What’s the Deal with Modern Art?Posted on Nov 10, 2011
Just the mention of modern art is enough to make most people recoil as if you had suggested they eat pond scum. Sure enough, images of scribbles and empty canvases selling for millions at auction leave many scratching their heads how we’ve come so far from the venerable masterpieces of Van Gogh and Monet in a short 100 years.
The most important thing to understand is that modern art is all about theory. Before, being able to talk about the historical context or compositional nuances of a piece made you an interesting conversationalist. In the modern era, however, not knowing the prevailing trend and how it builds upon what came immediately prior is cause for expulsion from the club; turn in your monocle and evening wear, because god knows you aren’t going to appreciate that solid blue canvas intuitively. Modern art, then, can best be described as an increasingly high-stakes game of collective mental masturbation in which the boundaries of visual representation were pushed until they literally disappeared.
Rather than immediately dismiss the paint splatters and abstract streaks, we should try to appreciate modern art for the philosophical adventure that it was. Whereas Michelangelo and Raphael can immediately be enjoyed for their unmatched technical talent, the great modern artists were visual philosophers, turning a history’s worth of artistic understanding on its head. “Art need not just depict landscapes and characters,” they told us. “Let’s see what sort of reactions we can elicit without being explicit. Let’s see how far we can go in exploring shapes, color, and composition in their very rawest forms.”
Though art historians disagree on a canonical start date for the modern art era (not to be confused with art being made today, which is called contemporary art), we’ll start our ten second history with a group of painters in the late 19th century that started turning in canvases that appeared incomplete. Instead of meticulous line work and exact palettes, they painted with bold, broken streaks to capture the visual “impression” of a scene. Although extremely unpopular early on, the impressionists’ idea that art could hold value outside of realistic depictions eventually captured the thinking of the western art world.
Taking the ball from the impressionists, the cubists and expressionists pushed the boundary even further. The impressionists had at least composed people that looked like people and landscapes that looks like landscapes. These new schools often abandoned literal forms altogether.
At the same time, World War I caused everyone to question the sanity of the modern world. In rebellion, artists started intentionally telling art tradition to go scram with the “anti-art” movements of Dada and Surrealism.
Particularly fun, a guy named Duchamp became the first to put an everyday object in a museum and call it art. While most of us probably roll our eyes when we see this overdone tact today, urinal-as-art was bleeding edge thinking in 1917.
At the same time, yet another school of painters wanted to use art to express harmony and balance in a world torn apart by war. Launching us to the-point-of-no-return at which you might start making that ubiquitous critique “a child could do that,” this group tried to communicate spiritual meaning through simple patterns of lines and primary colors.
Next came the quintessential modern art form: abstract expressionism. Termed “action painting” by many, wild splatterings of paint across canvas were intended to represent the creative catharsis of the artist. This was “art for the sake of art.” No political agenda, no overt representation of anything. Whereas the old masters tricked the eye by mastering perspective and the impressionists fooled the mind into seeing completed scenes out of millions of dots, abstract expressionism was “more true” in that it was a raw visual of only what it was, straight from the artist onto the canvas without any representational clutter.
By this time “painterly” (meaning resembling a painting) and “literary” (meaning being about something) were insults and “flatness” (meaning focus on material and canvas) was in vogue. For those constantly looking to define, and often sell, the next big art wave, abstract expressionism was even too, well, expressionist. Keep reducing! And so the color field painters emerged.
Then, as if everyone had secretly grown tired of all this abstraction, pop art temporarily captured the imagination of the art world. But wait a second. . . what’s this hypocrisy? Isn’t pop art, with its iconic imagery of celebrities and soup cans, about something? What happened to our collective disdain for representation? No, no – don’t be silly. Pop art is about symbols. It isolates culturally-loaded iconography from its context, while serving as an ironic commentary on mass commercialism and commoditization. An irony, you might note, that Warhol enjoyed all the way to the bank.
What’s even more symbolic and iconic than pop culture imagery? How about written language. Ruscha ran with it.
And finally, in modern art’s race to reduce a visual experience to its most basic, we arrive at minimalism. Artists looking to push the evolution of modern art theory to it’s extreme conclusion have sometimes even disavowed the canvas and wall. The yellow brick road of modern art has led us to a land of monochrome canvases, solitary stripes, and sculptures of basic shapes. In our quest for the pure visual abstraction, we managed to strip out representation, metaphor, dimension, and context along the way. This is what remains:
So, modern art isn’t all that obscure or radical if you get to know it. The important thing to understand is that modern art wasn’t made in a vacuum; despite striving desperately for an isolated purity, it was very much the product of its own historical context. Each new avant-garde artist came as the latest play in a game of art jenga. How many pieces could be removed before the tower fell and the art world became so cerebral and insular that it lost all credibility with an audience outside of the village culturati?
Ask the first ten people you see on the street what they think of modern art, and it will be pretty clear that a century’s worth of theory remains trapped in the echo chamber. Most people enjoy art for the immediate connection and visual delight, uninterested in monitoring the constantly evolving trends in theory as if they were numbers on a stock ticker. It’s okay that you don’t “get” modern art, because it wasn’t meant to be without the underlying philosophy. Hopefully with this quick peek into the thinking behind modern art, you can find something to enjoy. After humanity’s millennium-long obsession with religious paintings, we think a urinal in a museum is pretty cool.