The development of modern art

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

 La Mitrailleuse (1915) Christopher Nevinson, Futurist

When you compare 20th century art to nearly anything prior to that century, the most striking difference is the shift away from institutional formality in modern works.

In every major art form, from architecture and music to writing, the end of the 19th century saw this dramatic change, one often described as Modernism, but its roots are traceable to the century before, during the Enlightenment in France.

Prior to the Enlightenment, French society was divided into a hierarchy on top of which sat God, followed by the King and then the various levels of society, with the common people at its base. The philosophical development of the period reversed this hierarchy, and made man truly the measure of things when God and King became subservient to him.

What followed was a gradual liberation of the formalities that once dominated artistic expression, as the social conscious shifted from the divine to the individual. One such formality was the Classical notion of order and balance inherent to the very concept of art, the aim of which was to capture the divine. As Michaelangelo once put it, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Order was generally achieved through balanced proportions and, in painting, sombre and monochromatic colours. Even more “expressive” movements like the Baroque period, which followed the Renaissance, maintained a controlled, sombre palette in contrast to the Impressionists of the mid-19th century.

True art was therefore governed by strict practices, all of which were enforced by the schools of art and their respective movements of the time.

With the Impressionists in particular came a greater willingness to experiment with the elements of painting " a development encouraged by the invention of photography. Their examination of light, colour and form contrasted the reigning realism of artwork before them.

What all of this indicates is a gradual breakdown of the strict conditions regulating artistic expression from the previous centuries. One important element of the Modernist movement in the mid 19th Century was the rejection of tradition. In the context of a rapidly industrializing civilization, tradition was seen as a setback to greater progress. Modernists therefore championed the constant renewal of ideas and traditions and sought to break from the “tyranny of Historicism,” as some art historians have referred to it.

Art today is free from many of these rules, leaving it free to explore innermost feelings, psychology, a range of social issues and even the very technique itself.

There are no longer dominant schools of thought setting the standard for acceptable art, nor is there a standard for what art ought to be. Our definition of art has expanded to encompass the plurality found in all individuals, which today rests at the centre of everything, from expression and taste to philosophy. This shift from the divine to the individual is the hallmark of modern art.

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