Susie Hodge’s guide tells us that to appreciate modern art you need to understand it.
For anyone who has ever demonstrated indefatigable wit in a gallery of modern art by quipping that the canvas with the pretentious label in front would sooner serve to line the cat litter than the walls of even Elton John’s stairwell, the book Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That is a saving grace.
In its admirable lack of pretentious description, it is equally good reading for those seeking to understand how it is that in the world of modern art, the provocative can conquer the aesthetic.
The basic premise of Susie Hodge’s guide is that to appreciate modern art you need to understand it.
Hodge is impressively impartial. She doesn’t imply, for example, that the viewer who shrugs his shoulders at Piero Manzoni’s 90 tins filled with his own excrement has mistaken a masterpiece. She focuses, instead, on contextualisng the work in the history of ideas so one can appreciate what motivated it.
And so Manzoni, she explains, intended to parody the heady valuations attached to art and put a spin on 1960’s consumerism. How nice for him, though, that no one yet has dared open a single tin of his Artist’s Sh-t to verify its contents for fear of denting its own heady valuation. Few children, indeed, could appreciate, let alone execute that.
Hodge’s explanations as to why a five-year-old could not have made each of the hundred selected artworks in this book always go beyond the standard daddy come-backs ‘could have done it, but didn’t’, or ‘it’s all in the idea, not the execution’.
Occasionally, they’re slightly over literal. ‘It is possible that a young child could make a squirrel, perhaps out of felt’ Hodge says of Maurizio Cattelan’s staged representation of a stuffed squirrel post suicide (Bidibidobidiboo), but no child could so ridicule the art world or contemplate mortality.
But, contrary to what the book’s title implies, these explanations are relegated merely to side boxes; the greater part of the book comprises more general introductions to the world of Conceptual and Abstract Expressionist art.
The trouble is, there are five different boxes on each page spread, and while there’s a key to explain what each means, there's no consistency in the colour used, making this far less accessible than the standard museum guide it seeks to resemble.
Seeing as it’s often the provocation of modern art that makes it so alienating, it would also have been interesting to hear a little more about what distinguishes, say, Cy Twombly’s often indiscernible (yet inspired) scribbles from the output of other artists, especially in terms of contemporary response. Hasn’t art always sought to shock?
No criticism of the selections, however. Every artist who should be in a book like this is – Mark Rothko with his colour block canvases, Marcel Duchamp with his cast of a urinal, Claes Oldenburg with his fast food fantasies, and Grayson Perry’s nouveau-antique vase paintings. This is deceptively wide-ranging and inquisitive coffee-table reading.
Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That, by Susie Hodge (Random House)