Art Shaming

Often when people find out I’m an artist, they will lean in very cautiously, and embarrassingly admit to me that they just don’t “get” most art being made today. They try to understand it, they tell me. But it just doesn’t make sense to them. They are a victim of art shaming.

If you are one of these people, and I’m pretty sure nearly everyone is one of these people, I’m here to tell you that you are not an idiot. That it is very brave to admit that you don’t understand something at which the rest of the world is smiling and nodding, whether they understand it or not.

Art shaming is rampant in the contemporary art scene, and it adversely affects many of us. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Art shaming

Invisible Suits

There is a children’s tale I am fond of called The Emperor Has No Clothes. In it, a hoodlum convinces the Emperor that he is the best tailor in the world, and will make him the most beautiful suit humankind has ever laid eyes on.

It’s a magical suit, where only very smart people can see it, the suit-maker insists. The suit-maker asks the Emperor to provide the raw materials, pure gold thread of course, so that he can weave the magic fabric for the suit. The suit-maker pockets the gold thread and hands over an invisible suit.

When the Emperor tries on his new “suit”, everyone congratulates him on his beautiful suit. They are afraid to say the Emperor is naked because it means they are stupid. So the Emperor goes on parade to show off his new invisible-to-stupid-people suit. Only one person – a child – points to him and asks why the Emperor has no clothes.

The child is the only one with an Innocent Eye, the only one in the crowd who is able to truly see without being blindsided by the labels and the “expert” in the story.

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It’s OK to Not Understand Modern Art

Many people don’t understand the majority of Modern Art, but most of us are afraid to admit it.

It’s like admitting you can’t see the Emperor’s suit.

We are art shamed into going along with the experts’ narratives even as we experience cognitive dissonance between what we see and what we are told is great artistic mastery on par with a Da Vinci or Hokusai.

Smart people are supposed to “get” Modern art whether it makes sense to them or not. 

I’m a licensed art teacher, a professional artist, and a recognized expert in the field of art. And I am here to tell you I don’t get most Modern Art, and it is ok if you don’t get it either.

It doesn’t make you stupid to look at a can of human feces and not understand why some people think it is monumental or Earth-shattering.

It’s ok to look at a Jackson Pollock painting and think to yourself, “My child can do that!”  As someone who teaches art to children, I can assure you that dripping paint on a canvas is cognitively something a child can absolutely do, as I am sure you already know.

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Your Art Opinion Is Valid

There is no reason to be ashamed of not liking a work of art, or to allow anyone else to art shame you for a perfectly valid opinion.

When we allow ourselves to use our Innocent Eye and not rely on experts weaving invisible suits, we get the joy of using our own judgement and discovering our own aesthetic preferences. 

We don’t depend on interpreters to tell us what foods we like to taste or which books we like to read, although we might appreciate recommendations. 

Art doesn’t have to be any different.

Do you feel visually moved by the machine spilling blank pieces of computer paper from above? If you do, great. If you don’t, that doesn’t make you dumb. 

And if a supposed artwork is stupid to you, you can say so with confidence. You can say it the same way you might declare “I don’t like anchovies” or “I can’t stand Orlando Bloom’s acting outside of Lord of the Rings”.

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Art Traps

It is not surprising that there is so much generalized insecurity in the population about understanding art.

Branded Artists and the Museum Elite love purposefully setting up laypeople for failing to recognize what curators claim is a masterpiece, and then art shaming their victims.

In 2001, Damien Hirst created a work consisting of beer bottles and coffee cups which was, unsurprisingly, thrown away. There was much to-do about how a very important work was not recognized by the person who cleaned the space, subtly implying ignorance and stupidity onto someone who saw garbage and threw it away.

In 2004 a bag of paper and cardboard, a work by Gustav Metzger at the Tate Museum, was thrown away. Again, the buzz in the art world swirled to shame the perpetrator who ignorantly disregarded what the establishment elite had labeled great art.

In 2014, Sala Murat left some cookie crumbs and newspaper in a gallery which was, of course, thrown away.

Frankly, I would have done the same.

Garbage-as-art is continuously set up specifically for the art elite establishment to look down on the unknowing public by purposefully creating a situation where the “art” would be thrown out by people not in the know. This exclusive circle of decision-makers weave invisible suits, and otherwise intelligent people doubt their abilities because it simply doesn’t make any sense.

Garbage-as-art is just one of many games so-called authorities play to enforce their art shaming onto the public.

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Be Your Own Art Critic

I hereby give you permission (not that you need it) to use your own judgement about art. You are entitled to your own aesthetic and to surround yourself with your definition of beauty and good art.

It’s time to stop giving an elite art oligarchy and their crazy-making games complete control over who is allowed to interpret art.

Let’s end the art shaming once and for all. Like the art you like. Hate the art you hate. And own it without fear of ridicule. There is no reason to be ashamed of not understanding something that makes no sense to you. In fact, it is quite brave to inform the Emperor that he is naked.

