The History of Modern Art

“I look out the chair while eating my pillow. I open the wall, I walk with my ears. I have ten eyes to walk with and two fingers to look with. I put my head on the floor to sit down, I put my bottom on the ceiling. After eating the music box, I spread jam on the rug for a great dessert.”
Eugene Ionesco


The History of Modern Art

What the hell happened?

Well, let’s look at it.

Historians really like specific times and time-lines. They want you to open their book on the History of Modern Art and have you read that Dada begat Surealism begat Abstraction begat Expressionism or that Ruth St. Denis begat Martha Graham who begat Paul Taylor. Clean, simple and sequential is how you read it but it wasn’t that at all.

Modern Art began because of the Industrial Revolution. Labor saving devices allowed a huge migration from the farm areas to the Big City and new jobs at factories. In the early 1900’s, the Congress (in America) began the idea of the eight hour work day and forty hour work week. Suddenly freed, the people could not only make Art but, more importantly, attend Art Events. A grand time to be had by all.

Modern Art was all of the Arts. Painting, Dance, Music, Writing, Theater; all of those guys. The historians can gleefully point to Black Beauty (1877) as an example of Modern Writing and want to say “on this day it all began” but really, if you want to look at it, the action was all around the 1900’s when light bulbs changed everything and generals were looking at all of those cars rolling off of assembly lines and wondering just how to put a cannon on one of those things.

This was the art of the people. No one needed a patron to commission works. And (drum roll) it was world-wide. There was heavy action in Paris and Moscow and London and New York. And this gets to my main point that I feel that historians don’t really push; everyone was talking to everyone and everyone was aware of what everyone else was doing.

Looking through the Begats List, somewhere in there you will find Minimalism. Dancers danced miminally, Painters painted minimally, Musicians twanged and honked minimally and Writers wrote minimally. The “movements” were not isolated at all with new ideas being explored by a lot of artists.

Most of the starts were rejections of conventional ideas of the current art form. Isadora Duncan took off her shoes! And then she danced her way across America and then across Europe into the loving arms of the Russians. The Futurists of the Theater got busy and wrote Manifestos on what theater should be and not be; they even had the solution on how to get an audience’s attention: pull out a gun and shoot someone, that’ll make them sit up! Candidly, I don’t think anyone really got shot but you never know with those Futurists.

It wasn’t all radical. The brilliant Anton Chekhov wrote plays that were (I hate to use the word) realistic. Suddenly gone were the days of the mustache-twirling melodramatic villian preening to the front row. Music got off to a great start, Jazz arrived right on time in 1902 in New Orleans; swing spread across the land and the world. Good stuff, you can tap your foot to it.

How chatty were these guys? Imagine Picasso as a set and costume designer for a dance concert. It kind of blows the mind but it happened in 1912 for Parade by the Ballet Russes. So, the point is that nothing was isolated or in it’s own avenue; it was more like a multi-lane highway.

And so, waves after waves of new art forms and ideas rolled through the art world. Abstract Expressionism and the Theater of the Absurd and John Cage and Eugene Ionesco and Robert Rauschenberg and Neo-Dada and people and players and thinkers. The world was humming and having a great time.

And then it all stopped.

In 1960, the Idiot Box, the Boob Tube and opiate of the masses; the television spawned in every household in the world and the audience for live music, theater, dance and performance dried up.

Stopped it cold! You had to stay home and watch television with the fam.

Sure there was some momentum and sure players like Bob Fosse and Lenny Bruce and Philip Glass kept working but there was no Next Step. Sure Truman Capote and Andy Warhol got to be treated like rock stars but they were the last.

And here is the worse part. The final art movement was Post-Modern which is partially defined as improvisation and satire. We have been stuck in the last one and it hurts and makes the arts look bad, horrible even. Improvisational Dance, Improv Comedy, Improv Jazz; it is all so much fun to perform but it is rough to watch. Egads, Rap and rap battles; riffing and making up rhymes on the fly and nothing worth remembering.

Some guys are really great but they are few and far between. Robert Altman comes to mind. No, for the most part the arts have crept with little dignity into the world of Acadamia where professors preach the genius of those in the heyday to the point where you’d think to do that same kind of work is beyond us mere mortals.

Modern Art from 1875 to 1960 was a fabulous time that rode with the wave of huge technological and scientific progress across the world. And then it got sealed up and boxed and occasionally brought out as museum pieces. But know this; it was all of the arts when we talk about Modern.

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