COMMENTARY: The -isms of Modern Art

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Alfred Barr, Jr.

Director of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art 1929-1943

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Lots of people say they don’t appreciate Modern Art. The term is used as a kind of generic catchall description, often a term of derision for the hokum perpetrated by the out of touch creative class of visual artists.

Technically though, when people refer to Modern Art, they are talking about something that is already in the past.

Modern Art was the future that ended.

For centuries in the western world, art followed predictable formulas, and only changed slowly. Artists focused on creating variations of Classical art, inspired by the masterpieces of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.

There was broad consensus on what made for quality art. Order, beauty, and flawless adherence to approved techniques were desirable traits. Support for artworks came from powerful institutional patrons: the church, the state, and the aristocracy. These factions had much to gain from promoting stability and the status quo.

Sometimes an isolated eccentric would create art of a different kind, and challenge expectations. The artistic and cultural establishment of the times reacted harshly to such experimentation. William Blake was called mad, and worked in near total obscurity on his visionary books. J.M.W. Turner faced criticism and ridicule as his landscapes became more atmospheric and abstract. Francisco Goya kept his powerful and morbid black paintings hidden away from his employers at the royal court.

Despite these occasional flare ups from forward thinking radicals, for centuries the art world was a model of social control. Creatives were dominated by the elite. Training and opportunities for artists were under monopolistic control. It’s not that different in today’s commercialized fine art market. Advancement requires conformity to the self-aggrandizement and conceits of the ruling class.

But by the middle of the 1800s, the traditional dynamics changed. Life started moving faster than the establishment could react. The long standing pattern of gradual cultural evolution done in the service of the powerful underwent massive disruptions.

The Modern Age was upon us.

There’s no clear cut definition of the time the Modern Era covered. I define the era of Modern Art as running almost 100 years, bracketed by two art shows: the Salon des Refusés in Paris 1863, to the first major Pop Art show held in New York in 1962. The roots run deeper, and the influence lingers longer, but this is a useful measure for when Modern ideas were the most important in the culture.

Before the Modern age, the conventional understanding was art should present beauty, which represents truth. In modern art, beauty was no longer the highest aspiration, because it symbolized a kind of order and redemptive quality intellectuals had lost faith in.

Modern age rationalism and materialism compels that everything needs to be dissected and analyzed. Artists brought this mentality into art, and manifested this questioning both thematically and visually.

As the Modern age unfolded, the ideas imposed by social changes seemed to demand artists abandon art’s enduring function as a tool for bringing harmony and unity into the lives of humanity. A sense of doubt became a standard starting point.

No longer did art look to provide the comforting experience of the beautiful.  Modern art featured probing and often critical ideas about the nature of art, perception, humanity, and the values we so often fail to live up to. Pessimism was a safe attitude, depicted with ugliness.

Modern art took on an unstable aspect as artists looked to find something to effectively replace the sense of meaning and purpose that had informed the art of the past. The creative class tried to define possible alternatives, angling for personal advantage and prestige. Theories abounded.

Modernism fragmented into competing movements, schools, and influences. With all the possibilities swirling around, artists were not sure what or who to believe in. In rapid succession, the art world moved through major phases: Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Abstraction, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism,. De Stijl, Dada, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. Artists built entire careers based on the nuances of these experiments.

Modern art can be observed as a series of trends proposed as solutions to the void introduced into heart of art-and by extension, life itself. Nothing seemed to work for long.

This lead to a terrible burnout, and what we have now: the sophistry, shallowness and will to power of the Post Modern age. But even this horror is coming to an end. We are at the beginning of a new era. Welcome to the Remodern Age. We integrate the fragmentation of the Moderns back into a holistic approach, art as a tool for communion and connection once again.

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7 thoughts on “COMMENTARY: The -isms of Modern Art

  1. I look at the “isms” in art the same way I do the “isms” of politics, as hyper-marketed brands in an age of mass consumerism. Better to rediscover and renew the authentic and organic reviled or ignored by hucksters peddling cheap, synthetic substitutes.

  2. I see the “Modern” era as starting around 1910 — Picasso, Stravinsky, etc marked a change in everything, not just painting, and swept away the lingering fragments of Late Romanticism. In that sense, we are still in that era. “Late Modernism,” maybe, I would call it, the mannerist phase perhaps.I’m with Tom Wolfe that, in many ways, Post-modernism was more of the same.

  3. An excellent article. Heck, it made the subject so clear, even my east Texas relatives would get it. Humor aside, I’ve often wondered “how can you label something that is an individual inspiration”? Yes I realize it’s a very human activity and it gives a lot of people jobs who would have nothing to do otherwise, but it seems to me once somethings labelled that’s it for inspiration. Instead it becomes a copy of some sort.

  4. Thanks! In studying art movements, I’ve seen the patterns of ideas and insights that move through time-similar inventions that pop up at the same time, even when there was no connection between the discoverers. Since I believe art to be a spiritually driven activity, it shows people are tapping into a common source, and inspiration is as good a word as we’ve got for this mysterious process.

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