A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 3

Or…

How Modern Art backed itself into a Corner

This is Part 3 of this series, in which I talk about what Modern Art means. Part 1 talks about the rules of art for hundreds of years, and how impressionists broke those rules. Part 2 talks about how the stones the impressionists threw turned into an avalanche of abstraction. You should read part 2 before reading below (if you haven’t already), because this entry picks up where it ends. This entry is really the second half of Part 2, I cut it into parts because of length.

Like before, clicking on the links below will launch a pop-over image, without taking you away from the page. (Though there aren’t many links in this one)

On to pontification.

Abstraction Hits A Wall

There’s one thing I wonder about when I look at the Modern Art period, and the background for this question addresses why folks sometimes have difficulty appreciating Modern Art.

The most interesting thing about Modern Art was the road that artists traveled down, the ways that artists changed the philosophies of what art is during the first half of the 20th century.

Individual works of art are a record of the road they were on, but it turns out that the journey down the road was more interesting than any of the individual stops. Each of those stops along the way, cubism, fauvism, expressionism, whateverism, don’t always make a lot of sense on their own, because each one is a move further down this “Modern Art” road. They build upon the progress that came before, and push further down the road towards pure abstraction.

When I look at a painting of a white square, I look at it as a step towards pure abstraction, a step towards proving that art doesn’t need a subject, a step towards demonstrating that art was about raw art materials, and what could be done with them. Outside of that context, however, a white square isn’t very interesting and doesn’t make much sense.

This is where Modern Art loses a lot of people. The context is missing. An abstract collection of shapes isn’t always interesting or beautiful, at least from an objective view. The meaning and importance depends on the context in which it was made, and how it expanded the boundaries of art.

The history of Modern Art is the history of this march towards pure abstraction, taken one step at a time. I sense that it was a proud march, artists bravely pushing boundaries and courageously proving art could be more and more abstract.

Getting back to my question about this, what I wonder is, did they realize this road was a dead end?

There is a natural limit to abstract art. There is a point at which art cannot be any more abstract, because it is as abstract as is possible with a tube of paint and a canvas. That limit was reached in the 1940s and 1950s, and this was the destination of the Modern Art road.

When artists reached this destination, everyone discovered that the road wasn’t a road at all, it was more like a pier. There was no where left to go.

Modern Art was a dead end, artists had moved in this direction as far as was possible. Even worse, it was the getting there that was interesting. It isn’t nearly so interesting to stay there. They could either hang out at the end of the pier, or walk back to the shore. Both options are boring.

Luckily, a couple strange guys, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, saw a third way; they decided to jump off the pier into the ocean, and that’s when things really got wacky.

Tomorrow, this series continues with the cleverly named Post-Modern art that came after Modern Art.

Tags: , ,

7 Responses to “A Short and Irreverent Art History, Part 3”

Leave a Reply