Essence - Modern art - Willem Elias

1. Introduction

1.1. ‘Old’ art

It would be quite legitimate to question my choice of subject: modern art - not contemporary art. What is the difference between these categories? At which point does the former turn into the latter? The apparent need to publish an ‘Essence’ booklet on the subject of modern art presupposes that the ‘old art’, which preceded ‘modern art’, is sufficiently well known and does not require any elucidation. We do seem to know a lot about old art. Old art doesn’t require any explanation to justify its artistic merits, to point out to us where the ‘art’ is in ‘old art’.
That is a given. Art used to be physically produced by artists. Being an ‘artist’ was a licensed occupation at the time. The word used to designate a person who had mastered a technique to shape objects. This ‘shape’ was required for the object to transcend the ‘useful minimum’ – for instance a walking stick with a knob shaped like the head of its owner: a quite superfluous adornment, but it raised a smile.
This ‘special shape’ was always meant to attract the attention of the senses. For that much is certain: people’s attention tends to wander. Attention has to be caught and held, and continually needs to be attracted - by beauty. That much behavioral psychology has taught us. Unfamiliar impulses make people feel uneasy. Overly familiar ones become boring. Our bodies strive for equilibrium. Therein lay the artist’s mission: it was his (or, infrequently, her) task to make life bearable by making things look beautiful. Or by translating an unpalatable moral message into a powerful motto. Or by ensuring that people’s beliefs could be felt deeply. Or by impressing people with the powerful, astonishing qualities of what wonders they conceived and achieved on behalf of their equally powerful and astonishing clients.
The ways to create these shapes were predetermined by tradition. At different times, different styles and techniques were perfected. This was the result of careful craftsmanship: well-considered mastership. Besides this mastery of his craft, the artist added ‘his own touch’ to each piece, to showcase his talent and imagination in order to earn a reputation in the collective memory and a place in our history books. Traditional craftsmanship induced peace of mind and exceptional feats of imagination elicited curiosity. Exactly what was required to ensure that the senses remained alert: neither paralyzed with agitation, nor defeated by boredom.
Peace of mind was warranted mainly by the fact that ‘old’ art was linked with two aesthetic principles. In western art, the first one was to do with imitation of reality. At the time, it wasn’t common knowledge, as it is now, that ‘realism’ in art in fact does not exist, that art is always just a view on reality, and moreover: a view from a fixed point of view, a halted movement. Given that Plato’s theory of forms is one of western culture’s mainstays, adding a good dose of ideality to this realism wasn’t a problem for them either. The work of art shows reality at its best. Besides this material aspect, the work of art also provides an ideality. It contains a - more or less hidden - message telling us how to look at its subject and even what it is we should be seeing. The latter is called ‘iconology’ in art historical terms. The idea of beauty is predominant here in all its platonic depth.
By means of art, reality has been enriched with its own ideality, colored in with what is deemed morally good.

The second aesthetic principle is ‘expression’. Meanings are expressed, emotions, religious beliefs, etc. Form is not a representation of reality, but a combination of a number of symbols designed to sort a certain effect. The more powerfully the work of art manages to fulfill its holy task, in the higher regard it will be held. A symbol is something that can be used as a significant replacement for something else: a rose, for love. Many techniques were applied to imbue these signs with power, which mostly come down to exaggeration, emphasis, stress, repetition, distortion, enlargement and a choice of unusual images. When people in the Congo wanted to make a nail fetish, for instance, there was no skimping on nails. This aesthetic canon is at the basis of what was called the ‘primitive arts’.

Does the first aesthetic principle, imitation, belong exclusively to the western sphere, while the other, expression, is valid only for non-western art? Certainly not. African art features many realistic styles. And those of you who would like to sample some expression in ‘old’ western art could do worse than to browse the pages of Umberto Eco’s On ugliness.

Around the middle of the 19th century, modern art made its appearance, brandishing its dual aesthetic principles of iconoclasm and primitivism. ‘Iconoclasm’ means something like ‘shaking up the sculptures’. The term was coined to describe the actions of those who destroyed images in catholic churches (starting from the 8th century). The iconoclasts believed in the dogma that God should not be represented in any way whatsoever. With regard to modern art, the term means any creative destruction (which the ‘old’ iconoclasm clearly was not) of reproductions of established, ‘classic’ images (Duchamp made a drawing on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa). Primitivism is a term usually applied to express appreciation for art forms originating from non-western cultures. In modern art, the meaning of the word can be extended to encompass all aesthetic actions that propose alternatives for rational, logic-based worldviews. The ‘wild thinking’, as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss formulated it so beautifully, to indicate a different way of acquiring knowledge. We might boldly state that just about all modern art is a touch primitivist, even if this may not always be obvious.

