What is modern art and why isn’t it disappearing?

In his article “What was modernism?” — soon to be published in a collection called art is life — Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jerry Saltz makes an interesting observation: Since the 14th century, not a single artistic movement has lasted more than one or two generations.

A quick historical overview confirms this. Leonardo da Vinci had barely been dead for a year when the High Renaissance gave way to Mannerism, a movement that emphasized the thoughts and feelings of individual artists rather than the methodical depiction of their subjects. Similarly, masculine neoclassicism pushed aside the more feminine Rococo style, which itself had rendered the work of Baroque painters obsolete.

Modernism sees itself as the logical conclusion of art history.

The lifespan of art movements seems to have diminished over time, perhaps because their development matches the exponential growth of civilization. While Romanticism and Realism remained in vogue for around 50 years each, Fauvism – which made its debut in the early 20th century – only lasted five years before the arrival of Expressionism. Expressionism, on the other hand, existed for two years before Cubism and Futurism joined the party.

As Jerry Saltz says, most people go to the Met because they feel they have to, but they visit MoMA or the Guggenheim because it’s “cool.” (Credit: HR Tsua / Wikipedia)

The only exception and disruptor to this trend is modernism. The art movement, introduced to Americans over a century ago, is still in vogue today. As Saltz points out, many of the world’s leading museums, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Guggenheim, are devoted exclusively to modern art. “Children,” he adds, “are wearing tattoos of works of art by Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian and Andy Warhol,” and “our cities are full of from glass-walled luxury riffs on high-modernist architecture, to apartments inside full of fake “mid-century modern” furniture.”

All of this begs the question: why did modern art survive when other artistic movements did not?

What is modern art anyway?

In order to understand why modernism is still around today, you must first understand what it is. This is easier said than done, as the movement does not easily lend itself to categorization and description. “It is disastrous to name us,” exclaimed artist Willem de Kooning, a remark that helps explain why the differences between his work and, say, the work of Piet Mondrian are so much more stark than Rafael and Michelangelo.

In fact, modern art is so elusive that historians cannot agree on when it began. Some of them refer Edouard Manet as the first modernist painter. Others are content Paul Cézannemore precisely his painting Bathers. Others still trace the birth of modernism to Francisco Goya, who lived several centuries before the birth of the two previous ones.

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One thing that connects these very different artists is their mutual disregard for convention. Manet, Cézanne and Goya all painted in styles that had nothing to do with their contemporaries. They used broad brushstrokes, solid colors and manipulated perspectives to construct scenes that were both simplified and intensified.

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Many cite Cézanne’s 1906 painting Bathers as the birth of modernism. (Credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikipedia)

For some giants of modernism, contempt borders on disgust. Marcel Duchamp said he wanted to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. While the aforementioned painters were concerned with discovering new forms of expression, Duchamp wanted to question the definition of art itself. To this end, Duchamp, who once said that “a picture which does not shock is not worth painting”, proposed an ordinary urinal signed “R. Mutt” at a 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists.

Many artists attempted to compete with the controversy that ensued at the Society when the urinal was unveiled; in 2019, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan approached it by taping a banana to a wall with duct tape.

The end point of art

Besides being rebellious and indeterminate, modern art also aspires to be truthful. “These radical artists are right”, critic Harriet Monroe written as early as 1913. “They represent a search for new beauty…a desire for new versions of observed truth.”

What Monroe means is that, through abstraction, modern art is able to reveal things about life, existence, and reality that previous art movements – enslaved to their own subjects – failed to reveal. couldn’t. To paraphrase many modern manifestos, storytelling and representation are distilled into their simplest, purest, and truest forms: color and composition. In other words, subjectivity is replaced by objectivity.

Marcel Duchamp proposed a urinal because he wanted to elevate an everyday object to the rank of great art. (Credit: Stieglitz / Wikipedia)

This brings us to the last and arguably most important feature of modernism: its tendency to see itself as the logical conclusion of art history. Modern artists have envisioned this history as a straight line stretching from prehistoric rock art to the present day – that is, a time when painting had already been abstracted so often that it could not no longer be.

Many artists of the 20th century claimed that they were the ones who achieved singularity. Ad Reinhardt, working on his monochrome grid paintings, said he was “just doing the last painting anyone can do”. This clearly could not be the case, as Soviet artist Alexander Rodchenko had “reduced the painting to its logical conclusion” and “claimed that it was all over” before Reinhardt, and Duchamp had declared the painting dead while Rodchenko was still at school.

Beyond Modernism

The characteristics of modern art help explain its enduring popularity. Because the movement is a denunciation of all that has come before, viewers don’t need a working knowledge of art history – or history in general – to appreciate it. While the beauty and genius of Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini depend on his familiarity with scripture, myth and the predicament of the Roman Catholic Church after the Protestant Reformation, a painting by Jackson Pollock, critics say, must be lived rather than analysed, felt rather than understood.

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A Pollock drip paint should be absorbed all at once. (Credit: Jackson Pollock / Wikipedia)

Another curious characteristic of modernism is that people are as interested in art as they are in the artists themselves. Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol were not only treated as geniuses, but also as celebrities, sex symbols and style icons. We also remember them as underdogs and iconoclasts who, despite being questioned and ridiculed early in their careers, eventually rose to the top.

This goes double for artists who died before their big break, like Vincent van Gogh. “Teenagers,” writes Saltz, “have great feelings because the world hasn’t understood Vincent.” As a result, his art became virtually inseparable from his tragic life, the latter serving as a lens through which to view the former. The same cannot be said of fellow Dutchman Johannes Vermeer who, although he died in poverty and anonymity, like van Gogh, is best known for his art and not his person.

The title of Saltz’s article, “What the Hell was Modernism?” suggests that the movement eventually dissipated. However, this is not necessarily the case, as postmodernism – the art movement we witness today – is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. The very name “postmodernism” indicates that it is defined by its relationship to modern art. Several overlapping qualities, including experimentation and what Saltz calls “novelty fetishism,” add to the confusion.

It is impossible to separate the person of van Gogh from his art. (Credit: National Gallery of Art / Wikipedia)

That’s not to say the two are completely inseparable, however. Just as modernism rejects old artistic movements, postmodernism also turns its back on modernism and its underlying ideas. Where modernism had an unwavering faith in progress, postmodernism has a suspicious and skeptical nature. He considers the notion that art history is linear to be highly controversial, not least because the individuals who promoted this argument were overwhelmingly white and male.

Instead of seeking to create the final paintings of humanity, postmodern artists seek to critique global narratives, express individuality, and strengthen voices that have been ignored or suppressed. Where modern art was elitist, enigmatic and always resting on the shoulders of giants, postmodernism is open, inviting and collaborative.

Always fashionable, the founding principles of modern art are increasingly out of step with the current political and cultural climate. In this sense, this supposedly immortal movement is finally relegated to where it wanted to flee: the past.

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