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Mark Rothko, painter of NO. 61 Rust and Blue, was a con­tem­porary artist. | Wiki­media Commons

Mark Rothko, one of the greatest con­tem­porary American painters, created NO. 61 Rust and Blue, one of the best encap­su­la­tions of the purpose of modern art. His son wrote that this piece “was not made to com­mu­nicate who [Rothko] is, but who we all are.”

While con­tem­porary art is deeply indi­vid­u­al­istic and abstract, it shows us uni­versal truths about who we are, which is why it is an essential piece in a liberal-arts edu­cation.

As a double major in art and pol­itics, I am fre­quently ques­tioned why I would choose to get a second degree in art as opposed to some­thing more prac­tical. There is some­thing about art that cap­tures human nature at our core. 

Art is the study of beau­tiful things. The artist’s job is to engage with beau­tiful things and try to replicate them in some way. There is no better way to know your creator than to study his cre­ation purely because it is beau­tiful and good. 

Hillsdale chal­lenges its stu­dents to form a certain habit of mind, to become drawn to things like freedom, calmness, mod­er­ation, beauty, and wisdom. 

Every­thing we learn is a part of a col­lective whole. Every subject fits together and is in con­ver­sation with one another. There is great merit to the sci­ences, and one cannot be a good sculptor without under­standing the nuances of human anatomy or follow the movement into cubism and abstraction without under­standing the physics of the early 20th century. 

Art is a subject that engages with every other field of study. 

The case for clas­sical art is more apparent, but to fully under­stand our soci­ety’s roots and future, we must study con­tem­porary art. I am most cer­tainly among the minority of people at Hillsdale College who gen­uinely enjoy modern art. Many people find it unin­ten­tional or bizarre, but the truth of the matter is that modern art is one of the clearest visu­al­iza­tions of the prin­ciples of the American char­acter. 

Our founders under­stood the deep need for autonomy. At our core, we wish to be able to do as we please, to make our own deci­sions and live as we see best. As long as our actions do not infringe on another, there are no problems. 

Pol­itics and art have always been closely inter­twined. At our founding, Amer­icans were deeply impacted by the neo­clas­sical movement. They admired how it paid homage to the great works of the Greeks and Romans, and it was a strong departure from the European baroque style. 

In the late 1800s, Amer­icans wel­comed impres­sionism. In the 1960s, we embraced autonomy and self-expression and pushed modern art into the fore­front of our culture. Uncon­ven­tional art has always been a defining feature of the American char­acter, in a time when there is more art being created than ever before, we should be embracing this new movement.

Many people simply do not find con­tem­porary art engaging or mean­ingful. They find it unap­pealing and con­fusing, but that is because, at its core, modern art is just as messy as the person who created it. It is not done for a patron or even for the enjoyment of the general public. The artists create an expression of who they are, shown through the medium of their choosing, whether that be paint, film, or broken dinner plates. 

These artists are trying to artic­ulate a rela­tionship between forces greater than them­selves, whether that is God, nature, or pol­itics.

Great art is the kind that has some­thing mean­ingful to say.

Modern Amer­icans must re-engage with the art world. Con­tem­porary art can look odd and unap­pealing, but the values it clings to and the con­ver­sa­tions it engages in are all fitting with our American char­acter. We wish to be free to be an indi­vidual, no matter how odd or messy that looks. 

Many con­tem­porary artists are cre­ating pieces that are uni­ver­sally under­stood. Others try to convey some­thing more mean­ingful about a small part of their lives. Their art requires context. But both are trying to engage in con­ver­sation and define these higher rela­tion­ships. 

One of the most pow­erful pieces I have seen is “Love is the message, the message is death” by Arthur Jafa. This short seven-minute film gives a glimpse into the life of African Amer­icans in modern America. Footage from bas­ketball star Michael Jordan, former Pres­ident Barack Obama, and singer Whitney Houston are con­trasted to scenes of police bru­tality and poverty to the tune of Kanye West’s “Ultra-Light Beam.”

I had never seen a piece that so per­fectly encap­su­lates the dichotomies in modern race rela­tions. 

But this is art’s job. Art exists to bring us into con­ver­sation, to show us some­thing about who we are, where we are going, and where we’ve come from. 

Reagan Linde is a George Wash­ington Fellow. She is a sophomore studying art and pol­itics.