Modern Art: Definition and Philosophy

Modern Art is typically considered as the art created from about 1900 to present, however Modern Art technically only encompasses the art beginning with Impressionism in in the late 1800s to the beginnings of Post-Modernism in the mid-1970s. The primary tenet of Modern Art that sets it apart from prior art is the rising need for expressionism in art, and the falling need for photorealism. A rule of thumb for knowing if an author is discussing Modern Art as defined above, or modern art in the sense of contemporary, or current, art, is to notice whether or not “modern” is capitalized. It is understood that in most academic publications, capitalized Modern Art refers to art from Impressionism to Postmodernism while lowercase modern art can be understood as contemporary art.

Modern Art was a label created in 1939 by the important American art critic Clement Greenburg. He was essential as a critic in that he solidified and defined the art movements in the 1940s through 1970s. Clement Greenburg believed that Abstract Expressionism, championed by Jackson Pollock, was the greatest artistic movement in his lifetime. With Clement Greenburg and Jackson Pollock, there was a huge shift in the art world moving the center of the avant-garde from Europe to the , specifically New York City.

From the beginnings of Modern Art, it was recognized that in this new age of art, the viewer was as important as the creator in defining the work. For the first time, there were meanings other than what was initially available to the eye in each work. A prime example of this is “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp. The upside down ceramic urinal signed with the name “R. Mutt” was created to pose the question, “What is art?” The piece caused a stir in the art world when it was rejected from the supposedly unjuried, free entry, 1917 show by the Society of Independent Artists. The “art” of this piece is not in its actual physical form (as would be the case for pre-Modern art) but in the thoughts, feelings, and discussions provoked by its presence. This is the central idea in the philosophy of Modern Art.

Some movements related to Modern Art are Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, De Stijl, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Surrealism, and Pop Art. These movements all deal with differing ways to look at reality and beauty. Some, such as Russian Suprematism and Dada are politically motivated while others are aesthetically motivated. The wide array of styles, media, artists, and meanings are at the root of how Modern art differs from preceding art.

The art created between circa 1890 and circa 1970 has very few consistencies visually, but when the philosophies and goals behind each piece are considered, there is the common drive of expressionism. This ideology creates the reason why smaller movements during this era are combined under the umbrella of the term Modern Art.

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