Who Needs Artists? Pt III – Modernism in the Arts

Modernism in the Arts

“Modern Art” does not mean Contemporary Art. It refers to a historic period of radical  change in the intentions, media, techniques and subjects of the arts at the end of the 19th Century. It developed primarily in France and other northern European countries, except Victorian England, which rejected socialist politics and brash individualism. It was picked up by Americans, and has continued to the present.

Although there are many parts of this movement, some general ideas apply. Most importantly, it was a “self-conscious” rejection of tradition and academic values. It favored radical new approaches (avant-garde), and individuality. This only intensified with WWII, as liberal thinkers felt that uncontrolled Capitalism was responsible for most wars in the west.

Additional changes involve theories about light, and its effects on vision. The naturalist realism of Courbet’s variety gave way to other views of reality and nature, and other available mediums. For example, synthetic colors were developed, allowing eye-smacking additions to the palettes of visual artists. The depiction of motion also developed, as I’ll illustrate below.


Claude Monet  (1840-1926) is often said to have started Modernism with his 1872 work – Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise). It deals with an”open” composition, showing the whole field of vision on the canvas, without any subject in focus. The changing nature of light and its colors are evident throughout the painting. How light affects a viewer depends on her angle; where she stands. Brush strokes are visible, thin and broken – not smoothed over to follow the idea that ‘this is how it must be.’  Nothing here is conventional.

Cubism is perhaps the most radical break with convention. Cubists were trying to show things as they really are in themselves – not as we are used to ‘seeing’ them visually modified and interpreted. We actually see only the side of a three dimensional object facing us, and imagine the rest. The pictorial representation on a flat canvas or sheet of paper is made according to ‘rules’ of perspective discovered in the Renaissance – like shadows, foreshortening, vanishing point, darkening color at a distance, etc. Picture a Rubik’s Cube – changing with however you hold it. So objects are a combination of ‘cubes’ which are (roughly rectangular)colored spaces. As in so many other modern experiments, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a leader. He was Spanish, but spent his adult life in France, which was freer. Here is his seminal 1907 work Demoiselles D’Avignon (Young Women of Avignon). For lovers of things French, the title didn’t reference Avignon, France, but Avignon Street in Barcelona – where prostitutes operated.

George Braque (1882-1963), also an ‘expat’ in Paris , pushed cubism a bit more to the abstract. Here is his 1909 Parc Carrieres-St-Denis. It reminds us that this perspective works in woodlands as easily as in cities, towns or someone’s dwelling.


A final example of Cubist art was even too radical (“Futurist”) to be included in the cubist exposition at the Salon des Independents. But it did make the Armory Exhibit a year later. It’s the 1912 work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) titled Nu Descendant Un Escalier No. 2 . It’s his effort to portray movement in a series of still shots. Photography was developed long before this, but how to join stills together as “moving pictures” took considerable time, with the help of Edison, and the Lumiere family in France who improved his invention. It’s likely that the first moving picture for a paying audience was shown at a New Orleans theater in 1896

Other Lesser Isms

Without any particular historical order, here’s a list of variations on modern themes that have made a name for themselves which range from serious to ridiculous. In the latter, I might include conceptualism, which proposes a general idea or concept that is unachievable by any concrete effort to realize it. So it can be developed endlessly by others.

Opposing the push to perfection of conceptualism, there are experiments with destruction as a development of the anti-art movement – for example erasing another artist’s canvas! Or more silly, recording the smashing of something breakable. Anti-creativity v. Creativity. As an offshoot, there is the rejection of all kinds of ‘representational’ in any form, since they are unreal. Constructivism took this view, and recommended replacing such ‘abstractions’ with a concrete  structure that could be put to good use.

