The Art Museum.

It’s easy to feel disoriented in an art museum.

Room after room, painting after painting, countless placards to read, and the audio tour chugs along. We’re short on time, often with friends or relatives as lunch or dinner looms, and there’s simply too much to see. 

It doesn’t help that most of us have a shaky understanding of history, let alone the kind of seldom-seen history that underlies art movements. Can you name ten painters? Put them in order by year of birth? Maybe you can—but what do you really know about them? Were they married? Religious? 

By and large, the lives and intentions of artists are opaque to us. So, without solid historical ground to stand on, we shuffle through museums aimlessly.  At the end of the day, perhaps we leave with a favorite painting in mind or a vague idea of what we liked, but it’s hard to say what it all meant or how everything might be connected. The experience is cursory.

Ideas are drowned out by names, years, titles, and basic information about where so-and-so lived and died. We miss the big picture. Unfortunately, the price of admission doesn’t include comprehension. More often than not, you have to do your own homework to get the most out of a museum visit. 

You may be thinking, “I don’t want to do ‘homework.’ I’m perfectly happy wandering through the museum on my own terms.”

There are good reasons to seek out a deeper comprehension of art history. It helps us better understand the minds of those who lived before us. It’s a shortcut to the history of thought. If you care about that sort of thing, art history will save you time.

The Best Museums Tell Stories.

What’s needed for a more enlightening experience of art is real context. You need to have a story in mind. 

I recently visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The museum’s most famous paintings–including Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the works of Henri Matisse, more than a few by Pablo Picasso–can be found on the fifth floor, so that’s where I spent most of my time.  

The collection is dedicated to modern art, spanning roughly from 1870 to World War II, which means that modern preoccupations and anxieties jump off the walls: Dali’s dream images, scenes of warfare and urban disarray, fractured Cubist portraits. 

It can be sobering, even unsettling, to confront these works in-person. Rene Magritte’s The False Mirror, for example, unnerves as it plays its game, seeming to come from within the viewer’s own mind—in a sense, of course, it does.

The False Mirror , René Magritte, 1928.   Image Source

The False Mirror, René Magritte, 1928. Image Source

As history accelerated at the turn of the 20th century, the great artists of this period reflected a palpable uneasiness about what it means to be human in the midst of technological advancement on the one hand and existential uncertainty on the other. Generally speaking, the MoMA’s fifth floor emanates an atmosphere of angst.

Alice Neel,  Kenneth Fearing , 1935.  Image Source

Alice Neel, Kenneth Fearing, 1935. Image Source

However, there is within the space—otherwise dominated by a mood so somber that you need to escape after an hour or two—an oasis, a breath of country air.

Relief comes in the form of Claude Monet’s Water Lillies.  This painting by the Impressionist master is so large, stretching more than forty feet, that it merits a room of its own. People gasp upon entering; it surrounds you.

Claude Monet,  Water Lilies , 1918.  Image Source

Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1918. Image Source

There’s no unease in this painting. The atmosphere of Water Lillies—its stance toward the world and nature—is absolutely at odds with everything else on the MoMA’s fifth floor. It is realistic, naturalistic, totally honest. What you see is what you get.

Though Water Lillies was completed in 1918, late in Monet’s prodigious career, it’s a masterpiece of an earlier time. As modern art developed, paintings like it came to be viewed as retrograde, even naïve. Theodor Adorno famously suggested that after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible. We might ask: how does Monet paint flowers after the gristly inhumanity of World War One?

Water Lilies’ detached presence within the collection—so different in tone, in a room of its own—tells a story, so that a visitor feels the shift in sensibility without needing to listen to a tour or read a sign.

It’s the same story I’ll tell here.

In effect, visitors to MoMA’s fifth floor encounter a story in two parts, each marked by a distinct attitude toward the world: on the one hand, deep uncertainty reigns about humanity’s place in a universe characterized by its depravity, or, perhaps worse, its indifference; and on the other hand, in a room set apart and walled with flowers, there persists a fleeting vestige of trust in the natural world.

Modern art gradually steered away from attempts to portray the objective world, instead moving in the direction of individual—often abstract—expressions of subjective states of being.

That’s what this post will make clear and, hopefully, make memorable.

Ask yourself:

How did art move from this—

John Constable,  Wivenhoe Park , 1816.  Image Source .

John Constable, Wivenhoe Park, 1816. Image Source.

To this—

Wassily Kandinsky,  Landscape with Rolling Hills , 1910.  Image Source .

Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape with Rolling Hills, 1910. Image Source.

To this—

Ronnie Landfield,  Garden of Delight , 1971.  Image Source .

Ronnie Landfield, Garden of Delight, 1971. Image Source.

It’s a tough question to answer. In any case, it's helpful to internalize a rough narrative about what happened, so that when we look at an unfamiliar painting, the mere fact of when and where it was created is no longer a piece of empty information but instead serves to indicate what chapter of the story to mentally recall.

To make this story of modern art vivid, I’ll focus on a central object, the most commonly-represented object in art history that isn’t the human body or Jesus—the tree.

Hasegawa Tohaku,  Pine Trees , 16th Century.  Image Source .

Hasegawa Tohaku, Pine Trees, 16th Century. Image Source.


Obviously, I’m cherry picking from the trees of art history to make a point. This is one narrative about modern art, and it’s certainly open to being contested. It’s a useful simplification.

The Dream of Realism.

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller,  Old Elms in Prater , 1831.  Image Source .

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Old Elms in Prater, 1831. Image Source.

Since the first humble cave paintings, human beings have attempted to represent the world. (If you’re curious about the origins of art, check out Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.)

We have an innate desire to represent what we see and how we feel. It’s a constitutive feature of our species; it makes us what we are.

There’s a word for this compulsion to imitate reality: mimesis (“imitation” in Ancient Greek). The term dates back to Plato and Aristotle, who defined art as essentially “mimetic,” meaning that art corresponds to the reality from which it’s born.

Basically, a painting or sculpture needs to be “of” something. A person, a house, a tree, whatever. This makes sense, and it’s been unquestioned for much of human history.

As we’ll see, modern art was in large part an extended conversation as to whether or not it must be the case that art correspond to reality. The modernists questioned everything, down to the foundations of Western culture. Skepticism was the norm.

But in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment, Europe was filled with confidence and devoted to the collective dream of Progress. The world was being mapped, the laws of the universe revealed by Newtonian physics, and Reason was to be the guiding principle by which mankind would solve all of its problems and reach its full potential.

The French Academy of Sciences, 1698, engraving.  Image Source

The French Academy of Sciences, 1698, engraving. Image Source

The Enlightenment advanced a humanistic worldview that had first gained traction during the Renaissance.

Dating back to the time of the Roman Empire, an old-fashioned, Old Testament devotion to the Judeo-Christian God had been the status quo. The great artists, architects, and thinkers of the Renaissance maintained this thousand-year-strong piety, but they elevated and celebrated humanity in a profoundly new way.

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, 1512.  Image Source

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, 1512. Image Source

Well into the 19th Century, God would remain atop the “Great Chain of Being,” but, beginning in the Renaissance, human ingenuity and freedom took on greater significance. In Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1512), Adam and God appear on the same plane, almost touching hands. The hierarchy was starting to shift, and Adam and the rest of humanity would only further rise in cosmic importance. The Enlightenment bolstered the now-familiar tradition of viewing mankind as the center of the universe.

And Enlightenment thinkers had good reason to celebrate. The scientific revolution, the printing press, new forms of government—during this “Age of Reason”, humanity felt itself to be all-powerful. And this feeling didn’t go away. The notion that mankind reigns supreme in the face of nature has functioned as the basis of Western culture ever since.

To summarize: for the Enlightened individual, with the proper application of reason, reality is essentially knowable. The novelty of this idea may be difficult to appreciate in today’s world, but it represented a huge shift in consciousness.

In the years following the Enlightenment, the upswell of confidence in our ability to understand the natural world could be felt in many areas, including painting.

The clearest manifestation of this fact is the rise of Realism in art. First, it may be helpful to clarify the term…

Realism vs realism

“Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things”

–Gustave Courbet

Realism (with a big “R”) refers to an art movement of the 19th century.   It was partially a response to Romanticism, which privileged emotion and the creative spirit of the individual. If Romanticism was a reaction against the cold logic of the Enlightenment, then Realism sought to amplify the sort of objective-truth-seeking that the Enlightenment heralded.

In general, we might imagine art as a pendulum that swings between seeking out objective truths versus subjective truths. Realism was the quintessential objective art form, and, historically, what would follow was first a radical swing in the opposite direction, in the pursuit of subjective truth, and then a shattering of all such categories.

Similarly, realism (with a little “R”) describes the capacity of an artwork to actively and accurately correspond to its subject. This broader meaning is how the term is typically used today, and, it’s what I mean when I use word in what follows.

