What is Modern Art? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Modern Art
  • 0:53 Realism
  • 1:35 Impressionism &…
  • 2:45 Cubism, Dadaism & Abstraction
  • 4:31 Pop Art
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In art history, there are a few moments when everything changes. In this lesson, we are going to explore the concept of modern art and see how it managed to redefine Western art.

Modern Art

It seems like everyone has an opinion on modern art. There are entire museums dedicated to it. It is the foundation of every pretentious conversation. Yet, so many of us don't fully understand it.

Modern art is not only a chronological era in art history, but also a philosophical movement. In Western culture, 'modernism' describes a collection of genres all dedicated to the same basic agenda: challenging the definition of art.

For centuries, we built up strict standards of what was or was not art. Then, in the 19th century, something changed. Artists began to push the boundaries of traditional assumptions, reject standards of art, and explore new modes of expression. It was a modern movement, and one that transformed art as we know it.


One of the best ways we can appreciate modernism is through a brief history of it. Many art historians credit the origins of modernism to a mid-19th century French art movement called Realism. Realist painters rejected the traditional subjects of fine art, like mythological heroes, historical figures, and wealthy patrons, and painted scenes of the common people.

One of the most notable figures was Gustave Courbet. His 1849 The Stone Breakers is a great example of Realism. In this painting, two unidentifiable laborers are elevated as the subject of fine art. While the traditional conventions of painting are obeyed, this new subject began a tradition of challenging the definition of fine art.

Impressionism & Post-Impressionism

A few decades later, another French movement developed called Impressionism. The Impressionists, led by Claude Monet, took the challenge of art further by beginning to paint less representational subjects. Rather than a clear landscape, the Impressionists painted a landscape as a collection of blurred colors, with the goal of capturing the essence of a single moment in time through light and color. In this case, the subject was more traditional, but the painting technique rejected the Western assumption that fine art should be highly representational.

Monet and the Impressionists started a revolution in art, as artists continued to reject representative art for more abstract compositions. Artists who belonged to the Post-Impressionism movement were the next vanguards of this transformation. Paul Gauguin incorporated colors and a flattened aesthetic from Polynesian art into his compositions. Paul Cézanne also broke figures into simpler forms, exploring the relationships between shapes. Vincent van Gogh explored the power of color and line, creating strong contrasts in his compositions.

Cubism, Dadaism & Abstraction

As the 20th century began, modernism moved further towards the abstract. Cubism, a movement championed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, found inspiration in African artistic traditions and deconstructed objects into basic shapes, as if seeing it from all sides at once. The Cubists also found a taste for collage, assembling various objects together to create compositions of texture.

Artists of the 20th century really focused on questioning the very meaning of art, and no one took this further than the Dadaists. Dadaism was a genre focused on the absurd, irreverently mocking the pretentious standards of fine art. One great example comes from Dada leader Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, Duchamp submitted a piece called Fountain, which consisted of an autographed urinal laid on its side. The purpose was to demonstrate that art is only what we make of it, and to challenge the Western distinction between high and low arts.

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