1.2. ‘Modern’ art

‘Modern’ art first makes its appearance around the middle of the 19th century, and that was also when its name became established. There is probably an economic explanation. The Church and the Nobility, traditional patrons of art, had been joined in this respect by an ever growing, wealthy Bourgeoisie. The number of artists also increased significantly, and the regular exhibitions at established salons were no longer sufficient to show all the art that was on offer. Juries’ judgments were no longer meekly accepted. Art critics started venting their opinions in a growing number of art magazines and in the cultural pages of regular newspapers. The first art dealers opened their galleries and started defending their young artists. Not that their shows were a resounding success from the start. A major competitor had popped up: photography (1839). This new technique had liberated painting from its function as a keeper of images, especially portraits. Painting had lost its usefulness - but didn’t just lie down and die. The noble competition between photography and painting has remained an important aspect of modern art. But I prefer to approach the phenomenon of modern art by focusing on the artist’s formal development. With modern art, a different kind of artist arose.
Up to this point, artists had been trying their best to meet their patrons’ expectations and the requirements of those who had the power to represent the community. The new artist breaks with this pattern. He considers himself an exceptional singleton – a genius, say. He wants to expose his views on reality to the community. So he breaks with the tradition in which church and nobility determine the norm. The artist starts suggesting alternatives. In fact, he puts an end to the idea of the One reigning consensus. This is the beginning of individualism, of which he himself is an excellent example. By being different, of course, he marginalizes himself. He is breaking with traditions and visual habits, and creating exciting new images. This is what we call ‘modern’. The conservative audience at large is shocked and rejects him. But the modern artist does catch the attention of a number of people whose curiosity is tickled, who think they may understand what he means and who are interested in his creativity. The modern artist disturbs the established order. Not that it is his intention to create mayhem: he acts out of the conviction that there is not just one order, but that there are a great many equally valid ones.
The adventure of modern art is still ongoing: the artist creates a new form and seeks an audience for it. A distinction is made between modern art and contemporary art. Without affixing a date, and rightly so. Some people consider 1945 to be the dividing line, others situate the transition in the sixties, other still propose the eighties and postmodernism as the dividing line. It may be simpler just to see contemporary art as part of the dynamic of modern art. Modern art was, after all, contemporary in the second half of the 19th century. At times, contemporary art is referred to as ‘modern art’. The various styles of modern art became widely accepted, and the public at large started to like them. So a new term was required in order to distinguish surprising new art from new art that had meanwhile become established.
Today, no one will fail to recognize Monet’s pond or be profoundly puzzled by Picasso’s distortions…
The story of modern art is a history of successive renewals. That is the basis of my classification. When I am talking about modern art, I am actually talking about contemporary art that has become history. When talking about contemporary art, in fact I mean works that cause aesthetic confusion, products that surprise the public because they proffer yet another point of view or unusual use of media. Every object that strikes us as an artistic form of contemporaneousness is contemporary art. And it is doomed to become modern art, in time. What’s interesting is the fact that there is a difference in the way viewers relate to them. Modern art is heritage. Contemporary art is one of the surprises the here-and-now experience of life has in store for us.
It is quite another matter to be interested in what is new and has not been seen before (i.e. contemporary art) or to enjoy recognizable, established, new art from an earlier era. The latter is part of our historic artistic heritage; the former is part of what is happening now. Not all contemporary art will warrant a mention in the history of modern art, but that doesn’t make a contemporary work of art any the less important as far as its topical value goes. That time limits are no appropriate basis on which to determine the distinction between these notions, is also clear from the fact that certain artists keep on producing modern art. After all, an artist doesn’t just stop working once he has made his contribution to the ever-growing canon of modern art. Most of them keep on working in the style of the renewal they themselves introduced, even if that was some decades ago.
It would be a mistake to misinterpret the prefix ‘post’ in ‘postmodern’, as pertaining to art. This art form, that was contemporary in the eighties, is now starting to be considered to be modern art as well. Postmodernism was a starting signal for yet another change of direction for modernism, not a rupture. The puritanical principle of modernism dictated that its styles should be pure and ignore each other, and that traditional ‘old’ art was forbidden. Styles were thrown askew by postmodernism, which was not averse to incorporating the achievements of ‘old art’.

2. When is art?

The word ‘art’ is certainly fitting to designate da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, probably the most famous painting in the world. Fountain (1917) by Duchamp, a urinal placed on a pedestal, was proclaimed the most important work of art of the past century.
Clearly, formulating an indisputable definition is no sinecure.
Three classic definitions of art are deemed valid.
According to the mimetic definition, the better a work of art succeeds in imitating reality, the more beautiful it is. The formalist definition emphasizes the harmony of the elements constituting the work of art (form, color), the equilibrium in the relations between these elements. The expressivist definition focuses on the degree to which a work of art manages to express feelings. Here, power and authenticity are prominent qualities.
Even when applied to ‘old art’, these definitions are somewhat problematic, as they are obviously connected with specific views on art. Moreover, most works of art feature an element of imitation, a measure of expression and some attention to proportions. An additional problem is the fact that modern art sets great store by its rupture with established tradition.
Duchamp called his Fountain a ‘readymade’, a mass-produced object that required only to be exhibited by the artist in order to become a work of art.
The notion that art should imitate reality cannot be illustrated any more clearly than that. Which was, of course, his intention. Duchamp is classified as a Dadaist – one who said ‘dada’ to established rules and definitions of art.
It wasn’t Duchamp, though, who set off a crisis in the definition of art, but Warhol, with his exhibition of cardboard washing powder boxes, Brillo-boxes (1964). From the 1960’s on, a fourth definition was introduced: the institutional definition. It starts from the idea that a definition of art cannot be determined on the basis of features common to all objects concerned. ‘Institutional’ means that it is the location of an object that determines whether or not it is art. The philosopher Nelson Goodman explained this by stating that the question is not ‘What is art?’ but: ‘When is art?’ The answer being: ‘when the work is being presented as art within the framework of an artistic institution (exhibition, museum...).” When Duchamp’s Fountain is installed somewhere outside the museum walls, it becomes a urinal once again.
A weak point of the institutional definition remains the fact that it is a designation of institutionalized art: art that has already found its way to the art market and other authority figures in the art world (critics, media, curators, policy makers, organizers, collectors, museums…).
Still, it is not helpful to say that it is impossible to decide whether something is art, and then just leave it at that. Also, there’s a semiotic problem. “This is art” is not an objective description. It implies an appreciation - which is implicitly wrong, as appreciation comes after definition. Appreciation is expressed in adjectives such as good, extraordinary, beautiful, great, etc. The fact that these qualifications are very subjective, as well as temporal and location-specific, only confirms the need for delimitation, such as the institutional definition. Art philosopher Formaggio’s maxim about art being whatever people call art, should not a priori be understood as extreme relativism, but rather as a starting point from which to proceed by discussing quality in a second stage. From a societal point of view, a creative individual’s assertion that what he or she is producing is art can only be taken at face value. We like to see these products in context, in connection with the things the artist has done before or afterwards, as part of what is called an ‘oeuvre’. In order to assess original creativity, we like to compare it with existing creations. What follows is appreciation.

