Rethinking Modest Art

Here’s a story I’ve been looking forward to sharing with you.

I was scrolling Instagram when I came across this post by Jane Housham:

While in Lisbon, we visited the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). It’s a gorgeous building, and it’s mostly underground, as in, under the ground. We had a little trouble finding our way to the entrance, as it faces the Targus river. But, enter we did.

We visited Hervé Di Rosa‘s fantastic exhibit of both his work, and materials he collects in his own museum in Sète, France. Here’s a longish video from MAAT where he discusses his journey and history.

Apparently, these folks publish a kind of manifesto for Di Rosa that I have not yet read. But, the publisher has this blurb on their site:

In 1988, Hervé Di Rosa heard a child getting out of his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, named it “modest Museum of Art.” Delighted with this confusion, he suddenly becomes aware of his taste for every day things: gadgets, action figures, kites, billboards… So many things he wants to legitimize the presence within the art, in the street, into museums: an art which rejects nothing and can be understood by everyone.

The MAAT website says this about Modest Art:

Neither a concept nor a movement, modest art is a way of renewing the definition of art and extending its field to little or not yet considered marginal forms and practices.

Some more, from

What are the Modest Arts  ?

Les Arts Modestes draws the spectator’s attention to marginal creations and the peripheral territories of art. They encourage an open outlook on all forms of art and the free circulation of images and ideas between high culture and popular culture.

The Modest Arts are neither an artistic genre nor a movement; they move the gaze. They are an opening of this gaze, a disposition to curiosity. The Modest Arts concern both mass-produced objects and unique creations. They constitute a kind of super-category that encompasses and connects the margins of each domain. 

 (Hervé Di Rosa, Artpress n° 493, p. 6)

At the turn of the 1980s, the notion of Modest Arts was forged by Hervé Di Rosa to designate a set of objects that evade all classifications and do not belong not to the Great Art.

Popular figures, Action Figures, amateur paintings, devotional objects, tourist objects, advertising signs, body arts, imagery of video games, from here or elsewhere, these abandoned or downgraded productions challenge us and form the labile territory of Arts Modestes, a dynamic space with moving borders, capable of constant renewal.

Is Modest Art really Modest?
Di Rosa says

“‘Modest’ isn’t a criterion of values. ‘Modest’ doesn’t mean ‘humble’ or ‘poor.’ A Superman can be modest. I’m an artist, and when I was younger I really suffered from a certain pretentiousness in the contemporary art world. The adjective ‘modest’ is a reaction to that.”

Di Rosa says Modest Art includes Pop art/culture, which has spread to every corner of the globe. Rather than classifying creations by historical or market value, Modest Art places an emphasis on feelings, desire and all the things that have no place in a theoretical context.

From the same interview, How do you judge what Modest Art is?

Fundamentally, there’s always a personal criterion, the creator’s need to make the object. The second criterion is there’s no preoccupation with art history, in the sense of doing something new, or even being recognised. And the third criterion is the creator must have a feeling of embellishing life, of making something pretty, rather than beautiful, and the one of doing good, even if it’s badly done.

“A lover of modest arts can’t be confused with an art lover. I think to be a lover of modest art, you have to be a collector. Everyone has a sort of personal altar at home.” ~Di Rosa

I had never head of Modest Art until I saw this exhibit. Maybe that’s because Di Rosa and his partner Bernard Belluc at his MIAM museum are the gatekeepers of this “non-movement/non-genre.” The article cited above quotes Di Rosa as saying creative content can move into and away from Modest Art (the snow globe collection, for example). But who decides this? Why, the owners the MIAM museum, of course. Gotta keep selling tickets, if you own a museum, yeah? At this point, I think I should mention there is some controversy surrounding Di Rosa and his 1991 mural in the French Parliament, and according to wikipedia, he “accepted no responsibility for any offense caused by the work nor acknowledged that it could even be honestly perceived as harmful.” I mention that only to say I am aware of that information, but I don’t think it should have a bearing on the ideas I’m about to discuss. Just an FYI.

Something resonated with me at MAAT on a very deep level.

I love this idea of an art which rejects nothing and can be understood by everyone.

Let’s start with the second part: can be understood by everyone. I might phrase that as anyone, as not everyone shares a single unified perception of subjective material, or may have the capacity to understand the artists’ or works’ intention/meaning/purpose. But, I love the inclusive idea of this.

What really excites me is an art which rejects nothing. I consider myself outside of art scenes. I have a community of artist friends and students here, and am friendly with a few galleries, but I do not see my self connected to any particular group or movement. I’ve written that I identify as a surrealist, but it would be more accurate to say I use surrealism to address certain political and environmental concerns.

I began this current leg of my artistic journey in 2007. I started sharing my responses to the now defunct Illustration Friday weekly drawing prompt online. Most of those posts are still on this site, too. The prompt gave me a manageable deadline, and I was able to apply some of my professional production/time management skills to a new creative pursuit, and that simple exercise has served me well.

I started using WordPress around the same time as a means to learn WordPress, and rather than blog about technology, design or (shudder) my personal life, I decided to make a website for art. This completely transformed my life – I had a place to develop and share my art. The potential reach of my little website was unconstrained. I even had something go viral once. Sure, there is an almost infiniate amount of noise and content all competing for our on the web. Yet, I’m still here 16 years later minding this desk, just as empowered as I ever was.

This site is my gallery and home. It’s not just a portfolio site, because prior to 2013, I had the comments enabled, and felt a connection with community that paralleled the feeling I get from in-person interactions. I disabled the comments as my divorce started – I wanted to withdraw for a time, and haven’t felt a need to turn them back on.

