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The evolution of Modern Art:
A quick run through

"You see, what she produces is not just squeaking. If one stands a long way away from her and listens, or, even better, if one puts oneself to the test on the point and, with Josephine singing, say, beneath other voices, sets oneself the task of picking out her voice, one will invariably identify no more than a commonplace squeak, which if it stands out at all does so by its delicacy and lack of force. But when one is standing in front of her it is not just a squeak; to understand her art it is necessary not only to hear her but also to see her. Even if it were only our everyday speaking, there is already something special about a person making a formal appearance in order to do merely what is normal." - Franz Kafka, from 'Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,' 1924 (translated from the German by JA Underwood)

By Ahsan Sajid

It is possible that Kafka, in his last short story, which basically is a discussion on certain kinds of Modernist art, has best described what it really is; inadvertent it may be, but it's certainly illuminating as to much of what Modern art really is. In Kafka's story we have Josephine, blinded with a belief that the world will not move forward without her (hence she gives into her 'art'), and the world believes that it's doing her a favour by lending its ear to her, or else she would perish (leading to the interest in her 'art'). As all of Modern art is concerned, this explanation in itself is convoluted but therein lies the meaning- Modern art tends to be reflective of the cornucopia of mess and complexities that our modern lives are.

Modern art, which is a wide umbrella term and may include anything from sculpture to poetry, paintings to performance art, collages to graphic novels, really began with Modernism in the late nineteenth century. Nineteenth century movements of Post Impressionism and Art Nouveau led to the first twentieth century art movements of Fauvism around 1900. Fauvism was a short-lived and loose grouping of artists whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong colour over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism; this was a clear evolution from traditional and accepted artistic norms of representation. The leaders of the movement were Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Expressionism was something of a twin a cultural movement originating in Germany, to its French counterpart- Fauvism, at the start of the twentieth century as a reaction to impressionism. It sought to express the meaning of "being alive" and emotional experience rather than physical reality. This means that for the first time artists (and I use this term broadly to include a wide array of creative people) found it more important to express feeling rather than simply manifest reality; this would appear as almost normal today, but one must appreciate the importance of the movement in the beginning of the twentieth century. Expressionism is exhibited in many art forms, including painting, literature, theatre, film, architecture and music. The term often implies emotional angst.

Cubism, generated by Picasso, rejected the plastic norms of the Renaissance by introducing multiple perspectives into a simple two dimensional image. Dadaism, with its most notable leader, Marcel Duchamp, rejected conventional art styles altogether by exhibiting found objects, most notably a urinal, as art.

Around this time, in the 20s, a successful surrealist movement had shot off Dadaism, lead by Andre Breton. This era arguably changed art and came to define much of what modern art is about. The ideals of the movement lay in rejecting norms and conventions all together, to discount the mind from the creation and enjoyment of art. Dadaism preceded Surrealism, where the theories of Freudian psychology led to the depiction of the dream state and the unconscious in art, in work ranging from Salvador Dali to Max Ernst. Kandinsky's introduction of non-representational art preceded the 1950s Abstract Expressionist school, including Jackson Pollock, who dripped paint onto the canvas, and Mark Rothko, who created large areas of flat colour, or Yves Klein, who simply displayed large stretches of a particular shade of blue which came to be called IKB (International Klein Blue).

Around the same time in America, thousands of disenchanted youths were storming the streets, questioning their 'perfect' existence. The emerging Beat generation (which has been discussed in a previous issue of the Rising Stars) left some of the most dizzying, drunken, irreverent, tender, societal and hilarious writings of all time.

Detachment from the world of imagery was reversed in the 1960s by the Pop Art movement, notably by Andy Warhol, where brash commercial imagery became an artistic staple. Warhol eventually minimised the role of the artist, employing assistants to make his work and serving only to come up with ideas and using mechanical means of production, such as silkscreen printing. This was a decidedly marked change, and this is where Modernism gave way to Post-Modernism.

Modern literature is divided, as a rule of thumb, by the second World War. Pre-war literature includes James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Kafka, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf etc. Post-war literature gave rise to the classical science fiction of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. In the 90s performance art returned with a flourish in the form of slam poetry, more of a poetic pursuit than artistic.

Subsequent initiatives in Modern art towards the end of the century involved a shift towards non-visual components with Conceptual art, where the idea, not necessarily the created object, was seen as the art. This definition of Modern art, what with the conclusion of this discussion drawing to a close, begs another extended quote from Kafka.

"Cracking open a nut can hardly be called art; consequently no one is going to assemble an audience, stand up in front of it, and seek to entertain it by cracking nuts. If he does so none the less, and if he succeeds in this purpose, there has to be more involved than mere nutcracking. Or it is only nutcracking that is involved but it turns out that we have been overlooking this art, being past masters of it, and that it has taken this new nutcracker to show us what it is really about, the point being that the effect might even be enhanced if the person concerned were a marginally less competent cracker of nuts than most of us."

The Twentieth Century Art Book



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