Realism tells (or shows) it like it is. A work of realism’s fundamental aim is to produce an aesthetic experience that recreates its subject matter in a way that feels true to life. Realism is mimetic.

Take a quick look at the paintings below, and then look away from your screen.

Claude Monet,  View At Rouelles , Le Havre (1858).  Image Source . (Monet was eighteen when he painted this…)

Claude Monet, View At Rouelles, Le Havre (1858). Image Source. (Monet was eighteen when he painted this…)

Ivan Shishkin,  The Oak Grove , 1887.  Image Source

Ivan Shishkin, The Oak Grove, 1887. Image Source

Hopefully you’re convinced that—with just a quick glance—these paintings could be mistaken for photographs.

That was the fundamental project for these painters: to get as close to reality as possible. Artists like Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet sought to reflect the world in their art, acting like a mirror, shying away from the idealized historical portraits or lofty religious paintings that were then in vogue.

In a time marked by relative peace across Europe, economic prosperity among colonial powers, and the flowering of Victorian manners, painting a tree as accurately as possible seemed a perfectly noble, worthwhile pursuit.

Realism continues to cast a long shadow over our culture. We tend to effusively compliment works that seem “realistic” and conform to our view of how things objectively appear. Consider any sports videogame, and the realism of its player models. The same point can be made of CGI in film. Or the gritty realism of “The Wire,” or the refined realism of “Downton Abbey.” We like realism.

Again, the undercurrent of all of this is the Enlightenment promise of conquering the natural world. God set the universe into motion, and humanity is in the driver seat to decode the world, analyze it, and, if you’re an artist, accurately represent it. This kind of thinking did not go away, but, in fact, continues to dominate Western thought. We like to think that we hold the world in our hands.

Of course, largely thanks to the art and philosophy of the avant-garde (French for “advanced guard,”) there’s now ample suspicion that the truth might be otherwise.

Look at a tree and ask yourself: what would it mean to artistically re-create this object with 100% accurate detail? Is it possible?

The big idea that would come to dominate modern art was that “accurately representing the world” may, in fact, be a fool’s errand.

For the artists that would follow the Realists, something was clearly missing, something that the moderns would obsess over: the individual, the self, the “I”.

The Age of Self (1870—1910).

Fredrich Nietzsche is most commonly associated with the sidewalk-preaching madman of his philosophical novel, Thus Spake Zarathustra, who declares: “God is dead.”

There’s much more to Nietzsche's work, which is far beyond the scope of this post, but he’s absolutely crucial to understanding Western counter-thought, and his provocative one-liner—“God is dead”—does a nice job of summing up the new existential situation in which modern artists found themselves heading into the 20th century.

The basic story goes like this:

  • Humanity’s place in the cosmos assumed new centrality following the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
  • Scientific progress—especially Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution—dealt serious blows to the idea that a divine creator was necessary to explain the world.
  • Without this system of belief, mankind is left without objective meaning or values (the French existentialists were particularly taken with this idea and called the whole thing “absurd”).

Nietzsche wasn’t pleased about this new state of affairs. Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche wasn’t a nihilist; he was deeply troubled by nihilism, and his entire philosophical project was an attempt to suggest an alternative cure to nihilistic ennui with Christianity on the way out. I appreciate Rudiger Safranski’s description of Nietzsche: “His entire philosophy was an attempt to cling to life even when the music stopped” (from Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography)

In any case, that’s the situation: the individual on his or her own, at the center of the universe but also lost at sea, without an anchor. The music’s stopped. The natural world is increasingly intelligible (and our best artists can paint it really well), but we don’t know what any of it means, so science and technology don’t get us very far in terms of understanding (1) why we’re here and (2) what it’s like to be human.

Modern artists sensed all of this. The contours of the world had been thoroughly covered by scientists and Realists alike, so it became increasingly less interesting to portray nature on its own banal terms. How many times could you paint a tree that looked like the real thing? What could it tell us about ourselves that we don’t already know?

The key moment in the advent of modern art was a simple idea: to portray the world not as it appears “objectively,” but as I, the artist, see it.

It’s a subtle but significant shift. Art remains mimetic (imitative), but, instead of attempting to emulate the world as such, the modern artist wants to evoke and reproduce the world as it’s constructed by the mind.

In other words, a tree is just a tree—not created by God nor corresponding to some Platonic ideal. For the modern artists, it becomes vibrant again and thought-provoking once individual experience is allowed into the picture, when vague yet significant notions like the passage of time, memory, mood, desire, etc., are captured in paint.

