A rough guide modern art
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Date: 31 August, 2004

Meryl and Martin Doney

Meryl and Martin Doney at Greenbelt.
Photo: Andrew Jackson


'Artists could stick two fingers up at the establishment. But then the establishment started to admire pieces like Duchamps urinal.'

Andy Jackson finds out about the history of modern art.

I used to think that modern art was a load of junk (which, in some cases, it is). My period of enlightenment took place one night in a pub following a discussion with a mature art student. I said Mondrian's work was so simple that it couldn't be art - anyone with Microsoft Paint could produce a piece like that in minutes.

Yes they could, she agreed. But in the 1920s, the style of Mondrian's work had never been seen before. It was groundbreaking, breathtaking because of its simplicity, and in the art world, it broke new barriers.

But why did Mondrian feel the need to break barriers? What motivated him, and many others before and after him, to cross and re-cross the threshold of acceptability?

At Greenbelt, Meryl and Malcolm Doney, authors of the Oxford Children's A-Z of Art (OUP) presented the rough guide to modern art.

Meryl, a curator, and Malcolm, a writer, painter and former editor of fish.co.uk, started with a picture of Tracey Emin's work "Everyone I ever slept with", the tent containing the names of the artist's former lovers.

To know why this work is classed as art, and was placed in a museum (before it was destroyed by a warehouse fire earlier this year), you have to know an abridged history of art, to understand the roots of the piece.


Art started in the caves of early mankind. Pictures shared information and told stories. Art is as basic as food, shelter and sex, and many people believe that art and religion started at roughly the same time. And both go hand in hand for nearly two millennia.

Christianity, which grew out of Judaism where images were frowned upon until God was depicted as having human form, became the biggest patron of art, especially because it was an aid to worship for those who couldn't read.

Jumping past the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, the church started to lose its grip on culture as the scope of art widened. Portraiture, such as those by Rembrandt, landscapes and depictions of historical events became common. With the period of Enlightenment in the 18th century, the standard ideas of art were being challenged.
Real life events started to be painted, and the 19th century painter Gustav Kilvey is credited with being one of the first artists to start this movement.

Then came the 'isms'. The 20th century saw Futurism, German Expressionism, Symbolism and Surrealism to name a few. But why did the explosion of 'isms' take place?


The change started because artists became heroes without ties. Rather than being famous for commissions, from the church for example, people started to buy work because of the artist. Artists were seen by many as modern day prophets. Art was fast becoming a form of comment and the drive towards enlightenment was towards the new and the idea of modernity was born.

Impressionists introduced the idea that the impression of a subject was more important than the subject itself. Whistler's Mother is one example: Whistler titled the piece "Arrangement in black and grey" - the colours of the piece were more important then the subject.
Cezanne broke landscapes down into elements and then rebuilt them, and in 1907, Brach and Picasso took the process further and barriers in modernism kept being broken. Mondrian and Kandinsky were abstract artists who both thought that art could open new ways into the spiritual. Mondrian's work today is seen as the benchmark for colour combination. His work has been reinterpreted by designers for more than 80 years.

Picasso and Duchamps were also mould-breakers. Picasso, as a creator, turned simple objects into different things - his bull's head made from bicycle parts is one example.


Duchamps, however, was an intellectual. One of a group of artists disillusioned by the First World War (Dada), he wanted to create art that couldn't be 'hijacked' by the politicians or capitalists. He wanted to shock, and he did, at first, with his presentation of a urinal at an exhibition in 1917.

Art, now, was what the artist wanted to call art. Artists could stick two fingers up at the establishment. But then the establishment started to admire pieces like the urinal.

The emergence of art critics also shaped the art world. Once the Second World War was over, there were no distinct lines separating periods of art. Everything merged into one, much like a painting by Pollock!

The Avant Garde movement moved to from Paris to New York and as a result became bigger, and corporations funded huge pieces of art for their own museums or galleries.

Then in the 1970s, art became more about form and less about content. Meaning was stripped down as well. Colours were used less and less, with many works using just a single colour. Sculptures, such as a brick wall, which was bought by the Tate, were the norm.
Again, boundaries were broken and art moved on. Pop Art, such as the works of Andy Warhol, where everyday items were the subject, helped to start the post-modernism movement, and kick art out of its barren period.

Artists again started to go back to reality and conceptual art started to be taken seriously. However, as modernism was obscure, post-modernism was a fog! But at least people could once again get an aesthetic hit from art.


Humour once again emerged in art: Gilbert and George are present day exponents. Painting came back into 'fashion' and boundaries continued to be broken.

In sculpture, Mark Quinn created a head made from his own blood. In video, Bill Viola introduced ways of presenting pieces of art, and with conceptual art, pieces of work such as Oak Tree - a pint glass filled with water - won high praise.

Traditional crafts, such as Grayson Perry's Turner prize-winning piece, and photography have been introduced and made a comeback. However, critics of post-modernism say that it is difficult to tell when irony ends and 'sincereism' begins. With post-modernity, there are no answers. While progress is possible, so is regression.

Back to Tracey Emin's tent. This is an extremely personal piece of work, as a lot of modern art is. But that, says the Doneys, is not necessarily a bad thing.


So what does the future hold for the art world? Painting is still very much in fashion and shows no signs of diminishing. Realism has been reintroduced, especially with photography, and the boundaries of body art are again being pushed - Mark Quinn's sculpture of a woman born without limbs is one of possibilities for the empty plinth in London's Trafalgar Square.

Art and the church still have strong links and Greenbelt is a fine example of art's diversity - from a circular, multi-coloured tent to people walking around the festival with plant pots covering their heads.

John Keane is a new example of art as social comment and has been featured on the Christian Aid website.

The Doneys finish their session by saying that art continues to tackle big questions and the best artists carry on connecting with elemental issues. And there the circle is complete. It's just that the cave is now a lot bigger.

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