3. What is modern?

The word ‘modern’ derives from the word ‘modus’, which means ‘just now, at this moment’ in the ablative case ‘modo’. From the 15th century on, it was used to express the opposite of old or classic. Even from as early as the 5th century, traces have been found of the use of the word, to designate the novelty of Christian culture, as opposed to the pagan Roman past. From the 10th century on, the term is regularly used to designate the changing spirit of the time, albeit not quite unequivocally: on the one hand it expresses satisfaction with the advantages of what is new, and on the other hand concern about the lightness of its temporary existence. Though historians are not in full agreement on the subject, it seems a beautiful idea to me to allow the beginning of modern times to coincide with the French revolution (1789), a result of the enlightenment that preceded it. Given that ‘modernity’ started to develop in the nineteenth century as the main characteristic of our culture, the fact that an enormous part of humanity is still not modern in thought and lifestyle in any sense remains a peculiar phenomenon.
It seems we are only eager to adopt modernity’s technological aspect: its comforts and amenities. The other – cultural - aspects develop slowly or not at all.
Take architecture for instance, the one area in which ‘modernity’ has visibly established itself. ‘Modern living’ evokes a clear image of what is understood by modernity. By contrast, old-fashioned living is the kind of architecture where you can tell from the building’s facade what social class its occupants belong to. The modern dwelling disregards social hierarchy and is only concerned with functionality. Decoration is superfluous - forbidden, even. Postmodern architecture retains this basic principle of building for modern living, but lifts the ban on decoration because functionality has become self-evident and so no longer needs to be visually symbolized. Nevertheless, ‘traditional’ building is still going strong. Also, though it might seem self-evident to do so, it is still quite exceptional to see modern architecture furnished with modern art. Modern design furniture on the other hand, has been more readily adopted, to a certain degree.

What is modern art?

What is wrong with modern art, that it keeps being rejected so resolutely by the majority of the population? The answer is not hard to fathom: the basis of any culture is repetition, tradition, and adherence to the rules. Exceptions are either discarded as irrelevant or prohibited as deemed too threatening. Fashion is in fact tradition in a new outfit. It doesn’t put an end to what was established, quite the opposite: it keeps tradition alive. What strikes us as beautiful is exactly this playful, fashionable disguise of tradition that confirms the status quo. Our senses enjoy certainties dressed up in continuously changing outfits. Old art was one of these certainties.
No wonder cultural mayhem broke out when all of a sudden a different cultural principle arose: the principle of novelty in the sense of newness. That which is new is not fashion. It is a value that has become a fundamental criterion for art criticism. The world’s appreciation hinges on the antithesis of the old and the new. With repetition, all means of expression get outdated, watered down by the wear and tear of clichéd usage.
Modern art opposes the stereotypes of traditional art and eschews the old to embrace the new. It is not an exception to the rule: its rule is exception. The problem is that only a limited number of people will feel comfortable with this urge for renewal. Hence the popular adage, that modern art is ‘elitist’. A second problem is the inevitable fact that what is new will inevitably become old. Innovation in art soon becomes a trend. Which isn’t bad in itself, because that means a new idea can be spread and carried by more than one inventive representative artist. But the pioneers of the creative phase tend to be followed by hordes of epigones, which make the new wave congeal into stale scum. Hence our view of the contemporary art phase of modern art as a time of vigorous innovation.
The adventure of novelty starts the moment an artist makes up his own rules and no longer primarily tries to pander to public taste, but makes an effort to reform it. He breaks with academic rules, which tend to consolidate this established taste. Experimentation is the word. From the 1910’s on, ‘anything goes’. Anything, that is, except the old art. Naturally, what one opposes should be destroyed. But once the old had been sufficiently weakened, it was allowed in again by the back door, from the eighties on, in the postmodern phase of modern art. Not as a comeback of earlier values, but as a demonstration of what the old was all about (deconstruction). Newness is, from then on, also contained in presentations of the old in a new context. This procedure is called ‘recontextualizing’.
Because of its experimental method, the artistic workroom is often described as a laboratory. Fact is that the results are usually a step ahead of their time, as is clearly denoted by the term ‘avant-garde’.
This combative trait has been manifest in both a destructive and a constructive expression throughout the history of modern art. The principle of creative deconstruction peaked with Dadaism (1916-1922). It was the Dadaists’ intention to react against the senseless war that was, however, a result of rational decision-making. So Dadaism protested against the war by producing extremely irrational, senseless art, to distance itself from the ‘bourgeois’ art that had meekly tolerated the warmongers’ pseudo-rationality. The function of Dadaist art was to criticize art and society.
The same period also saw the emergence of a constructive movement, which even took its name from the word: constructivism. Rather than to imitate the human figure, constructivists wanted to reshape social space. They focused on the new materials that, to a large extent, determined construction. The artist’s personal universe was secondary to the social universe, which had to be reformed. The idea of making the world a more beautiful place had been heralded by the Arts and Crafts movement, but reached its zenith with the establishment of Bauhaus (1919), an art school teaching a program of experimental research into color and shape.
This constructive expression can be said to represent the utopian function of art. Taking a critical stance, undermining what is deemed undesirable and making utopian suggestions as to what should be: these are the core intentions of modern art’s social role.
Modern art keeps finding new ways of doing so, always by way of allusions rather than directives. Its messages are always open to interpretation. This dynamic allows art to keep its finger on the pulse of fleeting time. Art follows quickly on the heels of time. Philosophy and science lag behind.

