“Yeah, I Guess”: Appreciating Modern Art

Disclaimer: This is not about “modern-day” (contemporary) art, but instead about the art movement that happened between 1860–1970s. The Modern Art movement is historically/sequentially important to us because it triggered postmodern art (a movement that largely used meaningless-ness as some form of angsty teenage rebellion against modern art), which then brought forward today’s contemporary art.

Modern Art Dudes

The 1860s saw the beginning of an art movement that rejected the normal traditions of art in favor of experimentation. New materials and functions were explored, narrative was abandoned, and abstraction embraced. This was the Modern Art Movement (1860s-1970s).

Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky are some big names in the Modern Art scene. They were big into some ideas (of arguable validity*) about both the nature of art and human nature itself. They thought art belonged to a higher spiritual realm separate from natural life- this “realm” of the “untainted,” “pure spirit” could only be represented by object non-representation (not painting anything that was recognizably A Thing). Through abstract design (think: shapes, color, lines), the purity of an idea isn’t able to be polluted by material reality.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930 Mondrian- currently sitting in the Cleveland Museum of Art!)

Nature of Art

Thought Experiment: Abstraction
A good way to understand this lofty esoteric stuff about abstraction: imagine trying to draw a cat. You have the pure idea of the cat in your mind- the many colors of its fur, its shape, movements, smell, personality…
The second your pencil touches the paper, that ideal translation of the cat in your mind to paper is no longer pure. You begin adapting to your resources- if you only have pencil, you can’t represent its colors, so you up the contrast a bit. The two-dimensional of the paper steals away the three-dimensional reality of the cat, so you decide to exaggerate shadows and lighting.
Even if you end up with a drawing that looks good, it’s still not the pure idea you started with in your head.

Drawing the cat becomes a series of compromises between your materials and your “pure” idea of the subject.

But by abandoning a objective representation of the cat completely, you can explore the world of abstraction that frees you from compromise between idea and representation. Modern artists did this by zeroing in on the nature of art mediums. They’d do something like capture the fiery personality of the cat with a loud red splotch, maybe adding a thin line about it to represent lithe feline movement.

Art of Nature

On the other hand, that brings up the whole “open for interpretation” thing which triggers that “yeah, I guess” response from skeptics and the apathetic when looking at stuff like Kandinsky’s On White II (a dialogue between opportunity and death).

Enter: that part of Mondrian & Co.’s approach to modern art that focuses on “human nature.” That very process of interpretation is what those Modern Artists were interested in: initial, human reaction to a work and the cognitive analysis that follows.

Thought Experiment: Human Nature
Imagine you’re in a packed theater, and someone flashed the Composition II (above) up on the screen. Perhaps many people have the same initial shock triggered by the large red square (as opposed to say, if it was light blue).
Maybe you have different secondary reactions- the blue reminds you of the color of your childhood room, or reminds your neighbor of the sadness she felt at a funeral last month.

That’s the cool part about Modern Art- it’s about purely triggering those reactions and associations that Cognitive Scientists spend years thinking about and defining.

Not everyone needs to have the same reaction to it- that’s not what the art is entirely about (post-modernism has more to say about this). By starting a dialogue around the reactions themselves- the per-individual uniqueness, and unifying phenomena, of human nature- modern art is able to trigger thoughts and ideas you wouldn’t have rolling around in your head otherwise.

So, to sum it up:

Modern Art = Human Nature + Nature of Art

Next time you’re standing in front of modern art, instead of shrugging and moving on, maybe stop to think about what associations you might make from the abstractions in front of you. Appreciate the emotions (confusion is valid!) brought forth by elements of design used in the work- things like color, shape, texture, space, form, unity, and balance. And, if you’re feeling super Modern-y, you can even think about thinking about those abstractions!

*Blooper Reel

  • Speaking of questionable beliefs, Mondrian et al. were also kind of convinced that their art was going to push humanity to attain a higher plane of reality, a “new art” to nurture a “new man” with an evolved, futuristic form of consciousness beyond reason.
  • This new consciousness included clairvoyance and the ability to see through objects. They said subject matter must be basically “banished from art” for us to get there.
  • But like, we don’t talk about that. We just concentrate on the other stuff. :)
Like what you read? Give Katherine Rose Cass a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.