It’s so cliche, and yet you can still hear it said in galleries and museums. I know, because I heard it myself. “I could do that.”
More frustrating this time, is that it was couched as a response to a good question. One person asked, “What does [the artwork] make you think?” And what was the response?!
“Makes me think I could do that with Instagram filters.”
I was at the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum on opening day of the Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty exhibition. I was standing in the middle of this impressive collection of photographs representing the career of a prolific photographer, and I get Instagram filters!
Clearly the ubiquity of photography played a role in this case, and abstract expressionist painting (among many other art genres) gets its fair share of this treatment. But why? Why do people say this? And why in relation to art?
Think about this in comparison:
A young driver approaches an intersection with her friend in the passenger seat. They see a police officer standing in the middle of the intersection directing traffic. The officer directs some lanes to stop and waves the cross-traffic on. The driver turns to her friend and rolls her eyes, “Well, I could do that!”
Can you even imagine this happening? Let’s imagine it a little more like a retrospective art exhibit if you like. How about this!? (I’ll do my best not to offend someone.)
The same police officer from our story above dies, and as will happen in the tight-knit law enforcement community, a memorial event is held. The officers many good deeds and acts of service to his community are featured on display boards on easels at a reception. A pair of community members walk through and read all the posters. One turns to the other and says, “I don’t see what the big deal is, I could do that.”
I hope you agree that these examples are ridiculous. The work of most professionals is not treated with the disrespect of “I could do that.” There are a couple of standard explanations for why people respond to art this way.
One of the most commonly accepted is a lack of understanding. That the person who views an artwork and declares, “I could do that” just doesn’t have an appreciation for art, an understanding of how that particular artwork was made, or of the significance of the work or style in the context of art history and culture.
This explanation certainly contributes, but I don’t think it is enough by itself to explain why it doesn’t happen in response to other professions. My understanding of the day-to-day turmoils of a police officer (and most other professions, for that matter) are no better informed than his understanding of the work of an artist.
Another possible explanation is that great art makes it look easy. Nope. I take the same issue with this one. Most skilled professionals, including the police officer, can make complex work look easier than it is.
Perhaps we can begin to understand this behavior if we identify another situation for comparison where it does happen. The only other profession I can think of that suffers a similar treatment is professional athletes. Especially when things aren’t going so well for a team, you might hear a passionate sports fan declare something like, “they suck, I could do better!”
I think this comparison might be informative. Like an artist, the athlete is a highly trained professional committed to the highest level of performance in their field. (Of course I can’t think of whole leagues of artists who get multi million dollar contracts, but let’s go with it.) I suspect our answer is in the similarity between artists and professional athletes. In fact, as I think about it, I believe we are going find it in this statement:
Our culture puts professional athletes on a pedestal.
Would you look at that — ON A PEDESTAL! The very language we use makes the connection. An artwork is literally displayed on a pedestal, and we’ve all seen an Olympic medal ceremony where the athletes are on raised podiums, quite literally on a pedestal. I’m not even certain if the origins of this phrase are artistic or athletic, but the implied honor and reverence toward that which we put on a pedestal may explain why we might say, “I could do that.”
We hold these things (art and sport) to such high standard, and the people to a super-human standard, it would seem. When they don’t meet our expectations as viewers and fans, we insult and belittle them, dealing them the most heinous of insults — that they are not, in fact, super-human, but so much like a regular mortal, that any other mortal could do their job just as well. Even me!
Well, it may not be right, but it’s a theory.
If you get a chance, go check out Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty at the American Art Museum. And try not to say, “I could do that.”