The Landscape Guide

1.3 Modern Art and Design

Contents list

In painting and sculpture, "modern art' is now used as a general term for the art of the twentieth century. This usage is found in numerous museums of modern art. Quite often, the work is abstract or non-representational. This was a response partly to the invention of photography and partly to the analytical spirit of the times. Classic non-representational works have had such titles as Study No. 47 and Composition No. 21. The public found it difficult to appreciate these works, believing that paintings should be beautiful and representational, like Constable's Hay Wain or, perhaps, Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Yet "modern art' developed over a long period.

Habermas sees in the development of modern art "a trend towards ever greater autonomy' (Habermas, 1992). During the eighteenth century, the fine arts became separated from religious and courtly life. During the nineteenth century, this separation developed into the idea of "art for art's sake'. From then onwards, colour, lines, sounds and movement ceased to serve primarily the cause of representation: the media of expression and the techniques of production became themselves the aesthetic object. (Habermas, 1992)

Art became autonomous. To abstract means "to draw away from'. This is what much twentieth century art has been about: the abstraction of colours, shapes, forms, lines, tones, materials, sensations, concepts, words, textures, emotions, actions, gestures, bodily fluids. Everything abstractable has been abstracted. Geometrical shapes, drips of paint and piles of bricks have been the result.

[FIGS 1.1, 1.2 ]

The avant-garde became a characteristic of twentieth century art. In asking "What is art?', in place of the former question, "What is beautiful?', artists have, again and again, tried to break away from the work of their predecessors. This produced what Robert Hughes (1991) described as the Shock of the New. Horror and ridicule have been typical responses. A Punch cartoon of July 1918 tells of the horror (Figure 1). "A child of six could do it' tells of the ridicule (Figure 2). In addition to cutting themselves off from patronage, modern artists sought to cut themselves away from everything that went before. Being avant-garde was the goal of goals. Only thus could the poor struggling artist win a place in the art galleries of the world.