4. What is academism?

Given that academism is enemy number one to modern art, the notion deserves some explanation. Academism means: faithfully following the rules imposed by the European academies of Fine Art. In the middle ages, the guilds ensured the teaching of art, from one generation to the next. In the renaissance, academies took over. Leonardo da Vinci is usually credited with being the father of academic art education, as he taught his pupils theory as well as practice. The first official academy was founded in Florence in 1562. But the ‘academism’ the modernists were opposed to was mainly the set of rules imposed by the Parisian Académie des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1816 as the successor of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture that was founded by Louis XIV in 1648. Unlike the guilds, which turned pupils into craftsmen, this academy allowed young artists to use their imagination and have their own input, as long as they would stick to its rules.
These rules concerned, for instance, a thematic hierarchy: religious, mythological and historical scenes – with a moral lesson – were ranked highest. Next came scenes from daily life, then landscapes and finally still-lifes. The more important the subject, the larger the format could be. Contour lines were deemed more important than color – though not everyone was always in agreement on this particular issue. Studies were made after plaster casts first and afterwards after life models – either nude or fully dressed. Working in a workshop was preferable to working in open air. Copying old masters was a very popular learning method. Finished works had to be impeccable: brush strokes were supposed to be invisible.
The name ‘Academy’ was not randomly chosen: it was the name of the school founded by Plato around 385 BC. So it is clear that the revival of classical antiquity in the renaissance involved a preference for Platonism right from the start. Plato was the one who foisted upon the western world the conviction that discernible reality is but appearance and ideas, which are imperceptible to the senses, are real and true, including beauty and goodness. Which entails that the realism of academism is in fact a kind of idealism.
Courbet is usually credited with being the first modern artist. His style was referred to as ‘realism’ – a realism that intended to rid academic realism of its idealism. He wanted to paint things not as they should ideally be, but as they were – in stark reality. We are now aware of the fact that this kind of true realism cannot be achieved. Cognitive psychology teaches us that it is impossible to distinguish illusion from what is there to see. Sociology teaches us that each representation of reality is determined by the creator’s social position. The way we look at things is determined by our outlook on life, which does not distinguish between what is real and what we would like reality to be – what is called ideology. It numbs the senses, but at least it doesn’t ignore them. This grappling with reality, this desire – and failure - to capture it, the presumption that there has to be more than discernible reality, even more than imaginable reality, these unabated efforts to grasp and correct observation – these and many other endeavors to lead this reality a merry rational or irrational dance are what modern art is about.

In other words: though realism was originally the model to beat because it was riddled with idealism, the first modern school also claimed realism as its own. In fact, realism is never that far removed from whatever school, wave or tendency is advocated. Impressionism also claims its impressions to be a realistic representation of what it observes. Expressionism wanted to emphasize the reality of feelings. Surrealism presumed that what is discernible masks the unconscious realm of reality. Dadaism and its epigones used (objects from) reality itself to make art… and so on – until we finally reach postmodernism, which mainly wants to reveal how realism is constructed.
This research attitude has ensured that art has its place next to science in the context of human endeavors to make sense of the world and of mankind.
Science has to achieve this with methods that yield, or aim to yield, exact results. Art is free of this obligation and gives free rein to imagination. This freedom is what art is. It becomes more interesting as its form becomes more interesting. Academism corresponds with what dogmatism is to science: sticking to rules without questioning them. In this respect, art is also philosophy’s brother in arms: as long as philosophy was subservient to theology, (old) art served to confirm religious truths. Experimental modern art, on the other hand, runs parallel with freethinking, which is the main characteristic of western philosophy.

