What is Modern Art, and Why is It Important?

Posted on March 20, 2023 in The Art

“Modern art” is a term frequently used – and often incorrectly. What does the overarching umbrella of modernism in art encompass, and what does it mean? Read on to discover what modern art is, how modern art can inspire you, and how it paved the way for unprecedented artistic expression and experimentation.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Modern Art?
  2. What is Modernism?
  3. How Did Modern Art Begin?
  4. Common Modern Art Movements
  5. Why is Modern Art Important?

What is Modern Art?

Modern art is a broad label for artistic styles produced in the period in or around the 1860s to the 1970s, and which also embodies the artistic philosophy of “modernism.” Because of the word “modern,” it can be easy to confuse modern art with “contemporary art” (the blanket term for most art produced in our current artistic era, including “postmodern art” which seeks to contradict, deconstruct, or oppose modernism). 

Modern art was part of a large shift in artistic values, a rejection of the preceding artistic leanings towards realistic representation and rigid aesthetic rules. Modern art welcomed experimentation, subjectivity, and individualism, and created a large shift in art away from narrative and towards abstraction.    

What is Modernism? 

Modern art came from artists’ belief in the philosophy of modernism. This mode of thinking developed as a response to the perceived erosion of humanity and order in the world born from the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the following World Wars. Modernists rejected industrialization and bourgeois values, which they saw as damaging toward the human condition. They turned away from realism and literal interpretation, instead celebrating the value of human expression and individual, subjective experience. 

How Did Modern Art Begin?

Modern art begins with disenfranchised and dissatisfied artists rejecting the old world, static view of art enforced by the church, the aristocracy, and the Paris Académie des Beaux-Arts. The goal was to take the notion of “what makes good art” away from the elite and return it to the people. Modern sculpture and architecture began appearing at the close of the 19th century, but modern painting burst onto the scene much earlier, with Édouard Manet and the birth of Impressionism in the 1860s. 

The impressionists challenged the art world’s status quo and shattered it, and in doing so paved the way for all modern art styles to follow. You can read our History of Impressionism blog for the whole story on the trendsetters that would reinvent painting and forge a new artistic era.    

Common Modern Art Movements

Modern art is not a singular style, but rather a way to categorize art produced under the ideals of modernism. Some common styles of modern art you may encounter include: 

Why is Modern Art Important?

Because of modern art, art has become less about adherence to specific rules and trends, and increasingly more reflective of our subjective human experiences.

Art is not meant to be “one way.” There’s no right or wrong way to express your feelings and emotions through art. You can paint more than just the perfect portrait of a human face – you can paint messy, you can paint unreal things, you can try to reinvent the wheel or you can even teach a robot to understand brushstrokes and turn math into dreams. If all art were uniform and the same, there would be no point in making it. Truly, art’s greatest strength is in its ability to capture and share one person’s unique perception and experience with others. We have the modernists to thank for the Western world’s wide variety of artistic styles and modes of expression. 

Modern art is art unchained. 


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