Art History II – Midterm

A research paper on modernism for Art History II.

Nicole Barber

Art History II

Spring 2016

Midterm Exam


Modernism is a rejection of classical teachings in many fields – art, philosophy, and politics. “The ground motive of modernism, Graff asserts, as criticism of the nineteenth-century bourgeois social order and its world view.” 1 Modernism came about as an effect of a dissonance between the older Victorian ideas that were often present in previous movements and the new ideas and philosophies that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Artists who painted according to classical teachings tended to be members of or painting for the higher classes and depicted things seen from the eyes of the bourgeois. Modernists wanted to create art about what they wanted to – they didn’t have to depict idealized historical events or biblical stories to pass on information or prove someone else’s point, or paint an exaggerated portrait of someone important just because that’s what the commissioner wanted, or be restricted to using only the techniques that the ‘authorities’ on art decided were to be used. They were free to depict how they saw the world however they felt was best, whether that was through a realistically oil-painted landscape of a distorted version of reality, or through giant palette knife strokes that minimally depict the subject, or through color schemes no one would ever see in reality. At its core, Modernism is about challenging authority – questioning why they had to and actively avoiding depicting what society or religion or commissioners wanted them to, not having to use the techniques that the academy and pre-modern painters wanted them to use and finding new ways to use the old mediums, and repeatedly raising the question of what exactly ‘art’ is.


Classical art is art that follows the standards originally set by the ancient Greeks and Romans. “When used to refer to an aesthetic attitude, Classicism invokes those characteristics normally associated with the art of antiquity—harmony, clarity, restraint, universality, and idealism“. 2 Classical art focuses on keeping the depictions relatively realistic and proportionate. The qualities of the style often include lots of straight lines, and focuses more on the line shapes than on the colors included. The compositions are typically very closed, with all the emphasis put on what’s in the frame rather than touching on what else could be in the scene that’s not being depicted. In Modernism, again, these boundaries do not exist – the lines can be curved or straight, the colors don’t have to be realistic, the forms don’t have to be proportional in the slightest, the subjects can spill off the canvas or pedestal rather than having to be arranged inside. In Classicism, the subjects were typically things such as religious stories meant to promote said religion, or those in the high classes rich enough to commission glorified portraits of themselves. Unlike in Modernism, the artist had little or no control over what they were to create; they had to stay within the set boundaries of society and the academy.


Modernism, however, is an umbrella term – under it can be classified nearly all the art movements that occurred around or after the beginning of the 20th century. Impressionism, for example, began in the 1860s, and relied on loose brushstrokes and moody color schemes to evoke emotions in the viewer rather than polished techniques of realism. A leader of this movement was Claude Monet, painter of Lady with a Parasol and Water Lilies, which focused on capturing the mood and movement with contrasted and long, and organic and short strokes respectively. 3 A movement complying with the ‘challenging authority’ part of Modernism was Dada, which purposefully raised many questions about the role of art and what exactly could be qualified as ‘art’. Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain is a perfect example of this – all he did was turn a urinal upside-down and sign and title it. 4 It did exactly what Dada is defined for, which was raising questions –was it really Duchamp’s work, or was it the work of the urinal designer? If it were the work of the designer, would the design technically be considered art? If not, why not?


However, despite breaking away from a lot of the characteristics of typical movements, since the movement was about what the artist wanted to create, Modernism still tended to include artist-decided meanings into the pieces. As such, there was always a ‘correct’ interpretation of the piece, the one that the artist intended. A later movement, Postmodernism, introduces the idea that what matters to the meaning of the piece is relativity – that two different people looking at the same piece have had different life experience, so their interpretations of it will be different. Likewise, the artist also had a set of experiences, so their interpretation of their own piece will also be different – therefore, to the Postmodernist, it is not the artist but the viewer who decides the meaning of art. 1 Postmodernism also has a higher trend, in its challenging of authority, to target specific people rather than large groups such as the academy like Modernism does.


Postmodernism sprouted as a “reaction to or a resistance against the projects of modernism“. 5 As previously stated, a main point of Postmodernism is to leave the interpretation entirely up to the viewer, unlike in Modernism. However, since an artist’s experiences will still bleed through into the piece if they are the ones to create the piece, a question of how to eliminate the artist’s influence on the meaning of the piece could be raised. Postmodern artists would include pieces of appropriated media – photographs, found objects, newspapers- or other methods of adding random chance. Since chance has absolutely nothing to do with the artist’s beliefs, experiences, or anything about them personally, they will have significantly less influence over the content and therefore the meaning of whatever works they create. This method of incorporating outside media is one that overlaps with that of the Neo-Dada movement.


  1. Barth, John, and John Barth. The Literature of Exhaustion ; And, the Literature of Replenishment. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1982. PDF.


  1. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Classicism and Neoclassicism.”Encyclopædia Britannica. February 15, 2016. Accessed March 8, 2016.


  1. “Claude Monet Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. Accessed March 09, 2016.


  1. “Marcel Duchamp Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. Accessed March 09, 2016.


  1. “Modern Art – Modern Art Terms and Concepts.” The Art Story. Accessed March 09, 2016.



About barberne

an animation student at alfred state from rochester
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