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A Beginner’s guide to understand modern art

“The world doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”
― Pablo Picasso

Most of us think that the world is as we see it and we usually tend to reject everything that conflicts with our point of view. This isn’t just a personal prejudice; it is also a societal one. More than anything else, art has suffered from this prejudice for thousands of years. There must be hundreds of exceptionally talented artists like Vincent Van Gogh, about whom we would never know anything just because they went against the convention. Modern art was probably the greatest effort that humanity has ever put to overthrow the conventions that had choked art for ages. No wonder, its results were startling.

What exactly is modern art?

understand modern art

The term modern art describes basically the art produced between 1860s to 1970s. However, you can also use the term to describe any contemporary work of art with exceptional creativity as the term is also synonymous with freedom of thought and expression. It shows how singularly different every human mind can be, when it expresses itself to the fullest. Modern art is more about one’s point of view about something than the thing itself.

Why modern art?

With modernity, objectivity has become an integral part of not only science and mathematics, but our lives too. By being overtly subjective, modern art complements this objectivity beautifully. However, owing to everyday influence, our minds get so hopelessly devolved into pseudo-objectivity that we often forget that objectivity after all is also a point of view. At situations like these, modern art comes to our rescue. But before we can understand it, we have to learn how to be non-objective sometimes. We have to know how to understand modern art by not trying to understand it.

4 – Things you should know about modern art before understanding it

1. Modern art is subjective

understand modern art

Back in the late 19th and Early 20th Century, machines quickly began replacing humans. The same was the case with art too. With cameras and printing coming to the fore, the existence of art forms like painting seemed in danger. However, just like a wild animal runs fastest when it is danger, so did art. In short, to sustain its existence, art completely abandoned its former principles of objectivity and embraced subjectivity. Every artist wanted to be different, but they didn’t want to lose the intensity and complexity that makes a work of art so intriguing. Although modern art too is divided into art movements and styles, the work of every artist tends to be extremely different from the work of every other artist.

2. It doesn’t have to mean anything

When you come to look at it, what is ‘meaning’ anyway? We usually tend to simplify our deepest perceptions, so that others can understand it. In fact, this meaningfulness is an illusion that language breeds. For example, when you say words like ‘jealously’ and ‘love’, everybody feels them differently, but they use the same word to express the feeling. In order to break the shackle of meaningfulness, which had chained creativity for ages, modern artists made their expression as free as possible. Their works are like feelings. They are meant to be felt. It might be impossible to take out some meaning out of them, as they might not have a meaning to begin with.

3. What people say is good isn’t always good (for you)

understand modern art

Modern art lays a lot of stress upon individuality. This applies not only to the artists, but to the viewers as well. Just because some painting got sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, doesn’t mean you are supposed to like it. Everyone has their own tastes. You don’t have to like any artists because someone who introduced you to their work likes it. On the other hand, even if you come across some less-known artists with whose work you feel some connection, that doesn’t mean you have a bad taste. It just means that you have different taste, which is good.

4. There’s no key to modern art (it’s not a puzzle)

If you’ve spent your entire life feeding on detective novels and mystery films, this is the point you should understand. No matter how complex a work of modern art looks, there’s usually no key behind it. You don’t have to look it in a certain way or think about certain idea while looking at it to understand it better. Although there are modern artists like Octavio Ocampo, whose works suddenly changes shape when you concentrate on them, but since such artists are very rare, and you can safely consider them as an exception to the rule.

How to understand modern art

1. See the artwork in a museum (not on your phone)

understand modern art

Even if you’ve the wallpaper of work of art on the phone and look at it every day, that doesn’t give an ounce of impression that the actual artwork might have had. Nowadays, you can download the complete artworks of an artists at the click of a button, look at the artworks one by one and be done with an artist in ten minutes. That’s how many of us get to see art. It’s okay to do that if you don’t have an access to any museum around you, but if you do, we suggest that you go and visit one.

By seeing an artwork in the original, you get to look carefully at the brushstrokes and the color combinations that the artist used. Even the best of digital cameras cannot capture the actual brilliance of a work of art. Furthermore, most of the pictures of artworks that you see online are edited. You have to do that to make them look better digitally. Therefore, the best way to see a work of modern art is by looking at it in the museum, as it is the original conception of the artist and not that of some intermediate photographer or a photoshopper.

2. Forget about understanding just look

Did you know Vincent Van Gogh thought of his paintings as music? He even described his famous painting ‘Sunflower in a Vase’ as a symphony in blue and yellow. Well, you don’t have to look at every painting as music on paper, but Van Gogh did make a point. While listening to music, especially something like classical music or instrumental, we don’t care to make a sense out of it, we just listen and enjoy. Modern art is meant to be looked at with the same sense of wonder.

