Is Modern Art Dead? An Overview of Modernism and its Aesthetics

Produced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Modern Art revolutionized the theoretical and philosophical spheres of art history. With the onset of 21st-century contemporary art, is modern art dead?

Dec 12, 2020By Jamie Rose Valera, BA Art History
modern art cindy sherman
Summer by Auguste Renoir, 1868, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin; with Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman, 2008, via MoMA, New York


In the discipline of art history, modern art is understood as the vast array of artistic genres found in the approximate late 1800s to the late 1900s. From Impressionism to Pop art, art has evolved alongside the 20th century through the introduction of electricity, mass consumerism and mass destructions. However, when art historians refer to artworks produced at the turn of the 20th century, it is differentiated by the name of contemporary art. Where did modern art go? Is modern art still produced and influential, or is it historicized and looked at as an artifact of our past experiences? The answer is yes, but to both these contradictory questions regarding the wellbeing of modern art.


Genres Of Modern Art: Impressionism To Pop Art

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Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Auguste Renoir, 1876, via Musee d’Orsay, Paris


The timeline of modern art starts approximately in the late Western 1800s with Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir. With the rise of mass production came a need for factories to meet consumer demand. The sudden increase of factories led to the mass migrations of people moving into urban areas in search of jobs, which resulted in the new city-based lifestyle. By moving out of the smaller rural towns, city folk arrived with a newfound sense of anonymity. Public events and social gatherings became a regular occurrence as electricity allowed for people to continue their festivities into the night. The act of “people watching” emerged with this combined influx of anonymous people and the resulting social events. As a result, common themes of light and street scenery found their way into the artist’s observations.



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Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol, 1962, via MoMA, New York


As the age of mechanization carried on through the 20th century, modern art history continued to reflect the changing times. Mass consumerism and production introduced a whole new way to shop for food instead of idling at the local farmers’ market. Browsing the infinite choices shelved within uniform aisles became the new way in how the customer navigated the store to pick up their next meal. Notable Pop artist, Andy Warhol, then released an artwork that captured this recent change in how production had affected the consumer. Upon closer inspection, the viewer would notice that each individual Campbell soup can is labeled with a different flavor, despite their shared packaging aesthetics. Ironically, the artist also coined a fitting nickname for his studio: the factory.


Form And Function

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The Wainwright State Office Building by Louis Sullivan, Dankmer Adler, and George Grant Elmslie, 1891, St. Louis, via St. Louis Government Website

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Also relevant to the changes in modern society were those found in the notions of design. Within the late 19th and 20th century, architecture and industrial design faced the notion that “form follows function.” The mass migrations seen earlier with the rise of factories saw a new issue in urban centers: housing.


However, to house these large amounts of people arriving in the city, space became another concern. Thus, the skyscraper, by Louis Henry Sullivan, became relevant to the larger picture of modern art history. To meet housing and space-saving demands, the form of the apartment buildings followed their functions. Rather than building the many units outward, sprawled over larger areas of land, designers sought to build upward. Ornamental, or strictly decorative elements, slowly faded away as minimalist approaches were adopted by designers. This revelation then led to a critique of form and function, which would then introduce a larger discussion in other areas of modern art.


Revelations Of Modernity

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Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany by Hannah Hoch, 1919, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


As expected with the new age of automation and machinery, a concern for where the arts fit into a quickly changing society grew. Likewise, the arts took on “radical” and “unorthodox” approaches and methods. The push against capitalist production can be seen through movements such as Dadaism, the avant-garde, and others. Both Dadaism and the avant-garde sought to push boundaries of the aesthetic realm and innovatively reshaped how the arts were perceived and created in a world that favored the assembly line. The revelation was pioneered further by the political atmosphere following World War I and the new woman vote. Hannah Hoch’s work reinvigorated the photomontage medium, a cut and paste technique already used in the prior 19th century in photography. Hoch’s photomontage above is remembered as an exemplary relic of the Dadaist movement and its critiques of capitalist logic, reason, and aestheticism.


Postmodernism And Marxism

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An Artificial Barrer of Blue, Red, and Blue Fluorescent Light by Dan Flavin, 1968, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York


Out of the modern art historical movements emerged a general suspicion of universal truths and concepts in aesthetic theory, better known as postmodernism. These key concepts that rejected “logocentrism,” as coined by Jacques Derrida, built the foundations for postmodernist thinking in the art world. Notions of appropriation, recontextualization, juxtaposition, and the interactions between image and text became elements the postmodernists frequently returned to. Some postmodernist thought can also be traced back to Marxist ideologies for its critique of capitalist structures. Modern art reaches a point in which the “deconstruction” of form and function occurs, all while the roles of the artist, critic, curator, art historian and many others are called into question. Many of these principles continue to influence the art world today with the growing concern of representation in art historical narratives and teachings.


The Canonization Of Concept

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A Subtlety by Kara Walker, 2014, New York City, via Google Arts & Culture


With the shift in thinking, modern art has then introduced the current era of contemporary art. Art has continued to reflect times of uncertainty to better grasp the issue at hand. Through confrontation, artists can bring pressing issues such as diversity to the dialogue shared between viewers, historians, and critics alike. Many of these artists will often reference older methods or well-established imagery to invoke a sense of subversion or even rejection of the mainstream narrative. The idea of the artwork’s concept not only adheres to the function of the work, but also to the medium. Kara Walker’s chosen medium for her contemporary but notable revamping of the Egyptian Sphynx incorporates sugar and molasses as a conceptual commentary on sugar cane plantations. Due to its temporary nature, the ephemeral artwork takes on an additional but fleeting layer of meaning in its purpose for commentary.


Modern Art Transformed

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Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978, via MoMA, New York


In summary, modern art is not dead but is transformed into what we may now refer to as contemporary art. Many of the revelations started in modern art history continue to inform artists and institutional spaces today. With the globalization of art history comes the postmodernist teachings concerning representation, as well as an expansion of canonical art history to include non-western cultures. By working in a wider range of mediums with the introduction of the digital age, artists continue to comment and reflect on the ever-changing issues of modern society. From topics of feminism to diversity, modern art continues to transform itself through contemporary art, while transforming and critiquing our understandings of modern social issues. Whether it is under the guise of contemporary art or postmodern theory, modern art is here to stay.


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By Jamie Rose ValeraBA Art HistoryJamie Rose Valera is an art historian and theorist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Valera is a 2017 alumna of the Middle College program and will graduate in 2021 with her B.A. in the history of art and visual culture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Currently, she plans to continue researching and writing through a Ph.D. in art history and visual studies. Valera's work focuses on representations of the body by intersecting the past with the present. Her findings have been presented at symposiums and published by arts and humanities journals. After working the contemporary art gallery scene, Valera aims to delve into Museum Education, and later research and teach as a Professor of art history and visual studies.