Modern Art 4


What is modern art? If asked prior to writing this story, I might have described it as a form of art that is experimental and/or abstract, and I would have gotten that part right—but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

I asked Robert Bailey, assistant professor of art history in the University of Oklahoma School of Visual Arts, for a definition of modern art, and he provided the following, more detailed and historically oriented definition:

“Defining modern art is extremely challenging, but one common way to do so is to call it the art of modernity, a historical period that valued progress, innovation, change and newness. Modernity begins with the political and economic revolutions of the 18th century (specifically the French Revolution and the industrial revolution) that emerge from Enlightenment philosophy, and it comes to a rather catastrophic end as its guiding principles—reason, freedom, individualism, nationalism, etc.—find themselves helplessly unable to stave off the horrors of World War II (namely, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb). So modern art would then be art that shares modernity’s values, and it disappears with modernity, yielding to contemporary art after the middle of the last century.”

According to Bailey, attempts to date the art movement’s beginnings have met with mixed results.

“Scholars debate this, but a safe answer is the mid-19th century, and the key players would be Édouard Manet and the Impressionists,” he said. “A more complex answer would be to say that there is no one modern art movement, but a variety of modernisms that emerge at various times in different places the world over, so the key players would number in the hundreds or thousands.”

So, then, do art historians have any ideas on what societal or other factors may have gone into the development of modern art in all its varied forms?

Again, no one simple answer. Says Bailey, “Colonialism, the Enlightenment, secularization, revolution, capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, socialism, and anarchism are a few of the big ones.”

Though Bailey declines to select a “top-five” list of modern art masters, quipping that “art history isn’t that neat and tidy,” a quick internet search on modern art comes up with some names of several renowned modern artists–among them Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Bailey did, however, offer up the names of some of this state’s most important modern artists: The Kiowa Six, Allan Houser and Leon Polk Smith.

Want to learn more? There’s a wealth of information available on the internet and in books, but a more fun approach would be to visit area museums and art galleries that feature modern art (among other genres). In Cleveland County, your first stop should be the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (see sidebar). You’ll also want to take a drive north to check out the modern art collections held by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.