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.

Joie de Vivre

Portugal: Wrap Up

I know, I know. This isn’t a travel blog, and I’m not a travel blog writer. That said, I took over 2000 photos on this trip, and made countless audio recordings and videos, some of which will be used in upcoming art works.

Here are some final thoughts and photos.

We visited The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, and the Fado museum. Both are wonderful.

Fado Museum

In addition to Livraria Lello, we visited this amazing bookstore/Jazz record store at the FX factory ( I think it’s called “Wish”). And then in Carvoeiro, we found this nutty, cluttered masterpiece and bought stuff to read on the beach. There is a Walk Good coming for this place, too.

Factory Wish Bookstore

We played in a castle and met some peacocks.


Porto met my uninformed expectations of what I thought a European city would feel like. Lots of old, old buildings, with hilly-windy streets, and completely riddled by a warren of mysterious coiling alleyways that led to small shops and restaurants.

We stayed on the Cais de Gaia side, and while the view was stunning, it was loud all night, every night.

Us in Porto
Porto from above

I could not help but notice that tobacco products all have horrific images prominently displayed on the packaging. Can you imagine the tobacco lobby putting up with the here in the United States? I wonder if it is an effective deterrent? We didn’t find a single cigar shop in Portugal, and completely unrelated, didn’t see many homeless folks.

tobacco warnings

I made a conscious decision to NOT bring home every interesting sardine tin I encountered. Instead, I took many photos.

I haven’t seen a working phone booth in a long time.

phone booth

Carvoeiro was the perfect place to unwind after both a really long, stressy semester and then whirlwind tour on our feet. I loved it.

These recent posts encompass a tiny part of what we experienced in Portugal – it really was a trip of a lifetime. Portugal will be making an appearance in future sound experiments and video work. Stay tuned!

Joie de Vivre

Portugal: Boca do Inferno & Benagil

As I mentioned in the food post, we took a bus from Lisbon out to Cascais, and then we walked to Boca do Inferno. It was stunning.

Boca do Inferno
Boca do Inferno

On the last leg of the trip, we stayed in Carvoeiro.

We drove to Benagil and rented a kayak. We then paddled through some caves along the coast. I will never forget this, it was truly a wonder.

Beverly in the lead on a kayak

The water was very choppy, and it made exploring some of the smaller caves infeasible (at least without helmets and flashlights).

But, we got to visit this gorgeous large cave.


We landed on two different beaches. As I was trying to push us back into the Atlantic from the first beach, I lost my footing (it actually just disappeared into a drop) and I went under. I was wearing my iPhone on a lanyard around my neck. The water was so rough that I couldn’t stop to turn the phone off until we landed at the next beach.

Inside a cave

I thought we were alone, when a man appeared out of nowhere. He told me he had just come from a cave I hadn’t noticed as we landed. He told me “this will make your adrenaline go” and he was not wrong. I wandered in part of the way – it was full of bird droppings, and smelled terrible. It also got claustrophobic very quickly, and I decided the sunny beach seemed like a better plan. Because my phone was drying out, I was not able to get any photos of the creepy cave, which is my other regret from this trip (besides the fruitcake).

us in a cave

These puny photos only hint at the beauty and wonder of this place.

Joie de Vivre

Portugal: Livraria Lello

Livraria Lello stained glass ceiling

A big highlight in Porto was visiting the world’s second oldest bookstore, Livraria Lello. We read somewhere that J. K. Rowling taught English in Portugal, and based the bookstore in Harry Potter (Flourish and Blotts) on this place. In fact, a lot of Porto reminded me of what I think Diagon Alley would be like.

Livraria Lello stairs

To visit the store, you have to buy a $5 ticket and get in line at the appointed time. If you buy a book before you get there, you jump to the head of the line and get in a little early. In our case, the book was Romeo and Juliet. Once inside, you can exchange your book for one of a handful of titles from the Livrarie Lello press. I chose Frankenstein, which turned out to be good thing to read while traveling.

Livraria Lello is more of a museum gift shop than a viable bookstore. They had all the Harry Potter books, and hand selected titles from selected authors, which accompany space with their own titles, like Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Selected tales from Edgar Allen Poe, and Alice in Wonderland. 1000 people a day visit this place, and it felt quite cramped while we were there. Yet, it’s a wonderful building, and totally worth seeing.

upstairs at Livraria Lello

Because we had bought copies of Romeo and Juliet, and managed to get in a little early, we were able to get photos on the famed red steps. Minutes after we took these photos, you couldn’t walk from one of of the store to the other for all the people in there. I made a video of myself trying to do just that (a Walk Good installment coming soon).

I think this would be an idlic place for a wedding.

Joie de Vivre

Portugal: Food

I just got back from the longest vacation/trip I’ve ever had. Beverly and I traveled with her mom to Lisbon, Porto and Faro/Carvoeiro in Portugal. We logged many miles sight seeing, and it was wonderful.

In addition to working full time last spring, I taught Introduction to Animation at UMBC and Design for the WWW at Towson University. This trip was just the thing to clean my mental slate.

The weather was perfect. Most people spoke English, except, oddly, the taxi drivers. We stayed in three different Airbnb’s and one hotel.

Delta airlines truly suck. I don’t even have the words for how much they suck.

Anyway, I’ve decided to share a few things in different posts here, like I did for our Puerto Rico trip last year. And, I’ll begin with the food. Lisbon was more expensive than Porto, where meals were very cheap, even in the touristy areas. We had a little bus mix-up on a trip to Cascais, and ended up off the main drag in Lisbon. We stopped into a corner convenience shop for water, which was an eyebrow raising .50 euros a bottle. So, I suppose not all of Lisbon is pricey, but it seemed like most of where we went cost more than Porto or Faro.

