Reflection: concepts of modern art – From Fauvism to Postmodernism. Edited by Nikos Stangos: Third edition 1994

This book has transformed the way I think about art.

That said, even though I have a BA in Hermeneutics I only understood about a third to half of it. The language was very dense. However, I ploughed through as I was getting a great backdrop and context for understanding art… even if I couldn’t answer many questions on the details of the different ‘isms’!

There seems to be three kinds of ‘art’.

In art it seems to me you either make (1) a high value commodity (traditional oil painting); (2) a political/social argument (modernism and postmodernism); or (3) a mixture of the two… most of the ‘isms’ from 1900 to the 1950’s.

But art criticism seems to change rapidly (even over ten years) which makes the criticism itself an historical record… primary evidence of contemporary views about art. But even so I think you can make some big distinctions.

Commodity art: 

Is high value property owned by a single person (and can be bought and sold)… it is unique (unlike craft items which may have an equal degree of skill but are mass produced)… involves a high degree of skill… is high value… produced by a known individual… and traditionally in Western culture is owned by the white, heterosexual male who are economically and educationally privileged.

Even today, a bottom end professional oil painting would start at around £2000, which would preclude most people having one in the living room!

Success is judged in financial terms.


Is art as polemic – which at times can seem little different from graphic design used to further an argument.

It can deconstruct (modernism) the present system by exposing stereotyping and the power structure… art used to challenge meaning and the conventions of meaning… or it can deconstruct and build (as in postmodernism) by forming notions of sexuality, nationality, environmental, ethnic and/or gender.

It is not owned as such and is not property (it is an idea)… it can be mass-produced in videos, on the internet, and in magazines… created collectively… and if it is ‘owned’ [maybe by being consumed?] it is owned by everybody… it is a mass product.

It doesn’t have to involve any traditional art skill – such as a copper rod sunk into the ground or my thoughts at a certain time of day. The ‘art’ is the idea and its value is its effectiveness. As such art is opened up to non artists.

It has no monetary value as a unique object.

It exposes conventions which have been internalized and are taken as real, and by making them explicit challenges the status quo and seeks to replace it.

Success is judged in how effective the idea is.

Modern art (or the art of ‘isms’)

Here – in simple terms – it seems art (hacked from its job as visual recorder by the invention of photography) was finding new ways of investing itself with value and purpose. And it did so by attaching theories, of art and life, to painting. The modern world in Futurism… or the true nature of seeing in Impressionism.

These were often supported by a dense manifesto and pushed by powerful artists with groups around them… but the groupings weren’t stable and broke up. The ‘ism’ fading and the next one taking its place.


So, it seems to me we have two extremes.

Art as unique object judged financially in a cash market… like a footballer or an opera singer – highly skilled and in very short supply; and art as a mass ‘object’ judged by its political/social effectiveness in raising awareness, like a political idea.

But a lot of art strides both camps… early religious paintings promote Christianity and are full of symbolism but they are also valuable objects. Perhaps because the means of production meant they were produced as unique objects, and the skill of the artist made them into valuable items in spite of the ideological restrictions.

How many multi million pound church paintings are produced now?

As an artist this raises the question of what do you want to do in your art practice? How ideologically driven are you going to be? How financially driven? Are you going to work for a ’cause’… or work for the market? Or a bit of both?

Art cannot be neutral… choices have to be made.

It might come down to a definition of terms but I don’t think art is the idea. I think art is the unique object (produced with skill by an individual) and mass produced images supporting an idea are political.







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