What is up with modern art?

29 Mar

Part 1 – Historical Background

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this question or variations thereof.  It’s even become a joke, modern art being something that only beret-wearing snobs can understand while the rest of us stand there confused at what look like scribbles.  From the moment I said I wanted to start blogging about art it was what people wanted to know the most – how does one make sense of modern art?

I’ll let you in on a secret.  You can’t.  Even most art historians have works they love and works they hate, and what one person thinks is a masterpiece another thinks is trash.  It’s a very subjective area, but I’ll try to shed a little light on it.  What started out as one post is now three, however, because it’s a rather difficult subject to tackle.

The thing you have to remember about art is that it had a completely different purpose from about 1850 onward.  The invention of photography had major impacts in all manner of fields, but the vogue for photography meant that many events and people who had traditionally been chronicled by painters were now drawn to the photographer’s studio.  Where previously an artist still had to be able to do a decent portrait or altarpiece to survive, photography set them free to experiment with more radical ways of painting.

I’m not suggesting that there was an exact correlation between the invention of photography and the movement in art away from realism, but it’s a convenient way to look at it.  For some time artists had been rebelling against industrialization and developed a more natural, if somewhat abstract, way of painting.  This was a time of “-isms” and the goal was no longer to express the strict artistic conventions popularized by the Academies in centuries past but to embrace emotion, human expression, and the scores of new philosophies that were appearing.  If the Renaissance had first elevated artists above common craftsmen, the nineteenth century fully created the modern idea of the artist, and they have been struggling to “express themselves” ever since.

Fast forward a bit to 1914.  It was at that point that World War I broke out and Europeans started to doubt just about everything they knew about their world, and art was certainly part of that.  I’ve already mentioned how the Dada movement expressed their feelings (Sharing an Idea), but it was by no means limited to one movement.  Looking at art from the time of World War I and immediately following can be a difficult experience given the amount of pessimism everyone was feeling at the time and how clearly that emotion is expressed in their artworks.

I’ll spare you a full history lesson, but suffice it to say the visual arts are just one area where thinkers tried to cope with the twentieth century.  With two world wars, economic depression, the threat of nuclear war, and an end to Imperialism and the dominance of European culture, everyone was struggling to adapt.  Traditions didn’t mean anything anymore, and anything that was considered old-fashioned was immediately looked down upon, especially in art.

The past 200 years of human history have been filled with unbelievable accomplishments and unthinkable tragedies, and our art has adapted to depict just that, striving to be as beautiful or as ugly as what we humans do every day.  Very little about our world views and daily lives resembles what it would have been like two centuries ago, and that includes our art.  And it’s still changing.  For example, in response to globalization one major trend in art today is an increased interest in works that combine Western ideas about contemporary art with local artistic traditions.

It’s not that putting modern art in its historical context will make it seem any less insane.  Unfortunately there’s no magic trick to do that, but you can start to understand that there’s reason for some of these truly bizarre images you see in front of you.  Artists are simply trying to express what they see in the world around them, and it’s up to us to try to figure out what exactly that is.  There’s hope, though.  Part 2 of this little series will cover some tricks and tips to help you enjoy contemporary art a bit more.



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