5. What is avant-garde?

The term avant-garde is inextricably linked with modern art. Its meanings – ahead of the masses, au fait with new methods and strategies, risky and adventurous, trendsetting, intelligent, daring – are all contained in the figurative use of ‘avant-garde’ in art.
Though the notion became fashionable only in the twenties, with regard to Dadaism (1916), the term was already in use in the 19th century. French utopist Saint-Simon is usually credited with the introduction of this use of the term, when, in 1825, he stated that ‘artists are the avant-garde because art is the most direct and the fastest medium’. Medium for what? Indeed: for social change. After its original (military) meaning and before it got its artistic connotation, the word ‘avant-garde’ was used to designate revolutionary social changes. Saint-Simon’s statement was like a starting signal. Avant-garde is a mix of two components. In the words of the art critic: a rupture with the old society and the corresponding old art. In utopian terms: a change of everyone’s social situation for the better, experimentally expressed by means of novel art forms.
A wild conciliation of art and life, on the one hand directed against traditional established conformism and on the other hand a cult of novelty, of what is unfamiliar, peculiar and unusual. Not surprisingly, the public at large turns up its nose at all that. The weird shenanigans of oddballs like the Dadaists are hard to get used to. Which was exactly as the artists intended.
Once people are supposed to have got used to their antics, the artists (have to) come up with something else. So it is fair to say that at some point every ‘–ism’ has, in its turn, been avant-garde. Certainly after 1945 just about every new wave or school was considered avant-garde – as long as it wasn’t done by amateurs. All professional artists were expected to know their position in the innovation game.
The latter, somewhat diluted sense of ‘avant-garde’, warranting that modern art in its contemporary version is new or at least sprouts from a novel context, nevertheless means that to a certain extent this is still avant-garde in a historic sense.
I am referring to the fact that a number of artistic facts are said to be ‘avant-garde’. Afterwards, the use of the term is debatable. This historic period features three high points.
First, there’s heroic avant-garde, with the artist as social hero. To us, these are rather traditional-looking works of art, yet at the time they were often refused by the Salons for not being sufficiently ‘academic’. The artist sets his own social commitment as an example to the public. Diametrically opposed to this attitude were those who adhered to the principle of l’art pour l’art: art didn’t have to have any moral or educational content. Heroic avant-garde bled to death sometime around 1880.
For purist avant-garde, the focus shifted from its social role to the work of art itself, which became an autonomous product. Examples of this are the formal experiments at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as abstraction. The artists’ main concern was to make space more beautiful. Not according to the rules of academism, which equaled beauty with platonic ideals, but from a conviction that the artist was presenting newly created beauty based on the qualities of the work of art itself: form, color, material. Their utopian experiments could be considered to be pattern-cards for a new world. Their starting point was the belief that space determines life. Determining the boundary between art and decoration was a problem, though. In any case, this art form goes perfectly with modern architecture.
The third historic avant-garde is called ‘radical’ avant-garde. Dadaism is the main example here, the movement founded in 1916 by a number of artists – of whom Tristan Tzara became the most famous – at the Café Voltaire in Zürich. Their main principle was their intention to break free of bourgeois art, because it was inextricably linked with rationality, which had done nothing to prevent WWI. They protested against this by mounting a number of absurd actions, the weirder the better. They didn’t want to be anything, not even artists. What they did was called anti-art. Paradoxically, this anti-art also became art. This is a linguistic issue. It has become clear by now that the word ‘art’ is too restrictive to include the great variety of its manifestations. In fact, each avant-garde is quite different from all others. Since Dadaists were artists, what they created was art. ‘Dada’ means ‘farewell’ in childish language, as well as ‘pet project’. Dadaism is said to be nihilistic, something that is to be taken at face value, without any false ideals, illusions or anything to hold on to. The word ‘dada’, the title of their publication, doesn’t mean anything – exactly as intended. It puts an end to established values. Nihilism also entails clearing away the past in order to make room for what is new. There’s a reference here to the child as symbol of unbridled creativity. Dadaism morphed into surrealism, which meant the end of historic avant-garde.
A major goal of radical avant-garde was to abolish the boundaries between art and life. That’s easier said than done. Art does not belong in a museum if the latter is viewed as a mausoleum, an ossuary. Whether in its historic form (pre ’45) or as a principle in which innovation will also remain a factor (post ’45), the notion ‘avant-garde’ always remains problematic. Major specialists are still not in agreement on the subject. Some of them consider 1880 to be the final year of avant-garde, because after that the link with the social aspect would have become tenuous. Others put forward 1922, when, after tits high point, Dada had become ‘Dadaism’ and disputes among its members started to divide the movement. With the economic recession and a political swing to the right, the brutal shocks art had been administering to society also seemed to abate, as artists reverted to the peace and quiet of realism.
It turned out there were limits also on the artistic level. If you keep overriding what has become established, everything becomes run-of-the-mill and soon there will be nothing left to protest against. Even acting up becomes exhausting and comes to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. After ’45 all pre-war avant-garde was reinvented, often with the prefix ‘neo’ added to the existing term for each movement.
Things get really complicated when, from the eighties on, the ‘old’ art avant-garde initially opposed, is allowed in once more, albeit in a different context. To call postmodernism ‘avant-garde’ definitely is not self-evident. Still, modern art keeps surprising us and continues to present new approaches. Postmodernism is a part of modern art. Given the fact that modernism has neatly delineated al its facets, all that is left is the possibility to make new combinations. A hodgepodge of modern ingredients is still a modern dish. What is postmodern about it is the fact that it has all been stuffed into the same pot and prepared à la grand-mère.
Postmodernism is a correction of modernism. Modernism had reached a dead end. It had become much too rigid, fundamentalist, dogmatic – a new academism. Also, the old enemy, ‘old’ art, had been beaten by then, and as the saying goes: de mortuis nil nisi bene. Which is why postmodernism started to play around with old art. Another weakness of modern art was its recurring internal arguments. Each new avant-garde wanted to demolish the one that went before. Postmodernism warrants pluralism, the breakdown of boundaries, a revival of the old dream of conciliating art and life.
The dual message of avant-garde has created problems. Mixing up the goal of formal innovation with the aim of sociopolitical change is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Right from the start, avant-garde was confronted with the question of what should take precedence: formal artistic quality or social relevance? Both extremes were criticized, accused of either aestheticism or social propaganda in totalitarian regimes (of the left as well as of the right). Today also, the concept of art as aestheticization of the world is pitted against art as sociology or hard documentary journalism. The problem becomes even more complex if we take into account the view that the social mission of art should be restricted to the creation of good art. In a degenerated, ugly world, aesthetic renewal, or the recalibration of our senses, is even a political act. Moreover, to those who are unaware of the playful rules of modern art, everything still looks like avant-garde.

6. The rules of art

Clearly, modern art is in crisis because it is the art of a society in crisis. The word ‘crisis’ contains the meaning of: the upset resulting from changes which incite us to think in order to reach decisions that may be different from the ones we usually take.
Though enlightenment and the French revolution did shake things up a bit, bourgeois society survived for a while longer. The artist produced images that confirmed the social coherence of the world he lived in and with which he identified, as he shared his community’s social and religious values. He did this in a visual language that was understood by the members of this community.
Such communities existed by the grace of actors (church, nobility) who had the power to keep the people pacified. Whoever did not keep his peace, was drastically excluded from the community. Modern art announced the end of this system. It is the start of Kant’s principle of enlightenment: ‘dare to think’. Each individual has a right to his own view. From this, a new kind of artist is born, who does not work for the community, but creates one. He presents his own concept of how things can be different.
By doing do, he gains a place right next to the parish priest and the politician – and is most of the time also pitted against them. He takes up position in the margin of society and from there he comments on it, critically or prophetically. He considers himself a genius, and at times that is exactly what he is - albeit with varying degrees of success. His audience varies depending on whether his followers of his detractors gain ground. He designs his own iconographic language, which makes it hard to grasp. On the social level, art is a unique communication system, a complex system of parts and rules that determine the way it works. Normally, communication media are supposed to transmit messages fast and clearly. Art transmits them slowly and never unequivocally. The value of the system is its power, not its efficiency. Art may endure. Its message can be intense and equivocal at the same time. This system of signals that is called art has, since the middle of the 19th century developed to become an aesthetic game. The meaning of ‘aesthetic’ we are most familiar with is synonymous with ‘beautiful’. But its original meaning derives from philosophy (1750) and served to distinguish between gaining information by thinking or by sensual experience of actual objects such as works of art. An aesthetic game is based on the effect objects or actions may have as they are discerned by the senses. There’s enough time to think afterwards.
Since this is a game, let me tell you what the rules are.