3. Give time to each artwork

understand modern art

When you enter a museum, don’t just say to yourself that I have to finish everything within an hour and leave. If you don’t have time, take a look at fewer artworks, but don’t deprive each work of art the time that it deserves. Most of the works of modern art are pretty deep. Looking at them for a longer duration might reveal more layers. Moreover, since we might not share the space and time with the artist, taking a good look at their artworks would transporting us into their era.

4. Relax. Don’t try hard to discover something

Many of us have certain ideas about life, which we think are very grand. Not only we think that our lives work according to these ideas, we also try to find a reflection of the same in everything that seems of some value to us. At times, when we find difficult to make sense out of something, these ideas come to our rescue. For example, there are many who praise an artwork commending upon the difficulty that the artist might have to face while creating the work of art and maintaining a singular purpose throughout. This indeed is a good praise for the artist, but we shouldn’t dwell on such ideas while looking at the work of art, as these might hinder our understanding of them.

5.  Read about the artwork

understand modern art

No matter whether it is music, painting, or literature, it is always beneficial to read about the work of art.In that too, it is always better to learn the plain facts and not other’s opinion about the work of art, as that might be misleading. Facts like where the artwork was created, its time period, the socio-political surroundings etc. might be of a great help in understanding the work. Furthermore, the similarity of your current environment and the environment of the artist back then might even make it more probable that our interpretation of their artworks is correct.

6. Know the artist

You can discover a trace of what a particular person believes in from their words. Art too isn’t free from this. While there are many artists who know what they believe in and consciously mold their artworks according to their beliefs, there are others too who don’t know what they believe in. The latter discover their beliefs as these trickle down from their subconscious in the form of their creations.

In both the cases, reading about the artist would help immensely in ascertaining what the artwork is supposed to mean. In fact, there are also artworks that reflect some sort of mental illness that the artist might be suffering from. Knowing about this in advance might open a brand-new perspective for us. On the other hand, this might even help us in getting a better understanding of the landscapes of human consciousness.

7. Understand the art movements

understand modern art

At the beginning of your journey towards understanding modern art, this might be the first thing you might come across. The art movements. You might have started getting acquainted with terms like Expressionism, Cubism, Postmodernism etc. On deep understanding, when applied to artworks in particular, these terms might look vague and meaningless. However, sometimes they can be pretty handy when you want to understand the artworks of a particular time period.

In short, the art movements are just like fashion trends. By understanding them, you know how the people of certain era saw things or how they wanted to see things. A knowledge of these would help you in differentiating the figment of a trend from true creativity.

8. Have faith in your own judgement

Modern art, for the most part, is very personal and so should be our judgement of it. Although you might have to tone down your judgement a little bit and talk about the work in an easier way for people to understand, but you shouldn’t let it go. Don’t look for a confirmation of your own experience by comparing it with that of the others. Keep your belief deep in your heart. It’s absolutely fine if not a single person feels the way you do as that just means that you are different. This is something that modern art wants to tell us. We are all different, but in a beautiful way.

Tips to be more perceptive to modern art

Trying to be perceptive to something might seem silly to a lot of people as they might think that by doing so they might lose the originality of their point of view. As strange as this might seem, the exact opposite of this is true. By working on your perception, you actually find out that nothing is original. Even what you think of as your originality owes its inception to your times and surroundings. The mere realization of this would make you much more perceptive. Apart from this, there are also other things that you can do to improve your perception.

1. Practice mindful meditation

Practice mindful meditation

Whether meditation makes your perception better is a matter of debate, but it certainly makes you more patient. Patience is the biggest virtue when it comes understanding modern art, so meditation would definitely help you with this.

2. Give all sorts of art a chance

Art is all about perception. Generally, the people that are preceptive to one form of art are also perceptive to other forms of art. Therefore, you should try all sorts of art. You never know what might click with you.

3. Discover your beliefs

woman Travelling

Knowing what you believe in would is essential to what you might call as ‘developing a taste’. Travelling is something that can help you with this. Having knowledge of what you tend to like would help you in making choice regarding works of art you wish to see. In addition, it would also help in being less critical about the things that you don’t tend to like.

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Dr Prem Jagyasi (c)

Dr Prem is an award winning strategic leader, renowned author, publisher and highly acclaimed global speaker. Aside from publishing a bevy of life improvement guides, Dr Prem runs a network of 50 niche websites that attracts millions of readers across the globe. Thus far, Dr Prem has traveled to more than 40 countries, addressed numerous international conferences and offered his expert training and consultancy services to more than 150 international organizations. He also owns and leads a web services and technology business, supervised and managed by his eminent team. Dr Prem further takes great delight in travel photography.

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