We stopped in a McDonalds in Cascais to use the restroom. They only serve coke zero (no diet), and some McDonalds restaurants serve beer. They had burgers with prosciutto and mushrooms. We bought some fries, and they tasted exactly like they do here. Excellent.

We ate out a lot, and one thing to know about the meals in Portugal is that once you sit down at a table, you are in for the long haul. Even at breakfast, the pace is much slower, and they never rush you to clear up a table. It’s also customary to tip a lot less that we do in the states.

I tried a lot of new things. Sardines, once considered a junk fish, are plentiful in Portugal. If you have spent any time on this website at all, you may have picked up on the fact that I love canned fish. I got to have the un-canned varieties, too.

Cod and Sardines

We made some friends in Lisbon – Rich from Terminal Rage, and his funny wife Rachel. We found ourselves to be politically compatible, and I got to ask questions from UK folks that I’ve always wondered about – for example, I wondered how the American accent registers for most Brits. I learned a lot about the theories regarding Russian support for Brexit, and how U.S. gun policy appears to Europeans. We discussed TV shows and films. They also showed me how to deal with full sized sardines with bones. It was a happy evening.

Sardine salad

I had quite a few sardines, and most places offer sardine pâté with bread, which I liked.

Below is a bowl of grilled squid, which was accompanied by boiled potatoes and carrots. The starters included a small sharp cheese wheel, tuna with black eyed peas, and a spicy mayo.

Grilled Squid
Cheese, Mayo, Tuna with black eyed peas.

Francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich, originally from Porto, made with layers of toasted bread and assorted hot meats such as roast, steak, wet-cured ham, linguiça, or chipolata over which sliced cheese is melted by the ladling of a near-boiling tomato-and-beer sauce called molho de francesinha. Here it is:

Francesinha in the Oven with Egg

It was savory, and pretty heavy. We also tried Pica Pau.

Pica pau is a traditional Portuguese dish consisting of small pieces of fried beef in a light gravy made with beer, garlic, oil, chili, and mustard. The dish is usually consumed as a snack, accompanied by a few glasses of cold beer and bread for mopping up the sauce. We skipped the beer, and it was delicious.


We visited Pastéis de Belém, and tried a lot of pastries.


One regret I have is not trying this fruitcake in Porto. We visited this place twice for the pastries shown above the fruitcake photo. I’m so curious about fruitcake now. Alas.

One morning, we took a hike along the Douro river, and stopped for breakfast at the lookout park (Parque Infantil do Jardim do Morro) by the sky tram. It was here that I had the best hot dog of my life. To verify this, I came back to the same food truck for lunch and had a second one, and it was true.


I tried to tell the chef about it, but he didn’t speak a word of English, the poor bastard. It’s a footlong weiner, with arugula, potato sticks, cheese, ham, carrots, mayo, ketchup, mustard, and happiness. I bought them from Beverly and her mom, too.

B with a footlong

We ate a lot of seafood, and I noticed that it was usually simply prepared. I hesitate to say “plain,” but each dish stood on the flavor of the fish, with little embellishment. Even a garlic shrimp dish was hard pressed to demonstrate any real garlicky muscle.

Fish and rice
Seafood and Pasta

Shown below is a plate of rice, cabbage and beans, accompanied by fish cakes. I ordered this for breakfast, which my server thought was unusual, but I was trying to hit as many different dishes as possible. This is one of my favorites and, if I lived in Porto, I’d order this all the time. It was simple, mild, and satisfying.

I burned a lot of calories on this trip – we walked a minimum of >20K steps each day, and there was just so much to see and take in. One of my favorite meals (besides the world’s best foot long) was at the FX Factory in Lisbon. We sat outside – spent, hungry and happy. We started with olive tapenade on toast, and I had a grilled mozzarella and pesto sandwich, which came with chips. Beverly had a cheese/walnut on toast with garlic potatoes. We also had Olives.

olive tapenade on toast
the FX factory

Another first for me was a plate of cuttlefish, in an out of the way alley joint in Porto.

I love that just about every single place offers olives. Sometimes green, sometimes black, always with pits and these cool bowls which can hold them. I came home with a couple of olive plates like this.

Another place we visited twice was an Argentinian empanada restaurant. Outstanding!


If I ever go back, I’m bringing an extra suitcase and filling it with this Queso butter. Holy moly it is good.

Something I really enjoy about traveling is finding new variations on things we have at home.

Pringles variants
Potato sticks
Vanilla Coke Zero

We hard a hard time finding any sort of diet cola. We aren’t fans of “zero” sodas, and vanilla coke zero is not very good. We were able to find one single deli that carried diet Pepsi. One place in all of Portugal!!! It’s made in England, and it didn’t taste exactly the same as our diet Pepsi, but it was still delightful.

Diet Pepsi

I also have some pretty deep respect for this stuff:

We didn’t have proper coffee makers in most of the Airbnb places, and Nescafé clássico saved my rump just about every single morning. It’s not bad in a pinch!

So, dear reader, this post contains the highlights of our food experience. Beverly and I went to a grocery store – I have a ton of photos from there, too – and I made our one, single home cooked meal in our Airbnb outside of Faro. Fettuccine Alfredo, made with the closest ingredients we could find. It was pretty good, too.

Joie de Vivre

The Edward Gorey House

I love Edward Gorey. I’ve talked about him before today. I’m happy to report that we made the pilgrimage to his house, The Edward Gorey Museum. It was a thrill to stand in his former home, to marvel at his many drawings and works on view. We spent several hours there, and we even ate breakfast one day at Jack’s Outback, where Gorey frequently had both breakfast AND lunch.

New England is lovely this time of year. We explored Yarmouth, and Provincetown. Here is a partial account of the trip, in photos.