1 Art is a game

Definitions of ‘game’ usually mention that it takes place in people’s leisure time. In the case of art, this shouldn’t be understood as a ‘hobby’. Artists often earn their living by doing a something else besides their art. Or their work and leisure time tend to merge. Also, the use of art is that it is useless. It is beyond efficiency ideas. The mother of art is, after all, the party. The game features two characteristics that are also attributable to modern art. The first is the fact that their rules do not have a necessary basis: they are the result of agreements made by the first people to play it. There is great freedom - but once the rules are determined, they are applied stringently - much more meticulously than rules are in ‘real’ life. The artist is a perfectionist who executes (or has someone else execute) his idea meticulously to the last detail until it is exactly the way he wants it.
The game of modern art is like large quilt artists keep adding to and taking away from, simultaneously and continuously, and that spreads in all directions. The two main movements are adding (construction) and taking away (deconstruction). The first goes further in the same direction (for instance: one color: monochrome), looking to push some boundaries (e.g. Fontana’s gashes in the monochrome canvas). The second goes the opposite way (e.g. from figurative to abstract and back or from shades of grey to a riot of colors). This game of action and reaction is shaped by the various ‘-isms’. These are quests to find the best possible form to convey the intended meaning, which express a fundamental view on art. The history of modern art is its self-questioning and an answer to this, which turns out to be multiple.
Cartesian doubt is the logical consequence of the crisis that follows the certainties (the canon) of old art and the loss of its former functions: safeguarding images, expressing religious beliefs, moralizing, praising the powers that be, embellishing spaces, commemorating heroic actions. Its new function is to demolish old worlds and, above all, to create new ones.

2 The criterion of beauty is replaced with that of novelty

As the artist does not follow the academy’s general rules regarding beauty, but instead creates some for himself, the criterion his work is judged by is its originality. Of course, old art also featured innovation – within certain guidelines and to please the public. The artist emerging in the 19th century on the other hand wants to surprise and even shock the public by breaking the rules or making up new ones.
Let’s be clear on this: no artist loves ugliness. All artists create a certain order, with the intention of sorting an effect on the senses. Even if he wants to set his public thinking (conceptual art) he attempts to do so by means of an aesthetic intervention. His starting point is, after all, that beauty does not exist. Plato or no Plato: apart from the body’s experience, through the senses, there is no model that determines an ideal beauty. Any manifestation of beauty is culture-specific. It is taught by cultural transmission. According to a rather extreme statement on the impact of society on our experience of beauty, beauty is what is said to be beautiful by a socio-cultural class that is sufficiently influential to do so. Which means there is a whole host of criteria for beauty.
This shows the criterion of ‘novelty’ in a new light. What is problematic about everything that is new is the fact that it will, inevitably, get old. As beauty ages, it becomes more beautiful. As novelty ages, it ceases to be. This process relegates everything that was once new to another selection phase: to history, which will determine whether the ‘ageing novelty’ is worth keeping. If it is not, that means the work of art has had its day.
Another consequence of the multitude of criteria for beauty is the fact that novelty is in fact beauty in disguise. As beauty is a consequence of cultural covenants, we can say that the artist proposes his creations to the community, asking them to learn to like them. In this sense, he stimulates our rusty sensorial system, which tends to like or dislike stuff out of sheer habit. Novelty teaches us to like stuff on the basis of different criteria.

3 Like the canon of old art, modern art is comprehensible to those who have found its codes

Modern art is comparable to the kind of secret language children devise to communicate among club members only. In principle, all secret languages can be decrypted, otherwise they wouldn’t be languages. The same goes for art. An object nobody understands has little chance of being regarded as art. Even the art of psychiatric patients whose symptoms may include an inability to communicate can help to understand them better. As artists don’t make just one, but several works of art based on the same new aesthetic principles, after a while we can find out what their code is. Once we are familiar with this code, their work becomes comprehensible. Art critics are often specialized in decoding art.
The canon provided the key to old art: a set of standards any artist had to adopt in order for his work to be accepted as art. A code is a set of signals and their relative connections, by means of which information can be transmitted. This system is less rigid than a canon. The main code of modern art is, after all, that ‘anything goes’. Additional codes enable us to categorize items of modern art into various movements or ‘-isms’.

4 Craftsmanship isn’t required per se, but it may be a hidden component

One of the consequences of the freedom artists have won for themselves is the fact that they no longer have to work in the established manner: they avail themselves of unusual materials, non-artistic media, techniques similar to DIY, weird subjects, they analyze art for art’s sake, etc. Many spectators do not recognize what they produce as ‘art’: “Is this art? My nine-year old daughter could do this!” People like to be able to see the ‘artistry’ of art, to look up to exceptional craftsmanship.
Two answers. First: the visual impact of an artistic tour de force is no more than a demonstration of craftsmanship that can be taught. Drawing a line that deviates from the model may be harder than making a faithful copy. Picasso certainly was masterful at drawing before he put his Demoiselles’ noses out of whack.
Secondly: we should ask ourselves what the real ‘craft’ of the artist really is. Of course, anyone can put a urinal on a pedestal and call it ‘Fountain’. But performing a series of actions and placing objects in such a way as to bring everything together to form a meaningful oeuvre, like Duchamp did, is quite another matter. The word ‘oeuvre’ is important here. It refers to a series of artistically related actions, situations or objects. The professional artist is he who manages to create an oeuvre in such a way that his works are ‘brandable’, carry a label and are recognizable without viewers first having to read the artist’s name.

1) A work of art is open to a whole range of interpretations
2) Old art has relatively fixed meanings; modern art does not.

It is hard to misunderstand modern works of art. When confronted with the abstract art of Jackson Pollock, who produced it by dripping paint on the canvas, his contemporaries came to the conclusion that all works of art are open to interpretation, by anyone. Could it be any easier than this? It is precisely this search for an interesting interpretation that constitutes the challenge. So we may assume that the meaning of a modern work of art is the sum of all its viewers’ interpretations: an infinite number.

3) Art can be taught

A work of art will, in many cases, speak for itself. Given the code-breaker aspect of art appreciation, it is clearly advisable to take a few lessons or to do some reading in order to grasp the meaning of these codes. A work of art will be the more interesting for it, as the viewer becomes richer (in experience). The work of art is being created twice. Once as an open-ended signal by the artist and a second time in the mind of the viewer.

