The Case for Modern Art

A pretentious take on why 20th century art is really cool

Breana Knighten, A&E Editor

Before I start, I think it’s important to preface my opinion with a few statements that I believe will provide a bit of context:

  1. People can enjoy more than one art style, and my opinion is that impressionism and abstract art styles are dope, however, that does not mean that realism shouldn’t be enjoyed or appreciated any less.
  2. Context behind art works are extremely important. If you experience art in passing without giving the piece or its context much thought, then you are probably missing a key factor of the work; many of which were never intended to be viewed without an information tag displayed next to the art in a gallery.
  3. Sometimes, especially with cubism and abstract art, you have to see it in real life to fully appreciate it.
  4. Modern art is a very broad term, but for me, it begins in the early 1910s. I know that for some, it begins in the 1860s, but despite their brilliance, Van Gogh’s works were hardly created in direct rebellion of the very concept of the art traditions of the past, which is one of the main traits attributed to the definition of as modern art. It is my opinion that it all began with the surrealist movement. More specifically with the artists Andre Breton, who founded this movement, and with René Magritte who perfected it–but I digress, back to the article.


With that out of the way, let’s discuss the main issue that surrounds this era of art seems to be that it is either “not technically skilled enough to hold any true value” or  “pointless”. It is this mindset that hinders many people’s ability to fully appreciate these works. When told that many instances of modern art don’t require as much skill to physically create as a highly revered art piece from, for example, the Renaissance, where realistic portrayals of the world around them dominated the artistic field, I would fully agree. However, that is not to say that these works and the artists who make them are not just as talented as their predecessors because these works take skill; it’s just a different kind of skill.  In fact, the decision to step away from realism was a choice meant to disrupt the dominant art trends and force us to reevaluate what art was. The decision to step into a less realistic form of art came at a time where the camera was becoming more accessible and art was forced to move into a new direction, which is where what we today call modern art pushed its way to the forefront.


Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract art



Guernica (Picasso)

Picasso himself has described his artistic style as “destroying in order to create,” and this is portrayed masterfully in his painting Guernica. This artwork was created in the aftermath of the bombings of a town known as Guernica during World War Two. It was hard to express the feelings following such a truly horrific event, so many people turned to art. While many artists depicted actual realistic images of this tragedy, Picasso attempted to recreate a visual manifestation of pain itself, rather than a replica of the events. It is in this aspect that modern art can truly flourish. When art styles from the past recreated moments from our real world, modern art took the steps to paint emotion, and in the case of Guernica, pain itself.

The Secret Double (Magritte)                                                                                          

One of the more controversial art pieces of the early 20th century came from René Magritte. His work attempted to reconstruct the very purpose of art. After the invention of cameras, artists like Magritte attempted to repurpose art not as a way to express emotions necessarily, or even as a way to depict realistic scenes in an abstract style–like Van Gogh–but in a way that made one question things. While The Secret Double by Magritte may not be an amazing rendering of a person, it is about the meaning behind the art rather then the art itself. It is for this reason that surrealist art was the first version from which conceptual art evolved. “In conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” –Sol Lewitt


Composition V1 (Kandinsky)

I may lose the few of you who have actually read this, but you’ve made it this far, so just hear me out. Abstract art can be really hard to appreciate. The amount of effort and talent it would take to recreate these artworks is far less then any other version of modern art. Not only that, but it is really hard to appreciate seeing as unlike the paintings we have seen before which simply shifted our world view by painting familiar things in unfamiliar ways, abstraction seems to depict scenes completely disconnected from the recognizable world.  This was shown masterfully by Wassily Kandinsky, who attempted to draw things that could not be seen, including music and thoughts. He drew inspiration from composers such as Bach, and titled many of his paintings as compositions of music, because to him there was little to no difference between the expression of color and sound. As Kandinsky once said, “The art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, is musical sound.” It is this expression of the soul that many abstract artists are trying to depict through their works.