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Last Updated 
October 6, 2007


  Artistic Modernism: Central Themes (1860-1970)

  • The main task of art is progress: art is an important tool in the development of a better society, by "perfecting" the individuals who respond to art.
  • Rejection of tradition: Modernist art is self-consciously forward-looking; art's progress requires a break from past practices.
  • Belief in scientific and technological progress.
  • Committed to free expression, leading in time to the idea that artists do not reflect their place and time. Artists are ahead of their time. As Oscar Wilde put it in 1891, art's value "has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want."
  • Style matters more than content. Exploration of one's medium makes one an artist. The attempt to communicate content makes one a craftsman, not an artist.
  • Absolute music serves the model for all art. By purging the visual arts of clear representation, its FORM is highlighted and it becomes universally accessible.

For an expanded discussion of these themes and their history, see Christopher Witcombe's five-part essay on Modernism and Visual Art

For a shorter discussion, try this essay from Fact-Index