In 2015, armed with my gallery and a set of processes for making work, I entered an MFA program. I’ve written about that elsewhere. The academic art world is a container that one voluntarily occupies. It produces historians and critics that are considered experts, yet they do not need to be artists, and often are not. The academic art world is where one is asked to engage in debates such as “is this Art, or is it Craft?” I was told by a professor that I am not an artist, I am a “crafter,” and that this question was a very important one. I asked “Is it? Why is it important?” to which he said it was, but couldn’t explain why it is important. The debate ended on that note. I think it can be a novel (or tedious) debate while one is on campus, and it might help some artists define their identity for themselves. I still identify as an artist, by the way. Ultimately, however, in the real world, I cannot see how this debate matters. You get to decide what you are.

Another professor declared that “the reason your dioramas don’t work is because they are in Altoid boxes. They should be in paper boxes.” Up to that moment, I wasn’t aware that my dioramas “don’t work.” I have obviously used other materials for the containers over the years, but she was wrong and missed the point. Part of the reason they work is BECAUSE they are in Altoid boxes. The humble, accessible, curious little containers are great for my tiny tableaus. After this pronouncement, I was asked to leave the faculty in my studio so they could critique my work in private.

A third professor took me aside after this exchange and earnestly said “Don’t let anyone ever tell you there is no place for humor in art.” I wasn’t privy to that portion of their discussion, and still don’t know exactly what was said. I think I can guess, however. And, of course there is a place for humor in art.

Faculty members are humans, and they only offer opinions – some are helpful, some are not.

Jim Doran,

Upon graduation, I reached out my friend Rebecca Hoffberger, the founder of the American Visionary Art Museum here in Baltimore. AVAM has been designated by Congress as America’s national museum for visionary art, and one of the things I love about the place is that it’s open to all self taught visionary artists. I got my start here, and have been included in two shows. I have a lot of love for this museum, and its mission of raising awareness, inspiring people, and increasing universal consciousness. A lot of “outsider art” museums adhere to showing strictly outsider art, naive art, art brute, and frankly are as out of reach to self taught artists as the big museums. There are parameters around what qualifies one as an outsider artist, and these distinctions help propel the commodification of the “outsider” work by collectors.

I told Rebecca that I hoped I wouldn’t be “voted off” the AVAM island, now that I have a shiny new MFA. Having an MFA doesn’t make one any less visionary, or any less self taught. Rebecca, of course, was retiring, and we left it there. Life moves on, and it seems that it was time for me to move on, too. I thank my lucky stars for AVAM, in any event.

I met a woman in grad school who was an employee of the university, and an accomplished artist in her own right. She worked hard on her extensive body of work, and I loved her ideas. She was never formally allowed to enter the MFA program, and I still don’t understand why that is. Her presence contributed to the cohort I was in, and I enjoyed her intelligence and the work she made. She was/is certainly as worthy as anyone I met in grad school. I’m happy to say she continues to make her work, and why wouldn’t she? She’s an artist.

What if Modest Art was actually a movement?

For me, the Paper Moon Diner in Baltimore, and its accumulation(s) of toys and sculpture is a fine example of Modest Art. I wonder how many thousands of people have been inspired by that place (and AVAM, for that matter)? Many. That’s a lot of good mojo that moves out into the world.

I think Art’s value, including the act of making art, extends far outside the boundaries of New York, Paris, Los Angeles, etc. What if the work that was made for the pure joy of making it was afforded the same respect as powerful social justice art? If the world were a more joyful place, we would need a lot less social justice art. There’s a place and need for both.

I once worked as an expressive therapist in a geriatric hospital/nursing home. I helped people make music, pottery and paintings. There was a retired woman with failing eyesight who always wanted to be an artist. She would grouse at me, and was generally grumpy, and she began painting with me during the last weeks of her life. She painted simply, prolifically, and we all could see the profound joy and a sense of accomplishment it gave her. I held her hand as she passed away, and I believe that being as artist mattered to her, even if for just a few weeks at the end of her life.

For myself, I want people to see my work, and have access to it. That’s why I keep working on my websites. Having had the good experience of exhibiting and screening my stuff in the real world, I know it’s important to me, too. When I figured out that I really need to make things, I wondered if I would die one day, leaving behind a house full of unknown materials. I am glad that hasn’t happened.

An art that rejects nothing, or anyone, and extends its field to little or not yet considered marginal forms and practices sounds good to me. It seems to have vitality, and to be awake. So many parts of our society are currently divided (politics, religion, etc.) that this idea of inclusion by default seems wonderful to me. Do you have an art degree? Welcome! Do you collect bread ties and make clothes with them? Come on in! You haven’t studied art but make your own work? We are glad you are here.

Making honest work leads to finding one’s unique voice, and that brings self awareness, and a kind of “presence” that I think most humans crave. Do we need art movements and genres to be artists? Of course not. Could it help? Maybe.

I really like parts of the Modest Arts ideology: being a collector, finding artistic value in unconventional places, existing both within and outside the contemporary art world, existing in a space parallel to the art worlds acceptance or rejection, and for me, living in an artistic life that is authentic, honest, joyful, humorous and full of wonder.


Hemingway fought a clown

Hemingway decided to fight the clown.

Egon Schiele making a Banana Foster

Egon Schiele making a Banana Foster

A Spa Night with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning painting her toenails

Frida’s Best Nail Varnish

Frida Kahlo painting her toenails

Max Ernst Practicing Hypnosis

Max Ernst practicing hypnosis