the middle. In the book, the patrons of the art gallery are getting ready to riot, as they feel they've been ripped off by the artist.

Then it’s explained to them that the white part represents mankind, and the stripe represents all the conflict in the world (I'm simplifying greatly but this is the gist of it). When it’s explained to them this way, they all sigh, “Oh, now we get it,” and everyone is happy again.

Vonnegut, the true genius that he was, nailed it perfectly, though I wonder if even he could have explained the symbolism of the garbage on the floor that is supposedly art.

Recently, I finally had the chance to research that plain white picture at MoMA where my friend, upon seeing it, made us walk out of the museum. Turns out it’s by a very famous artist called Barnett Newman.

The painting in question is part of his “The Stations of the Cross” series, and is truly considered his masterpiece. He subtitled this series “Why have you forsaken me?” — a reference, of course, to Jesus Christ’s last words.

Now, just like in the Vonnegut book, after hearing it explained that way, don't you feel a little different about that plain white square? Maybe the plain whiteness of it symbolizes there is nothing left but for Jesus to return to God the Father for all of humankind's salvation.

When you look at it like that — or when someone tells you to look at it like that — even a plain old white square can be hauntingly, almost painfully, moving. It sure makes it much more interesting, at the very least.

So that’s the never-ending conundrum with modern art. One day, I was walking in a glass-enclosed hallway, having just gotten a cup of coffee. Outside the wind was blowing fiercely, such that some random garbage, like straws, newspaper pages, and coffee-cup lids, was blowing in a swirling, circular pattern, around and around and around.

It reminded me of seeing smiling kids’ faces on a merry-go-round as they happily go around and around. Yes, it was just random items blowing in the wind but it was truly one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. If it makes you feel good, it is good.