8. Movements

Modern art comes in a range of successive guises, each shedding the obsolete one that preceded it like a snake shedding its dead skin. Yet there is a common trait: a similar attitude to reality. Old art presupposes reality being imitated in such a way that image and reality coincide. Which is why it is referred to as a window on society. Modern art on the other hand has as its common trait the view that any approach of reality is a construction. This departure from the old view is the basis of all modern art movements: the history of modern art has turned out to be a series of different ways of viewing the world. Revealing the ‘other’ has probably been modern art’s main mission for the past 150 years.
With regard to modernity in social matters, the key word is democracy, the idea that – on certain conditions - there should be a place for everyone on the planet and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Modern art has, right from the start, played an important part in propagating and depicting this pluralistic notion, with as its culmination the postmodern phase, which proffered eclecticism, the cultivation of diversity and ‘otherness’ as its main subject.
Let us review the main movements and look at one clear example to illustrate each one.
I like to start my history of modern art with realism. The realists were the first to be banned from the official Parisian salons and to exhibit their work at the Salons des Refusés. Also, they were the first to provide a manifest by way of a guide to their work. Realism refuses to present a glossed-over image of reality and aims to depict the sometimes harsh realities of life.
Courbet, Funeral at Ornans, 1850 (Its dimensions (315 x 668 cm) were unusual for a representation of a popular scene).
Impressionism wants to paint what the eye registers, not what the painter knows about his subject. The surface of objects is more important to the senses than their supposed depths. Light incidence colors all objects. Very loose painting technique. Abstraction is just around the corner.
Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872 (It was this painting that gave rise to the name of the movement).
These two avant-garde movements, realism and impressionism, were quickly (1886) succeeded by a reaction. Symbolism is still a quite traditional painting style but, rejecting realism’s naturalism and impressionism’s love of the surface of things, this movement finds its subject in mythology and in the artist’s own emotions. The mood is often a cross between eroticism and mysticism.
F. Rops, Le Pornocrate, 1896
In fauvism bold (‘fauve’), vivid colors are applied, to paint a rather naive figuration in a color palette similar to the impressionists’, but more focused on color fields. This movement can also be designated as a kind of expressionism, given its simplified shapes.
Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1906
Of all avant-garde movements, expressionism (1905) has drawn the most from the primitivism of African art. Expressionism aims to express and evoke feelings in as forceful a manner as possible, by making use of emphasis, exaggeration and distortion. A very loose brush technique and non-representational colors, not intended to reflect reality but for the expression of feeling. For this purpose, highly textured impasto is often applied. Expressionism is a search for the essence. Some of the movement’s best-known nineteenth century predecessors were Munch, Van Gogh en Ensor.
Munch, The scream, 1893
Kirchner, Marcella, 1909
Cubism (1907) sets the eye of the beholder a-wandering. It is a stark rupture with the established artistic purpose of representing reality from one point of view. Cubism aims to present its subject from multiple points of view in one picture. Its precursor is Cézanne, who tried to reveal the essence of Mont Sainte-Victoire by depicting a range of perspectives on the landscape.
Picasso, The Young Ladies of Avignon, 1907.
Futurism (1909) is an Italian variation on cubism, associated with an ode to the future. The past had to be left behind. Industry and technology were exalted. Speed was beauty. Race-engine motor blocks were considered more beautiful than a marble Aphrodite from Greek antiquity.
Balla, Dog on a Leash, 1912
Abstract art can be subdivided into lyrical and geometric abstraction. The code is simple: recognizable figuration is not allowed, hence the synonym: non-figurative art.
The origin of the lyrical kind is attributed to an anecdote about Kandinsky suddenly becoming quite passionate about one of his own paintings, which had been put on its side, so the subject had become illegible. Indeed, as Wittgenstein pointed out: a good painting should remain a good painting also when it is turned on its head. The step from abstract perception to abstract painting was but small. For Kandinsky, this was the start, in 1910, of a first series of purely abstract paintings, though it has to be said a trend toward abstraction had been present since the nineteenth century. Because he felt it allowed him to express his feelings freely, he called his work ‘lyrical’.
Kandinsky, Lyrical, 1911
The geometric form is typified by Mondrian. The evolution in his work reveals clearly how he found the essence of nature by his progressive abstraction of trees.
What spectators see is not so much a play on color fields, but the formula of divine nature, according to the theosophist Mondrian.
Kandinsky, The red tree, 1911
Kandinsky, The grey tree, 1911
Kandinsky, Blossoming apple tree, 1912
Kandinsky, Composition 10 in black and white, Pier and Ocean, 1915
The most extreme neutrality of geometric abstraction is to be found in the work of Malevich, whose suprematism superimposed color fields in accordance with the spirit of Russian nihilism dvocates purity of form and color poneert, still the figurehead for modernism. From the 1930’s on, he reverted to painting images of peasants, under the influence of the dominant socialist realism, which aimed to glorify labor.
Suprematist Composition: White on White, 1918.
Suprematism’s counterpart in sculpture is close to constructivism. Sculptures should not be hewn, but constructed. They symbolize social building work, the construction of the home of humanity itself. Apart from the industrial techniques that were used, the impact of the material is such that it speaks for itself.
Tatlin, Monument to the Third International, 1920
This is where modern art arrived at a crossroads. The aforementioned movements had done away with the kind of beauty that is a consequence of strict application of the rules of academic art.
But they emphatically chose to present a colorful palette that pleased the eye. Geometric abstraction increasingly ignores sensuality, and concentrates on mathematical principles instead.
From Dadaism until today, movements have kept emerging that opposed sensual pleasure, preferring a more rational approach. This was certainly the case with Dadaism. Though this movement intended to be nonsensical, it was nonetheless a cerebral criticism of the rational stupidity of war. According to Duchamp, the artist should restrict himself to deciding what can be considered art. Art is art because it is put in an artistic context. The origin of the notion of ‘retinal art’ is to be traced back to him: that was how he described painting by impressionists, fauvists and cubists, that he deemed too exclusively visually oriented. This anti-sensual stance can be considered a conservative streak of this great revolutionary of modern art He did not succeed in his mission of making anti-art, because anti-art soon became art according to new aesthetic standards. Its cerebral offshoots were surrealism and conceptual art.
Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919
Schwitters was also a notable Dadaist. From scraps of paper he collected on the pavement he composed his Merzbilder, collages (a combination of bits of paper and such, pasted on a dry ground) and assemblages (a combination of various objects) and even filled complete rooms with them, a procedure that would later be designated as installation art (Merzbau).
Schwitters, Merzbild, Rossfett, 1919
Schwitters, Merzbau, 1933
Freud’s influence on modern art has been quite significant. His statement on the significant role of the unconscious was at the core of surrealism. Things are connected by threads that are invisible to us. Dreams should be taken seriously, as should coincidences. All power to imagination. As few rational inhibitions as possible. Little attention paid to pictorial qualities. Great interest in literature.
De Chirico, Love Song, 1914
De Chirico called his work ‘metaphysical painting’. Surrealism really only started in 1924, but his work already features all the characteristics of surrealism.
Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929
In sculpture, experimentation lagged behind in comparison with painting. But Giacometti did manage to alter the discipline in a surreal manner.
Giacometti, Woman of Venice, 1956
As early as 1919, De Chirico started looking back to the old masters and their techniques. Also, we shouldn’t forget that from the twenties on, there was a ‘back to the regular order’ movement, with a high point in the thirties. There is a political explanation for this: artists were not that keen on becoming victims of rising fascism. The Entartete Kunst exhibition (1937) of 650 avant-garde works of art, organized by the Nazi’s to incite ridicule, was a prime example of what might happen. A number of these works were sold too cheaply, the rest were burned. Paradoxically, this is also, in a cynical way, perfect proof of the political power of art and the fear it can instill.
There was also an artistic reason for this return to established order. There are, after all, limits to creative destruction. Is it possible to push things any further than a readymade and a white square painted on a square of white canvas? The history of modern art is until this day characterized by a pendulum swing between exhibiting mastery of one’s craft and negating it. Moreover, it is a common mistake to suppose that modern artists have forgotten ‘old’ art. They continually position themselves in relation to the past and its traditions, either adopting them to a certain degree or opposing them. Even Picasso was a neoclassicist from 1917 until 1925.
Picasso, Portrait of Olga in the Armchair, 1917
Another aspect of the return to order was ‘new objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit, 1923) virulent social criticism, packaged in strict realism that harks back to renaissance painting. Its adherents fulminate against rising Nazism, capitalism and the ensuing depraved lives of the rich.
Dix, To Beauty, 1922
An advantage of this return to order was that after WO II, avant-garde was able to start up again from scratch, bearing names featuring a lot of ‘neo-’ en ‘post’.
Abstraction became a hotly contended novelty once more and the art world saw some instances of reconciliation between two such thoroughly different movements as expressionism and surrealism. Exaggeration of shape and exaggeration of representation intermingled, for instance in abstract expressionism, that was a symbol of freedom in the forties – the freedom that was celebrated after 1945.
This movement put an end to Paris’s heyday as the art Mecca and hailed New York as its new Mecca. Abstract expressionism connects the surrealistic principle of automatic creation, free from any rational control, with the purpose of expressing feelings as intensely as possible.
This was achieved by dripping paint to the physical rhythm of the gesture or by applying large color fields that have a contemplation-inducing effect.
Pollock, Number 8, 1949
We could complete this list of art movements up to the present day, or at least to include postmodernism, but I prefer to stop here. Abstract expressionism was the first new –ism to emerge after World War II, or in fact even during the war. It was the last great avant-garde revolution. Something as extreme as what Pollock did had never been done before: art could be completely devoid of form and painting could be reduced to its essence: just a spot of color. Another name for this movement is ‘informal art’. Why stop here? Because it is my contention that if you can grasp the abovementioned movements from my short descriptions and from the examples, you hold the key to all the movements that were to come later on. It’s not that these more recent ones are not interesting. An installation by Kienholz is more interesting to me than Duchamp’s Fountain. But if you are prepared to regard Duchamp’s oeuvre as art, you will also understand Kienholz’s installation.
Kienholz, Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964
After 1945, no new art systems have been invented – no novel principles that have thoroughly altered the concept of the nature of art. There has been, however, an abundance of applications of pre-war principles, interesting repetitions, beautiful variations, fascinating continuations, novel hybrids … but nothing that would not be understandable to those who are familiar with the rules of modern art as they have developed. The only thing that is new in each instance is the medium.
One more point. It will be obvious to the reader that until now, I have not given any examples of female artists. There were some female artists before 1945, but not in proportion to the number of male artists, nor was their production of equal quality: they haved not always been granted many chances. Feminism has brought changes for the better. Simone de Beauvoir demanded equality. One generation on, to the contrary, the difference between the sexes was emphasized, an evolution that was swiftly followed by the emergence of the theory that this difference was a consequence of social constructs. Today, female artists play a major part in the art world.
Kruger, Your Body is is Battleground, 1989

