“Something different from a Photograph”
Modern art is an interesting term. The novice to the art world is likely to say that modern art refers to all art produced in very recent years — say, since the turn of the 21st Century. But an art scholar would certainly take issue with that, pointing out that the Modern Art Period is generally considered to have ended in about the 1970’s and that art produced today is more precisely called “contemporary art” or even “post modern art.”Both interpretations of the term, it turns out, can be correct.
What scholars call the Modern Art Period began in about the 1950’s did, indeed, fade away throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Nevertheless, the spirit with which the works of that period were produced lives on — if slightly modified. Modern Art is about artistic freedom and imagination, something that is still practiced and admired today. And that is a direct contract to the classic styles that Modern Art has, more or less, replaced throughout the 20th century.
In a nutshell, Modern Art developed with photography. In the days before photographs were easily made, artists were chiefly interested in creating “realistic” paintings. That meant that painters followed all sorts of rules and conventions in order to create lifelike scenes and portraits. The goal was to use technical expertise and skill to create art in which the subject could easily be recognized. Even paintings of angels and other supernatural figures were set in easily recognizable place.
But as cameras made realism a more practical, easier pursuit, artists began to experiment with other styles that, eventually, evolved into Modern Art. The de-emphasis on a need for camera-like, realistic accuracy meant that artists were, in many ways, more free. They no longer confined themselves to the tried-and-true techniques that created precise, photographic portraits. Instead, they focused on an endless variety of methods that helped them portray their feelings about reality – rather than reality itself.
At its peak, the Modern Art movement was not widely appreciated by the general public because, modern art paintings were often just nonsense at first glance and needed the artist himself to explain the paintings. The public was use to the much more self-explanatory, realistic art and, therefore, even the most elaborate modern art was often the subject of much ridicule.
It is interesting to note, however, that among the first artists to adopt “modern art” techniques set out at first to create a way of making their paintings more realistic. Impressionist painters inadvertently helped spawn the Modern Art Period by adopting new techniques such as avoiding black lines in paintings. (They reasoned that black lines do not appear in nature, so true realistic paintings should be, as nature is, an elaborate mix of various shades of all colors.) These new impressionistic techniques led many painters to abandon many other techniques and that, in turn, led a whole new generation of artists to see little value in any technique.
Hence, the term Modern Art, is still applicable to today’s art, even though scholars have come up with different names for it as the various creative techniques have evolved. Painters today are continuing in the modern art tradition of trying to capture with their art what cannot be found in a photograph. That is the essence of “modern art.”