Found art puts random objects together to evoke a common experience. Accident comes into an artistic perspective. Once again, Picasso was a leader. This piece was done in 1942, at the start of the anti-art movement, which rejected conventional tastes, capitalism and the two world wars they believed capitalism brought on. Dadaism (a name with multiple possible explanations) had a similar orientation. Musical convention, for example, was rejected beautifully by Erik Satie. Here are three short piano pieces, titled Gymnopedies, published in 1888. He made up the name, which suggests an ancient Greek dance of young naked men. The pieces defy conventions of rhythm, harmony, and melody, as do his Gnossiennes which followed them – another undefined name.


This one is close to home, since the iconic example is in Chicago’s Art Institute – It’s George Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday on La Grande Jatte) completed in 1886. After many variations, he settled on using only primary colors, and applying them in meticulously regular patterns close together to bring about the effect of real light striking the eye, called “optical blending’. Hence his nickname ‘Dot Dot Seurat’.


Get to the essence of things, which usually lies in an idea. Another expat artist in France – the sculptor Constantin Brancusi – does this effectively with his work The Kiss, carved in 1907, and also exhibited in the 1913 Armory Exhibition. There are several versions, some with full bodies.

Another avant-garde post-war figure was musician John Cage, who had many interests and liked novelty, like altering ordinary musical instruments and playing them. He ‘prepared’ a piano by inserting objects such as dinner ware, bolts, rubber erasers, among the strings to produce unusual sounds. He is also famous/ notorious for ‘composing’ Four minutes thirty-three seconds (4’33”) – for any individual or group of musicians. The time indicated how long the performer(s) are meant to remain on the stage, after settling in, while making no sound. The audience reaction is expected to differ – from squirming in discomfort, to trying to figure it out, or tuning in to ambient noises around them, or contemplating the meaning of music, etc. Sorry, I can’t include a sample ‘performance’.

What Can’t Be Art?

With such extremes in mind – whether or not they came from serious, well-regarded and influential persons – the general reaction might well be, ‘Well then, anything and nothing can be art’. Here’s an example of conceptualism gone amuck, on purpose.

Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited this banana, duct-taped to a wall and titled Commedian, at the annual Basel Art fair in Miami, 2019. The piece was sold for $120,000! What can’t  be art? It went viral, of course, but it also generated this good piece of serious critical analysis in a 12 minute video from PBS.

Art for Humanity ► for Our Society ► for My Community ► for Me

The social influence or “impact” of art today has become a contentious issue. So-called “Cancel Culture” discounts the intentions of artists, giving precedence to the effects of their art works on particular minority groups. This exteme position isn’t only a question of free speech; it may eliminate important artistic tools for getting ideas across indirectly, like irony, sarcasm and comic mimicry. On the other hand, we shouldn’t dismiss out of hand this concern as merely a hyper-liberal demand for artists to be “politically correct” (PC). Let’s replace the extreme polarization with some critical thoughtful engagement. In response to hate groups deriding ‘snowflakes’ on the left, there are good reasons for paying attention to art’s ‘negative impact’ and ‘micro-aggressions‘, as well as it’s societal benefit.

‘Community’ is disappearing

Our society is increasingly relativistic, about both truth and values. As a result, art is losing its connection with others. Does an artist have to identify herself as an artist? Does an artist need an audience? Does she need a goal? Why is she doing  anything she does – dancing, writing, singing, cooking, sleeping, caring for a loved one, watching the moon’s reflection in the water, thinking about how to tell her lover it’s over? What is her purpose? Is she thinking of an outcome? Does she know if she has fulfilled her vision? If we do things too much ‘at random’ – or because ‘I feel like it’ – the self will be our focus, and the world fragmented. This was what W. B. Yeats describes in his 2019 poem, the Second Coming – “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”.

The ‘Revolt of Individualism’

I am the creator. I determine the meaning and value of art. This is a common view of the meaning of arts today in the larger culture where community seems to be losing its importance. Yeats called it the “revolt of individualism”, using these words: “Supreme art is a traditional statement of certain heroic and religious truths, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned. The revolt of individualism came because the tradition had become degraded, or rather because a spurious copy had been accepted in its stead”. (Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Vol. III, p. 362)

What is this ‘spurious copy’? – Art as a commodity.