Consider the evolution of Monet. Here’s that early Monet (1858) again:


Now a later painting (1879):

Claude Monet, Tree In Flower Near Vetheuil, 1879.  Image Source

Claude Monet, Tree In Flower Near Vetheuil, 1879. Image Source

It should be clear that Monet is asserting himself—his perception of the tree, his experience of the afternoon—much more aggressively in the second, later painting. The play of light, the visible brush strokes, the caricature quality—this is not just a tree, but a tree as seen by Monet.

It’s a direct challenge to realism and, also, to photography, which was increasingly prevalent and quickly becoming democratized.

We might look at his earlier painting and think of an image taken by a mechanical camera. The later Monet shows us a distinctly human snapshot, a vision charged with mental associations, linear time, and atmosphere.

But here’s the funny thing about Monet and Impressionism (which took its name from one his paintings): at once, he represented both a continuity with tradition and a break from it. He wasn’t a revolutionist, but a reformer, an evolutionist.

The Impressionists gently pushed art into a new direction.

Van Gogh pushed the envelope further. He painted ecstatic landscapes, seething with human perspective. A realist landscape looks like a photograph; Van Gogh’s are covered in human fingerprints.

Vincent Van Gogh,  Wheat Field with Cypresses , 1889. Image Source

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889. Image Source

Van Gogh was obsessed with trees. Olive trees, fig trees, mulberry trees, cypress trees—he painted them all, and trees as a motif took on an almost spiritual quality for Van Gogh. They appear in his work as some kind of grand metaphor (for what exactly, it’s hard to say).

Remember—this is the age of self, of individuals suddenly searching out meaning on their own. Van Gogh looked to trees for answers.

At the end of the 19th century, the metaphysical ground really began to give, and people lacked modern distractions. Quite a few geniuses of the period went mad, Nietzsche and Van Gogh included. That being said, we can comfortably exhale, because it’s hard to look at most of Van Gogh’s work as anything but joyous—pained perhaps but ultimately celebratory of life’s flow.

Vincent Van Gogh,  The Mulberry Tree , 1889. Image Source

Vincent Van Gogh, The Mulberry Tree, 1889. Image Source

Vincent van Gogh,  The Starry Night , 1889. Image Source

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889. Image Source

In his paintings, nature is in constant motion. Everything is exaggerated, heightened, especially the colors.

Van Gogh’s characteristic move is to reproduce a scene not as it appears at a given moment in time, but as it surfaces later on in memory.

Put differently, he uses painting as a visual metaphor for how we remember individual moments: always mixed up with other memories, traced with ambivalent feelings, deeply nostalgic.

Look at a Van Gogh tree, and, in addition to the object itself, you’ll see an argument for mankind’s inseparability from time. It’s not surprising that Van Gogh’s art so strongly appealed to the author of Being and Time, 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger, who pursued a similar project of illuminating daily experience and wrote at length about Van Gogh’s Shoes.

On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.  

Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886. Image Source

Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886. Image Source

If the Impressionists got the ball rolling in the direction of subjectivity, and Van Gogh pushed it farther down the field, then the Expressionists (who I’ll describe only briefly) fully embraced the goal of portraying subjective states, representing the world not in terms of how it’s seen, but with respect to how it’s felt.

The term itself—“expressionism”—tells us what we need to know: it’s a purely expressive art form, a visual representation of the artist’s experience. In his excellent survey of the period, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, Peter Gay called it “expressive inwardness.”

In other words, the (now fragile) self becomes the subject of art. Expressionism is a catch-all term that carries under its umbrella a wide variety of styles and movements (including the Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter movements, the work of Edvard Munch, early Kandinsky), but the basic emphasis on “expressing” the perspective of the individual remains constant.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893.  Image Source

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893. Image Source

Edvard Munch, a Norwegian artist most famous for The Scream (the purest expression of anxiety ever put to paint), heralded the Expressionist movement.

In his excellent six-part autobiographical novel, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knaussgaard (himself a Norwegian) describes the impact of Munch, and also reiterates the arc of art history that I’ve been describing (in much prettier language):

“As far as Norwegian art is concerned, the break came with Munch; it was in his paintings that, for the first time, man took up all the space. Whereas man was subordinated to the Divine through to the Age of the Enlightenment, and to the landscape he was depicted in during Romanticism—the mountains are vast and intense, the sea is vast and intense, even the trees are vast and intense while humans, without exception, are small—the situation is reversed in Munch. It is as if humans swallow up everything, make everything theirs. The mountains, the sea, the trees, and the forests, everything is colored by humanness. Not human actions and external life, but human feelings and inner life.”

