What Is Modern Art?


Quick Answer

Modern art, 1850-1970, is a school of thought in reaction against rationalism and mechanistic metaphors for society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the development of photography. Although modern artists commonly had classical training, many chose to reject tradition in favor of experimental use of color, techniques and media.

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The shift from commissioned art-as-instruction to art drew directly upon artists’ experiences and interests started as railroads made society more mobile and urban centers grew. Life in cities away from pastoral villages changed perceptions of the natural world. Although modern art can trace its roots out of Impressionism, as artists worked toward new ways to express the modern more urban world, they became less concerned with realism and more engaged by shape, color and texture to make meaning.

At its height, modern art rejected realism, but not rationalism. Although much modern art is also abstract art that is about form, color and material, it nonetheless has a rationale. Modern art is experiential in that meaning is derived from a viewer’s reaction to it. Modern art can also be very political, as Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” from the Spanish Civil War, as well as representational, depending on the thesis of the painter.

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