9. Conclusion

For someone like me, who does not believe in the existence of an ‘essence’, it is no mean feat to decide on an adequate conclusion to ‘the essence of modern art’. ‘Essences’ are just characteristics that are brought to the fore for one reason or another. A whole range of different ‘essences of modern art’ could be written. Mine is based on my years of experience in art education, where the eternal question is ‘what is art?’ I found it hard to convince people that the question really should be: ‘when is art?’ People’s avidity for ‘essences’ stems from their craving for certainties.
It would be a mistake for anyone to expect to understand all modern art. Nobody can understand ‘everything’ about a semiotic system. Especially not when its signs signify the ambiguity of life and of this world: their meaning is layered – and subject to codes that may alter at any time. It is important to counter artistic freedom with the freedom of the spectator to choose what affects him and what does not. He can always close his eyes, but it is best to do so after having taken a good look – and preferably not to close them forever!

10. Bibliography

I would like to refer those who want to read more on this subject to my earlier books on the subject, which supply the reader with yet more sources.
W. Elias, Aspecten van de Belgische kunst na ’45 Deel I (Snoeck, Gent, 2005).
W. Elias, Aspecten van de Belgische kunst na ’45 Deel II (Snoeck, Gent, 2008).
W. Elias, Tekens aan de Wand (ASP, Brussel, 2011).

Also, read these magazines:

Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen
Academiestraat 1
9000 Gent
T 09 269 58 30
F 09 269 58 39