To experience an Andreas Gursky work in person is to be engulfed by the sheer scale and presence of the space depicted in front of you. Spanning upwards of seven feet tall by eleven feet wide, standing in front of a Gursky photograph can be an awe-inspiring experience. As one art critic put it, "his sense of composition, color, scale and tone are worthy of the Old Masters and his subjects often great themes of our age; tackling issues of globalization, mass consumption, and industrialization."
Gursky resides in the upper stratosphere of the world of high art alongside the likes of Jeff Koonz and Damien Hirst, and is considered one of the great artists of our time. Three of Gursky's photographs hold places in the top 10 most expensive photographs ever created, including "Rhein II" which, after fetching $4.3 million at auction in 2011, holds the number one spot as the most expensive photograph ever sold.*
It’s in hearing these astronomical numbers where I begin to lose people. Like most pieces of high art, the price they fetch can be mind-boggling. While the detail, color and sheer scale of Gursky's work can be impressive, there is admittedly nothing overwhelming beautiful or, as one of my students once said, "mind blowingly brilliant" about his work. And that's the type of reaction many have to modern art. Fine art can often baffle viewers, leaving many to question its purpose and legitimacy as art. How the heck can someone just paint a canvas orange and be considered brilliant? Where is the skill in that? Did it even take them very long to do? At the heart of it, it seems as though there is an inherent notion that art should be laborious, and that there is some sort or requirement for it to be attractive. But should it? Does a piece really need to be difficult to make and be pretty in order for it to be considered a valuable piece of art?
It's easily one of the most consistent questions I hear from people reacting to artwork: "Oh wow, this is neat! How long did it take you?" Innocently asked, the question means no harm but it does go to reinforce this idea that art should be labored over. Inevitably during art critiques students will begin to talk about how long they worked on their pieces and how hard they were to make. Eventually faculty members will chime in with "So? If you spent a long time on your work does that make it any better than if you pumped it out in an afternoon? Does the success of a piece rest in how many hours you spent working on it?"
To be fair, a lot of art does take a considerable amount of time to produce and anyone who has worked on any sort of craft project knows it takes time and dedication to complete. But the success of a piece doesn't linearly increase with the amount of time spent producing it. You could spend 100 hours on a project and still have it fail as a piece. Likewise a piece doesn't have to be pretty in order to be successful. The question then remains: if someone can go to Walmart, purchase a toilet bowl brush, place it on a pedestal and call it art, seemingly taking no time or skill, then how are we supposed to think about art? And to go one step further, why should you value that work?
As I describe to my students, much of what you see in the art world is simply a mirror. An artist will take the mundane, the beautiful, the quirky, the odd, the obscene, the absurd…all of these different aspects of life, interpret them, and then present that back into the world. They force the viewer to confront these different aspects of life in a number of ways. Like the old saying "you can't see the forest for the trees," when you are amidst the thick of life, it can be hard to recognize the idiosyncrasies of the world around you. Sometimes it takes an artist to create something so absurd, so extravagant, so subtle, that it allows the viewer to slow down, stop, and (hopefully) reflect on what is in front of them.
When you stare at Gursky's "99 Cent II Diptychon," (which previously held the record in 2007 as the most expensive photo in the world) you are greeted with an overwhelming amount of color, patterns and texture. There's a formal aesthetic to the image that is present in all of Gursky's work. This composition, architectural in nature, works harmoniously with the reflections on the ceiling to play up the never-ending columns and rows of products that are so deliberately organized and create so many blocks of color. The elevated angle in which the photo was taken adds to the vastness of the space and is grounded by the large 99 cent signs in the back. All of these formal qualities play to the message of Gursky's image: look at how ridiculous our consumer culture as become. Front and center and nearly as far back as you can see are the glutinous items of modern consumerism; candy, treats, soda...all things people don’t need but can indulge in, and all for less than a dollar. The whole purpose of this particular piece is to be a societal mirror and highlight the oddity and ridiculousness of modern consumer culture.
So my challenge to you is this: before you get ready to dismiss the next piece of modern art you see as "something you can do yourself" or "stupid" or "a waste of time and resources" or simply dismiss it immediately because you "don't get it," I challenge you to stop and really look. Ask yourself what the artist is trying to say. Does the piece have an artist statement? If it does, read it. Sometimes things are created just for the sole purpose of shock value or to make you stop and look. But the point is, you stopped and it forced you to engage with it. You may be surprised that if you give the piece a bit more thought, it's actually saying something about the world that we live in and isn’t as simplistic as it first appears. Just keep in mind that while pretty things are enjoyable to look at, the true point of art is to record, critique and engage with the world around us and life isn't always beautiful.
*This title is somewhat controversial. While in 2014 Peter Lik has claimed to have stolen the title of "most expensive photograph ever sold" after one of his photographs apparently sold for $6.5 million dollars, no proof has ever been shown to back this statement up as it was said to be sold to a private collector and not at public auction. Because of this fact the art world tends to still recognize Gursky’s images as the top grossing photographs created.
Aaron Lurth is director of the visual media department at Luther College, and teaches in the visual and performing arts department. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has lead expeditions for National Geographic Student Expeditions. Lurth has shot marketing campaigns for Luther, and was the photographer for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. His photo exhibitions have been presented in galleries in several states.