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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

So You Call This Art?

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

What is modern art and why does it matter to understand it, well, some of it? Here is an essay about my views on modern art.

Marcel Duchamp and one of his ready-made pieces, Roue de bicyclette.


Modern art is a classification of fine art produced between the late 19th and late 20th century. The remarkable departure from traditional art made the scope of modern art limitless. It is not restricted to a religious dogma, aristocratic class nor romanticism. Modern artists explore a variety of subject matters, materials, media and even appeal to a wide array of audience. A work of art is no longer just a still canvas or panel hanging on a wall or a glossy sculpture. One can simply acquire an object, put a title on it, exhibit and call it art, as what Marcel Duchamp through his ready-mades has blatantly demonstrated in defiance of the more traditional school of art. Duchamp would be known as the artist who killed paintings. Classical art highlights the technical merits of the artist who uses recurring themes, whereas modern and contemporary art is more liberated. It liberates the artists from the confines of academic art. Our culture, beliefs, way of living, society, politics, and so on have changed so much over time and so our understanding of things and acceptance of contemporary ideas has also evolved.

On the other hand, if everyday objects can be converted into a work of art, does it necessarily mean that anybody can be called artists? Modern art has the tendency to become extremely idealistic or enigmatic at first glance. That is why it requires an in-depth investigation from the viewer. You are simply not looking at an exquisitely executed picture but rather at a more complex concept layered with metaphors and symbolisms. The artist demands attention and even more participation from the audience. At times the audience becomes an integral part of the artwork, as in performance and installation art pieces. Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" (1964) required the audience to remove a piece from her clothing by means of a pair of scissors whereas Marina Abramović invited anyone to come sit in front of her to have a staring challenge in her 2010 MoMA exhibition, "The Artist is Present". The audience as well as the artist becomes the art, without whom would render the piece incomplete. Fortunately modern audiences have become more open and well-equipped with critical observation. What may have been unnacceptable and incomprehensible centuries ago is now valid.

The audience and the performer make the piece together. — Marina Abramović

Through the Artist's Eyes

While in some immaterial art, the boundary between the artist and the viewer becomes nonexistent, in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, an unconventional portrait of the artist's disabled neighbor, the spatial composition and the excellent technical execution takes you directly into the character’s world—her struggles and longing and likewise her will and determination. It is a paradox. The picture is so simple and yet so strong that as a viewer, you are in a way helpless, too, as you can only look at her but not be with her. You cannot hold up your hand to her or carry her. Wyeth himself experienced this vulnerability as the onlooker when he saw his neighbor outside his window dragging herself across the yard and yet to Christina at that time, she was only tending to her garden like any other day. The observer is even more conflicted than the disabled. It is quite amazing how the artist could invoke emotions just by looking.

Subtle Difference

Modern artists have also put so much of their ideals and identity into their works that you recognise their character first, as though they have put a stamp on a particular style. For example, one knows Mona Lisa but one instantly recognises a Picasso, who, by the way, after perfecting traditional art techniques, decidedly veered away from it and underwent a period of varying styles until he found his distinctive signature.

Though modern and contemporary art challenges the orthodox canons of traditional fine art, it completely contradicts the notion that anybody can create an artwork. Felix Gonzales depicted the synchronized movement of the clocks' hands that eventually fell out of sync—a metaphor on the relationships of people. The difference between placing clocks on the wall to tell the time and two clocks on a wall to show subtle discrepancies of time is the underlying meaning versus the mundane. The driving force that gave spark to the idea of the artwork and the complex processes from conception to exhibition including the involvement of a participant are all necessary ingredients in the assembly of a piece that will consequently define it as a work of art whether fixed or fleeting.

Our culture, beliefs, way of living, society, politics, and so on have changed so much over time and so our understanding of things and acceptance of contemporary ideas has also evolved.


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