 Let’s take a look at a Munch painting —

Edvard Munch, Trees on the Beach, 1904.  Image Source

Edvard Munch, Trees on the Beach, 1904. Image Source

You might notice these aren’t the happiest trees. Munch wasn’t a particularly happy guy:

“Illness, madness, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”

For Munch and the expressionists, it was a solemn duty to confront and capture life’s “black angels,” and realism simply wasn’t up to the task; here are Munch’s thoughts on the subject:

Any number of holier-than-thou honorable realists walk around in the belief that they have accomplished something, simply because they tell you for the hundredth time that a field is green and a red-painted house is painted red.

Edvard Munch, Munch: In His Own Words

Appearances don’t tell the whole story, so art should concern itself with more than how things appear. In Munch’s art, everything—“the mountains, the sea, the trees, and the forest”—is a reflection of emotional life.

The same emphasis on emotional experience motivates the work of Egon Schiele, an Austrian expressionist known for his gangly self-portraits.

Egon Schiele,  Self Portrait , 1911.  Image Source

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1911. Image Source

Egon Schiele,  Self Portrait with Head Down , 1912.  Image Source

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait with Head Down, 1912. Image Source

Schiele was as obsessed with drawing and painting himself as Van Gogh was with trees. Again, this is indicative of the period. Heightened self-consciousness was the norm.

In his portraits, Schiele appears contorted, flailing in the world, often seemingly in pain. It’s clear that he’s coming to terms with himself through his art.

He also painted landscapes, country towns, houses, and—yes—trees, but the emphasis on self-expression (as opposed to realistic representation) is paramount no matter what he paints.

Here are a couple of trees as Schiele saw them:

Egon Schiele,  Bare Tree Beyond the Fence , 1912.  Image Source

Egon Schiele, Bare Tree Beyond the Fence, 1912. Image Source

Egon Schiele,  Small Tree in Late Autumn , 1911.  Image Source

Egon Schiele, Small Tree in Late Autumn, 1911. Image Source

There’s a simple point to be made here: these trees bear strong resemblance to Schiele’s gangly self-portraits. The limbs reach out just as he does, lanky and brittle, against a static backdrop.

The energy of Van Gogh has been sapped away. These are leafless, lifeless trees, and, as with Munch, they’re representative of Expressionism because they tell us something about Schiele, his psychology, his way of seeing the world.

Again, it’s important to note that this was all quite radical at the time (Schiele was once jailed for the “pornographic” nude portraits that filled his studio).

Today, we’re comfortable with the notion that art is a vehicle for us to “express our feelings;” we learn this at a young age while in school. The idea that all artistic expression is a reflection of human psychology is so apparent to us that we fail to appreciate that it hasn’t always been so obvious.

What (or who) woke us up to this idea?

So far, I’ve touched on Darwin, whose theory of evolution pushed mankind off the mountaintop, down with the rest of the animals.

I’ve briefly discussed Nietzsche, who worriedly announced, “God is dead,” further pulling the rug from underneath our feet.

Now I’ll turn to Freud, who blew the door of the human mind wide open.

Freud, Fragmentation, Experiments (1910—1930).

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Sigmund Freud. Like great thinkers before him—I’m thinking of the BIG names that everyone knows (Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Gandhi, etc.)—he lives on as an imposing reference point for an entire system of thought. He’s like a historical signpost in our collective imagination, towering in his influence, representing a new way of understanding human identity.

Freud on the cover of Time Magazine.  Image Source

Freud on the cover of Time Magazine. Image Source

The sea change in thought that that he symbolizes, the big revolution, is simply this: you can’t be sure about who you are. 

The crucial difference between Freud and earlier thinkers is that he probed this unknown side of ourselves—which he called the “unconscious”—with unique clarity (he wrote beautifully) and technical rigor (he effectively created an entire vocabulary for the processes of the mind), and he did so after Darwin had laid out mankind’s evolutionary origins, after a generation of geologists had made it clear that the Earth was, contrary to the Bible, at least millions of years old, after astronomers had situated the Earth as one ordinary planet among an incalculable number of others, and after Nietzsche told us flatly that, without the old religion, things would never be the same.

