The Evolution of Visual Art In the Modern Era

NOTE: If there are problems with any of the hypertext links to artists, styles, or artworks found throughout the text in this section, you can access a general index of artists or this similar index via theselinks to look at works by virtually any artist you wish. You can do your own web search for individual artists as well.

This section is an introduction to the evolution of all the visual arts, including:
  • Fine Arts
  • Decorative Arts
  • Dress

    We will begin with the Fine Arts, and will consider
  • The Purposes of Art
  • Evolution of the Idea of Art
  • The Nature of Change In the Fine Arts
  • The Development of Modern Art in the US

    Purposes of Art

    Art is created and enjoyed by many people for many reasons. However, one of the things that art does is extend and expand our shared common visual language. When new visual ideas are first introduced by the artist, they are often seen as shocking, and perhaps even as incomprehensible. However, with time the best and most effective of these ideas are accepted. There is nothing harder than trying to grasp what was shocking or illuminating about certain images, or ways of making images, once the shock is gone, and we have all absorbed this bit of visual data into our own vocabularies. Artists show us new ways to see familiar things, and how to interpret new situations and events through various kinds of visual shorthand. This creation of visual language may be the artist's intention, or it may be a side effect of other purposes. So what are some of the purposes that art fulfills?

    Probably the oldest purpose of art is as a vehicle for religious ritual. From the prehistoric cave paintings of France, to the Sistine Chapel, art has served religion. For centuries the Church was the primary patron of artists. In traditional societies even today, the primary purpose of art is religious or ceremonial.

    Art may also serve as a commemoration of an important event. The event may be of major historical importance, such as the coronation of Josephine by Napoleon as recorded by the artist David, or it may be important only to the participants, like the image of a wedding or a baptism.

    Art has often served as propaganda or social commentary. Propaganda images are attempts to persuade us toward particular viewpoints or actions promoted by public or private institutions such as political parties, lobbyists, governments, or religious groups. The propaganda purpose may be one we approve of, such as World War II efforts to get women behind the war effort, as epitomized in Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter. It might also be a purpose we disapprove of. In either case, the power of visual images has frequently been used to persuade masses of people to accept beliefs, take action, or follow leaders. The artist as social commentator may simply make us more aware of the human condition as he/she perceives it, without suggesting particular action. All societies engage in propaganda, but here are some links to propaganda art created in China, and by the Allies during World War I. and during World War II.

    Art may be simply a means of recording of visual data-- telling the "truth" about what we see. After the Renaissance, artists became preoccupied with new ways of capturing reality such as the use of linear perspective, and the realism possible through the use of oil painting technique. In time, artists like Courbet and Cezanne (and many who followed them) began in various ways to challenge the basic idea of what it is for an image to be true and real.

    Art can also be seen as pleasing the eye- creating beauty. Yet the idea of beauty, like that of truth, has been challenged in the modern era. At one time, the artist was expected to portray perfection-- lofty and noble ideals of beauty. Yet as society became more industrialized and democratic, many thoughtful people began to broaden their notions of what could be beautiful. For example, Rembrandt could celebrate the tactile quality of paint and color in his picture of a side of beef, and Courbet and Millet could see beauty in the life of ordinary peasants.

    Art is also a powerful means of storytelling. This was a common device of religious art of the Middle ages, for example in the frescoes by Giotto from the Church of San Francesco de Assisi , where sequences of panels were used to tell stories from the Scriptures or lives of saints. It is also the great gift of Norman Rockwell, who had the ability to tell powerful and subtle stories about ordinary people and events, in just one picture. A picture is truly worth a thousand words.

    Art can also convey intense emotion.The expressive power of art can be seen in literal ways in the capturing of facial expression and body language. Certain religious art, and the works of expressionists such as Munch or Kirchner are charged with powerful emotions. Picasso, in works such as Guernica (also an example of powerful social commentary and storytelling) is able to communicate intense emotions. This is accomplished variously by use of dramatic or exaggerated color, light, form, and/or other elements.

    In any case, one of the primary functions of art is to interpret the subject matter at hand. Subject matter does not change all that much over time. Although new subject matter has evolved, the human condition, nature, and events still continue to capture the attention of artists. The media used have changed relatively little; though new materials have appeared in this century, the conventional media continue to be used. Nor can we say that the quality or artistic merit of art works has increased or lessened with time. However, throughout the course of history as society has changed, so also has the interpretation of specific subject matter. A portrait executed by Matisse in 1907 could not be confused with one done by van Dyck in the 1630s.Even landscape is reinterpreted in the context of a changing world. Each work is an expression of the subject in the context of the values, culture, and events of its specific era.

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