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What Is Modern Art?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Modern art is a specific artistic style movement that began during the 19th century and lasted until the 1970s, and many art historians tend to agree that it shares some time overlap with the contemporary art movement. Its principle characteristics include a departure from traditional views and experimentation with media and subjects that were previously considered out of the ordinary or even controversial. Some of the most famous works of modern art focus primarily on emotional expression rather than stoic restraint, and a good number of early modern artists drew their inspiration from the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment. Changes in technology and increasing rates of intercultural exchange also contributed to the development of modern art.

One of the main goals of some modern artists' work is to accurately capture society as they believe it exists during their lifetimes. This practice is a noted difference from previous art movements that largely celebrated or idealized the past. Depictions of everyday life became common in modern art beginning in the 1880s, and several artists of this era also began creating works that addressed social problems such as economic inequality. The resulting reactions from traditional art critics sometimes ranged from dismissive to shocked.

Another significant factor in modern art is usually one of expressive freedom; this period in art history is the first in which artists felt they could use their own internal visions as starting points instead of following the conservative formulas for creating art that had been the standards up until that point. Some works of visual art such as paintings and sculptures were sometimes even created to break the traditional rules of art such as keeping paint inside a canvas frame or displaying a sculpture on a proper pedestal.

Contemporary art is generally considered a later period of the modern art movement that began during the 1960s and continues in various forms into the present. Experimentation with digital technology has allowed the development of new media art such as computer animation, digital photography, and video installations. Some contemporary artists also experiment with the roles of the artist and the viewers, leading to the development of interactive art. This medium is not used with the goals of a passive audience observing pieces in a gallery exhibit; it instead requires that each viewer briefly become a part of the artwork, usually by interacting with a camera or other type of electronic input device.

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Discussion Comments

By anon301118 — On Nov 02, 2012

I love modern and contemporary art. I get very angry when people scoff at or make of of either of these art forms. They are art, and they are beautiful in my opinion.

And beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. If they don't like a particular work, they don't have to look at it. I am a contemporary artist and I get many compliments on my works.

I'm just glad to know that there are others who share my love for modern art. It truly is a milestone in the art world and should be praised rather than laughed at.

By orangey03 — On Jun 24, 2011

I used to create art in elementary school involving mysterious shapes. My classmates always liked my drawings, though no one knew what they were.

My mother teased me and called them modern art. It is a term sometimes scoffed at because artists can make a lot of money by painting something as simple as a red dot on a blue background.

I now know that my art would better be defined as contemporary art. Until I read this, I did not know that modern art was confined to a certain period of time.

By shell4life — On Jun 21, 2011

I would love to visit the Museum of Modern Art. I really like how they focus on educating people about modern art and preserving it as well, and I think it's really important that they recognize both modern and contemporary art as exploratory methods of artistry that began back in the late 19th century and still progress today.

I like how modern art seeks to go beyond the boundaries and encourage deeper thought. I also like the fact that often, its meaning is left to interpretation, and different viewers can come up with totally different interpretations of a single piece of modern art.

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