Further Reading:

What is an atelier?

How to Draw a Person

Colour Theory

Teaching Portraits

Have you ever experienced something being presented as art that didn’t make sense to you? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. Thank you, Mandy, for this piece. I listened to an NPR piece a while ago that described the art world as a silo filled with “smart”people whose exclusive actions actually did tremendous damage to the survival of support for the visual arts. By not including the public in the discussions and by not acknowledging the layman’s taste, they discourage future financial supporters of and participants in visual arts. This isn’t happening in the music world or the film world! Why? Because EVERYONE finds a place to “be”, unjudged.
    Museum participation is down. Visual artists struggle. Unless the art world acknowledges that we all have taste and preference and it’s all good and valid…we’ll, you get what you pay for!

  2. Mandy, I love the realness and bluntness of your article. Questions I wonder about:
    What do we tell our students? We may not connect to all, I. This class we are focused on the fundamentals, even tonight a banana is taped to a wall and sold for almost half a million. That is what is often say! I also say we have to put it in context to the movements before and what the artists are trying to say… say. I remind them Impressionism was initially rejected as not finished And not good! I do n it teach an art history course. I teach drawing,
    Mixed media , paintinf and advanced painting and it is looked at as a fluff class honestly.

    I would love to know how you explain aesthetics to high school level students.

    Ps- I remember a Frazier episode where gallery guests were marveling the sculpture of Windex and the towel. Lol. It was left on a stand.

    I do struggle with where one , including myself accepts the line of “what is art” . It is different for all and I tell my students that , too. I do think there is something about skill!
    Love to hear your thoughts and everyone else’s. It’s a valid conversation!!

    1. Hi Vanessa,

      You bring up many great points and it is definitely worthy of a conversation.

      If my students look at a banana taped to a wall and say “That’s stupid!” I think they are right to have an opinion. Frankly, it would be gaslighting to tell them it’s actually not stupid. (As a side note, I find it interesting that I’ve never had a student never that comment about artwork that clearly has technical merit to it, like a Japanese ink painting or a comic strip.)

      If they ask “Why is it worth so much money?” I encourage you to have them read this book about the economics of the high end art market called The 12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark (please not this is an affiliate link:

      Basically, the contemporary art market is a completely unregulated market where it is perfectly legal to do things, like insider trading, price fixing, etc. that are banned on Wall Street.

      Somehow, at some point, the contemporary art market determined that billions of dollars should be invested in pieces that have no independently verifiable merit (unlike, for example, an Anasazi vase or other art market where technique matters).

      These prices continue to be inflated largely due to status symbol signaling of the 1%. If someone walks into your house and sees a Warhol, they know immediately it is a Warhol. This signals to other 1%ers that you are cultured, well-connected, and/or have a lot of expendable income. This, in turn, creates a group of people who are very protective of the price of their contemporary works. If collectively the group of people decided that Warhol was a hack, 100’s of millions if not a billion+ dollars would disappear overnight. The people that completely control the art market, who can arrange faux purchases of other Warhols to keep prices artificially inflated, are not going to let the price drop. They will use their money, influence, and power to continue to see that the artworks in their possession continue to grow in value.

      Impressionism was originally rejected for different reasons than the history books often state. Remember that contemporary textbooks are largely written by contemporary authors who are largely unschooled in technical atelier skills, and therefore would not necessarily understand the nuance of the fight going on with Impressionism.

      In the late 1800’s, new colors were being invented which were far more chromatic than previously known pigments. Every color has a value, chroma, and hue (please see color theory blog posts for more detail). When you are painting a very intensely pink flower, but you do not have a paint that is as chromatic as the flower in front of you, you can’t just paint it exactly as you see it. Instead, many artists would focus on achieving a correct value and get “close enough” with their chroma. This is largely what happened before the invention of cadmium paints.

      What the impressionists realized is that the color was often being delegated to second class after value with this approach to painting. Now that they had these new cadmium colors, they chose the chroma OVER the value in many cases. This WAS revolutionary in art, but largely because it was a technical innovation. The old guard at the academies did not have the experience or knowledge to paint in this new way with these new colors, and like many who are threatened by new technology, sought to dismiss it.

      But not ALL of the old guard did dismiss it. In fact, the first Salon de Refuses had many traditional AND Impressionist painters. They were upset by the power held by a small number of people determining which artworks would get to be displayed in the official salons. BOTH traditional AND Impressionist painters wanted a power shakeup in the governing bodies that made those determinations, and worked together to create alternative places to display artworks to circumvent the throttle hold of the artworks selections committee.

      No one has a problem with bringing critical judgement to movies or music or other art forms. I am in favor of ignoring extreme power structures in the art world that seek to paint dissenters as “uneducated” and call out bad art for being bad art. Or not art. Remember, they have millions and millions of dollars invested in maintaining the status quo and controlling the narrative around art. Calling bad art, well, bad art – that is truly being revolutionary in our current timeline. I think the Impressionists would be proud.

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