Someone quipped (or was it my suggestion), “Picasso could blow his nose on a paper napkin and someone would buy it.” Here’s an example of one of those spontaneous sketches. In contrast with this is the expression ‘art for art’s sake’. That sounds to me like  a hypocritical meme – an invention of 19th century upper class conoisseurs who were advocating for ‘pure’ art – i.e. their  own tastes – and degrading the ‘low brow’ work of popular artists. No flashes of inspiration allowed.

As I suggested in a previous blog, the influence of artists has for most of history been oriented to benefit the the artist’s group (in primal tribes) or in more civilized societies, what the rulers decided was beneficial – i.e. was right to believe and good to do. Needless  to say, dictators have believed their personal views defined the right and the good. We know what happened to King Louis XIV who claimed “I am the state” – L’etat, c’est moi.

I believe the question governing the art world today is too often not whether it’s true, or good, or how much it benefits society, but more and more ‘What’s in it for me?’  How much cash can it bring to the dealer, the buyer (and often, the artist)? With modern mastery of sales techniques, using massive ‘big data’ and incredible algorithms to manage it, marketers can manipulate most ordinary citizens in this ‘free country’ to favor certain artists and their work, and purchase the products they advertize – clothing, food, visual art, music, art supplies, houses, furnishing, etc.

Many of the ‘nudges’ aren’t even noticed – e.g. the next video is lined up to play automatically unless you know how to stop it. Deception for one’s own benefit is old as civilization, everywhere. Morally it’s equivalent to, or worse than theft; and it’s wrong. The difference I see today, increasingly, is that society’s leaders seem to have stopped even pretending to moderate and control deception, or break up oligarchies and monopolies that are so powerful. The power and influence of advertising is only growing, since central government has effectively eliminated Antitrust laws of a century ago, and gone for ‘consumer protection’. Here’s a thoughtful article on that movement in the wrong direction.

Government agencies, like the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), or the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) give relatively little funding to the arts. Moreover, the poorest citizens are least likely to get support from such agencies simply by ‘doing their own thing’ artistically.  They need a following, and someone with ‘grant writing’ skills to attract attention. Social media – especially Facebook and YouTube – have helped some artists get noticed and succeed, but competition is daunting, and luck is more important than skill. Besides, in social media, popular tastes count for more than artistic merit – another effect of wealth determining what’s in the Public Interest.

Art education in public schools has been declining for some years. The main reason for that is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program of the G.W. Busch administration a decade ago (Jan 2002). Among other things, it requires states to show improvement in English and math proficiency, for ill-served populations, or lose federal Title I funds. Sounds nice, but it has major problems. Schools tend to cheat to get good ratings; poor neighborhoods still suffer; and ‘non-essential’ programs like the arts are cut for lack of funds.

Graffiti is one age old outlet for frustrated citizens, of mixed artistic value. But some communities have started to encourage serious public murals. Chicago, for example, keeps track of these, maps their location, and authorizes their protection.

There’s nothing wrong with being paid for your art of course. But only an affluent society can provide artists the luxury of ‘expressing themselves’ while still managing somehow to find decent food, clothing, shelter and other support.

Like so many  other aspects of American culture, however, most direct support of art and artists comes from private donors, often aided by local governments. That’s a result of the popular idea – promoted by oligarchic business interests – that the less federal government is involved in the economy, the better off  our society will be. That anti-government perspective comes from the (false) belief that central governments don’t add value to the economy; they are a drag. Mariana Mazzucato effectively blows apart that view in her 2018 book, The Value of Everything, summarized in this twenty minute video. (By the way she’s talking about money value, not public good.)

I leave you with two very old Latin expressions to think about critically – one is a warning, the other a suggestion: Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware); and De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est (You can’t argue about taste).




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