My Cat Could Make That

Untitled splatter painting by Jackson Pollock 

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Untitled splatter painting by Jackson Pollock Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Adrik Nevalainen, Student Writer

My cat could make that is a popular phrase used to criticize modern and contemporary art. Many phrases like this one exist, but all of them are used to describe what could be objectively “bad art.” And who could blame them? Why should you waste your time and money to look at ill-composed paintings or slumping sculptures that have no relevant comparison to what is objectively considered “good art?” Then what is good art exactly?

According to Art Goda, good art has a “strong emotional impact on the viewer; long lasting, unforgettable impression.” By this definition, what makes good art is extremely subjective. Someone can find Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings innovative and unforgettable while others might criticize these works for the lack of skill taken to produce them. Despite this, one could easily argue that Rembrandt’s piece titled “The Night Watch” is a masterpiece. Concluding this, what makes good art is not necessarily based on a rubric. So now I’m confused, how could someone find a splatter painting by Pollock comparatively as marvelous as Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”? 

The Artsy Podcast, No. 50: Why Rembrandt's Night Watch Is So Famous | Artsy

Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”  on display at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo by Artsy.

The answer is that a comparison between the two can not be made. The works of Pollock and Rembrandt represent two opposing genres of art–figurative versus abstract. Although art can be respectfully criticized with subjectivity, abstract art has always been met with more popular hostility. In an article by the Virtual Instructor, abstract art is the most misunderstood form of art. Obviously, art is subjective, but you can not defend art using a subjective narrative when one genre is popularly seen as objectively bad. 

Abstract art is just bad, but personally, this is a very shallow conclusion. The common denominator that explains why abstract art is so bad is based on the lack of skill to produce it. To clarify this, anyone can make a Pollock splatter painting, but not everyone can make a Rembrandt masterpiece. That is an understandable conclusion; however, what if I told you that the purpose of Pollock’s pieces were not meant to be admired? 

From an article by Learning English, it references an interview with the departed artist. When the artist was asked about why he didn’t paint realistic pictures, his response was, “If you wanted to see a flower, you could go look at a real one.” The point of Pollock’s work was to visually depict the movement and chaos of the modern world. He, like many artists during this time, resonated with a new movement in modern art called abstract expressionism. This movement is defined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “the authenticity or value of a work (is made) in its directness and immediacy of expression.” The whole point of this movement was to capture thoughts and emotions at the moment. Its purpose was not to compose beautiful paintings, but rather to show the world what it accurately means to live in a modern culture. 

The statement “my cat could make that” might be true but also false at the same time. Although your cat could make a splatter painting by Pollock, it was Pollock who claimed that style first. As mentioned earlier, you can not compare Rembrandt to Pollock based on skill. The world of art has grown and adapted since the 17th century. Rembrandt and Pollock were two different artists who experienced two different moments in time. Abstract expressionism was the result of Post-War ideals that traumatized a newly established global society. Rembrandt existed in a time of religious turbulence that would change the course of European culture.

Defending art from a subjective narrative is justified. What is popular in art today could be different tomorrow, but that is the beauty of art. It seemingly communicates every detail from the depths of time that no history book can match. Contemporary art is the visual commentary of our contemporary world. It might be bad, but that is the easiest conclusion. So the next time you visit a modern art museum and view a disfigured piece, instead of voicing “my cat could make that,” try and reframe it as a question rather than a statement.