Why Startups Are Like Modern Abstract Art

I find a lot of modern art intolerable. Especially abstract art. Back in New York I used to frequent the MoMA and Met, and whenever I walked by an abstract painting, I’d sneer:
“Really? You call this art? A 5 year old kid could have done this.”

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Soft Spoken, 1969. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

If I went with a friend, things would get amusing. I’d feign art history expertise and start overanalyzing every Rothko, Pollock, Newman, and Reinhardt piece with a subpar British accent:

“The black space that occupies a large part of the canvas represents the uncertainty and acquired synesthesia of visions in moments of frenzied distress. Isn’t it remarkable – the tension that is distilled from the simultaneous decadence and synergy from the canvas? The temporality of human existence is corroded in the violent strokes of paint on the canvas, that are visible when you stand at a 34 degree angle adjacent to the painting while kneeling 4 inches below the lower margin, serving as a dialogue between the viewer and the cacophony of black space that is akin to the existential void that frequents the works of Nietzsche, Kandinsky, and Bachmansteingold.”

Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Print, 1966. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) once. There was more brilliant art than I had anticipated, so by the time I reached the room with all the minimal and abstract art, I was exhausted. I sat on the first empty seat I saw.

It happened to be in front of gigantic red Rothko painting. I gave the painting a dismissive glance and started to check my email. It was my passive-aggressive way of insulting abstract art.

Mark Rothko, White Center, 1957. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.

A lot of people walked by the Rothko. It was amusing to watch. Some of the people did not explicitly comment on the paintings, but you could tell from their furrowed brows that they were thinking the same thing as I was.

Then a mother and child walked into the room. The mother was trying to explain the artwork to the son. The son looked a bit frustrated as well.

They approached the painting and the son wailed, “This is art? I could do that!”

“Ah!” The mother’s eyes lit up.

“But you didn’t.”

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, ca. 1948–49. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What the mother said hit me hard. She was right. Her son could do it. I could do it. You could do it. My hypothetical future baby could do it. We could all splash some paint over a canvas. We could all slap some bombastic philosophy behind the painting and land a full wall for it in the MoMA. We all could sell it for $75,000,000 at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. We could all make art so hideous that art history students would slave for weeks writing papers about it. But none of us did it.

I laughed about how I could make a fortune by being a lazy abstract expressionist. I laughed at how easy it must be to live my life splashing paint over a canvas. But I hadn’t done it. I had not painted an ugly work of art that had been hung up in a famous museum.

The difference between Rothko and the rest of us?

Rothko did. The rest of us did not.

Mark Rothko, No. 13 (White, Red, on Yellow), 1958. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

So how does this relate to startups? I’ve noticed that a lot of “criticism” directed towards startups wanes to the level of pointless sneering. It’s true, criticism paves the way for improvement. We need criticism to innovate. But when I read tech blogs and online discussions of startups, I feel like I’m hearing the same sort of jeering that goes on in front of a Rothko painting:

(These are all things people have really said.)

“This is a horrible idea and the startup will fail miserably. The founders are delusional and can’t even rap.”*

*RapGenius is doing well, and perhaps the founders can’t rap but with the $15,000,000 they received in funding, I’m sure they can afford to take courses.

“What a lame idea.”

“Isn’t this just like a clone of Tumblr?”

“It’s a really easy idea. Nothing too amazing. Facebook will probably squash it soon.”

“Uh. This has been done before. Check out Treehouse.”

“What a stupid app.”

“I could do that.”

I used to be guilty of the very same thing before I started working on Quotesome. Actually working on a startup has made me realize that even a seemingly easy idea takes extreme devotion and effort to implement. It’s so easy to predict the imminent failure of every new startup. It’s so easy to say that a startup sucks. But the difference between the people who call apps “stupid” and the people who push out these “stupid” apps, is that the latter gets it done.

And to the former group, I can’t help but secretly wonder:

By the way, what have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others’ work and belittle their motivations?

– Steve Jobs

I’ve long cut back on this sort of behavior, but yesterday I caught myself mentally dissing Bang With Friends. I found it a stupid, easy app that wasn’t solving a real problem. But then I realized that I was falling into the Rothko trap again. After thinking about it, they were solving a major societal problem: people obviously aren’t getting laid enough. They were also doing society a favor by challenging the ridiculous, outdated taboo that still surrounds a biological instinct as innate as wanting to eat or take a crap.

And sure, it’s an easy app to build. I could totally make something like that. But I didn’t.

Seth Godin wrote in his entry, The Critic Stumbles:

No one has ever built a statue to a critic, it’s true. On the other hand, it’s only the people with statues that get pooped on by birds flying by.

Life is short. Don’t waste your time being that bird who does nothing but poop on statues. It won’t be long until the rain washes all your poop away.


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