Modern Art is a term given to painting, sculpture, and other forms of 20th-century art. Although scholars disagree as to precisely when the modern period began, they mostly use the term modern art to refer to art of the 20th century in Europe and the Americas, as well as in other regions under Western influence. The modern period has been a particularly innovative one. Among the 20th century's most important contributions to the history of art are the invention of abstraction (art that does not imitate the appearance of things), the introduction of a wide range of new artistic techniques and materials, and even the redefinition of the boundaries of art itself. This article covers some of the theories used to interpret modern art, the origins of modern art in the 19th century, and its most important characteristics and modes of expression.
Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of styles, movements, and techniques. The wide range of styles encompasses the sharply realistic painting of a Midwestern farm couple by Grant Wood, entitled American Gothic (1930, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), and the abstract rhythms of poured paint in Black and White (1948, private collection), by Jackson Pollock. Yet even if we could easily divide modern art into representational works, like American Gothic, and abstract works, like Black and White, we would still find astonishing variety within these two categories. Just as the precisely painted American Gothic is representational, Willem de Kooning's Marilyn Monroe (1954, private collection) might also be considered representational, although its broad brushstrokes merely suggest the rudiments of a human body and facial features. Abstraction, too, reveals a number of different approaches, from the dynamic rhythms of Pollock's Black and White to the right-angled geometry of Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-1942, Tate Gallery, London) by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose lines and rectangles suggest the mechanical precision of the machine-made. Other artists preferred an aesthetic of disorder, as did German artist Kurt Schwitters, who mixed old newspapers, stamps, and other discarded objects to create Picture with Light Center (1919, Museum of Modern Art, New York City).
Thus 20th-century art displays more than stylistic diversity. It is in the modern period that artists have made paintings not only of traditional materials such as oil on canvas, but of any material available to them. This innovation led to developments that were even more radical, such as conceptual art and performance art - movements that expanded the definition of art to include not just physical objects but ideas and actions as well.
In view of this diversity, it is difficult to define modern art in a way that includes all of 20th-century Western art. For some critics, the most important characteristic of modern art is its attempt to make painting and sculpture ends in themselves, thus distinguishing modernism from earlier forms of art that had conveyed the ideas of powerful religious or political institutions. Because modern artists were no longer funded primarily by these institutions, they were freer to suggest more personal meanings. This attitude is often expressed as art for art's sake, a point of view that is often interpreted as meaning art without political or religious motives. But even if religious and government institutions no longer commissioned most art, many modern artists still sought to convey spiritual or political messages. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, felt that color combined with abstraction could express a spiritual reality beneath ordinary appearances, while German painter Otto Dix created openly political works that criticized policies of the German government.
Another theory claims that modern art is by nature rebellious and that this rebellion is most evident in a quest for originality and a continual desire to shock. The term avant-garde, which is often applied to modern art, comes from a French military term meaning "advance guard," and suggests that what is modern is what is new, original, or cutting-edge. To be sure, many artists in the 20th century tried to redefine what art means, or attempted to expand the definition of art to include concepts, materials, or techniques that were never before associated with art. In 1917, for example, French artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited everyday, mass-produced, utilitarian objects - including a bicycle wheel and a urinal - as works of art. In the 1950s and 1960s, American artist Allan Kaprow used his own body as an artistic medium in spontaneous performances that he declared to be artworks. In the 1970s American earthwork artist Robert Smithson used unaltered elements of the environment - earth, rocks, and water - as material for his sculptural pieces. Consequently, many people associate modern art with what is radical and disturbing. Although a theory of rebellion could be applied to explain the quest for originality motivating a great number of 20th-century artists, it would be difficult to apply it to an artist such as Grant Wood, whose American Gothic clearly rejected the example of the advanced art of his time.
Another key characteristic of modern art is its fascination with modern technology and its embrace of mechanical methods of reproduction, such as photography and the printing press. In the early 1910s Italian artist Umberto Boccioni sought to glorify the precision and speed of the industrial age in his paintings and sculptures. At about the same time, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso incorporated newspaper clippings and other printed material into his paintings in a new technique known as collage. By the same token, however, other modern artists have sought inspiration from the spontaneous impulses of children's art or from exploring the aesthetic traditions of nonindustrialized, non-Western cultures. French artist Henri Matisse and Swiss artist Paul Klee were profoundly influenced by children's drawings, Picasso closely observed African masks, and Pollock's technique of pouring paint onto canvas was in part inspired by Native American sand painting.
Yet another view holds that the basic motivation of modern art is to engage in a dialogue with popular culture. To this end, Picasso pasted bits of newspaper into his paintings, Roy Lichtenstein imitated both the style and subject of comic strips in his paintings, and Andy Warhol made images of Campbell's soup cans. But although breaking down the boundary between high art and popular culture is typical of artists like Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, it is not of Mondrian, Pollock, or most other abstract artists.
Each of these theories of course, is compelling and could explain a great many strategies employed by modern artists. Yet even this brief examination reveals that 20th-century art is far too diverse to be fully contained within any one definition. Each theory can contribute a part to the puzzle, but no single theory can claim to be the solution to the puzzle itself.