After all of this, Freud tells us that we can’t even be sure about ourselves. People, all people, always and everywhere, are compelled by unconscious wishes that can only be detected at oblique angles—in dreams, slips of the tongue, and, indeed, art. It may also be the case that our true desires, our real motivations, are out of sync with what social convention deems morally acceptable. We internalize social convention and allow it to tame our behavior—Freud called this ideology-from-within the “superego.”

So, for Freud, as the prevalence of military metaphors in his writing attests, we’re constantly at war with ourselves: unconscious desire against the-voice-in-your-head. Freud put modernity face-to-face with its own self-ignorance, creating an odd and ironic disjunction with the rapid industrial progress and technological innovation of the time. At once, we knew everything and nothing.

To make this absolutely clear—

In the early years of the twentieth century, on the one hand, the world is chugging along. Planes, trains, and automobiles fill daily life; the world is turning electric, the lights are flickering on, skyscrapers are going up and telephone lines laid down and new inventions—the radio, the movies, entire industries—keep coming at a remarkable rate.

On the other hand, Europe’s greatest artists are experimenting with new forms in various attempts at self-definition since, as Freud and others made clear, the old worldviews can no longer define human identity, and the definitions provided by capitalist culture (often called “bourgeois” culture) seem to be sorely lacking.

This is what people mean when they say, “Art for art’s sake.” After Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, there’s really no alternative. Art must be for and of itself.

A final image to conclude the point:

  • From the Enlightenment onward, modern man had stared at himself in the mirror.
  • Eventually, the mirror broke and man’s self-image with it. Freud held the hammer.
  • Modern artists were left with the broken pieces and their own imaginations.
Rene Magritte,  Key to the Fields , 1936.  Image Source

Rene Magritte, Key to the Fields, 1936. Image Source

Consider the fractured trees of the Cubists, and the paintings of Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee:

George Braques, The Castle of La Roche-Guyon, 1909.  Image Source

George Braques, The Castle of La Roche-Guyon, 1909. Image Source

Robert Delaunay,  Eiffel Tower with Trees , 1910.  Image Source

Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower with Trees, 1910. Image Source

Piet Mondrian,  Flowering Apple Tree , 1912.  Image Source

Piet Mondrian, Flowering Apple Tree, 1912. Image Source

Paul Klee,  Fig Tree , 1929.  Image Source

Paul Klee, Fig Tree, 1929. Image Source

These paintings, in increasingly abstracted forms, continue to feature natural scenery. But they extend the logic of Expressionism to new extremes, doing away with reality as it is consciously experienced.

Here, then, is the true legacy of Freud with respect to modern art: suddenly, everyone felt spurred to look throughunderneath, or beyond the field of everyday experience. It was like the first collective push to “Break On Through to the Other Side,” to escape “The Matrix”.

(Today’s popular culture refracts everything in watered-down form, but, during the time of the modernists, gestures to the Real-World-Behind-the-Veil were not yet druggie musings or sci-fi tropes).

Each artist was, in his own idiosyncratic way, looking for something. Modern art came to resemble a big collective quest, a yearning to get to the truth of things, an almost spiritual searching, and it was dictated by the tacit acceptance of two emerging viewpoints:

1) Religion, science, and industrial society cannot explain the world, and art, perhaps, can.

2) The self, as defined by Enlightenment ideology (rational, self-knowing, viewable in a mirror), is a fiction.

These are the twin pillars of modern art.

Of course, modern art remained—to paraphrase Knaussgaard—entirely enveloped in “humanness,” but, at the more mature stage of the 1910s—40s, the human soul had lost its solidity, and artists were playing with and reconfiguring the pieces of what remained.

No modern artist was more playful than Jackson Pollock. Here’s his “Enchanted Forest”:

Jackson Pollock,  Enchanted Forest , 1947.  Image Source

Jackson Pollock, Enchanted Forest, 1947. Image Source

It’s hard to know where to begin with a painting like this.  As viewers, we’re lost in the woods.

Pollock worked “automatically,” but his paintings are hardly random—and even if they were, it’s now conceivable to respond with “So what?” Show me the source of artistic creation, and I’ll show you a liar.

These are the new mind games in the wake of the unconscious.

The surrealists also worked automatically, and took direct inspiration from the writings of Freud (see Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto), painting dreamscapes and logical puzzles in an effort to free the unconscious mind into everyday reality.

Salvador Dali,  The Three Sphinxes of Bikini , 1947.  Image Source

Salvador Dali, The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, 1947. Image Source

Rene Magritte,  The Human Condition , 1933.  Image Source

Rene Magritte, The Human Condition, 1933. Image Source

Rene Magritte,  The Green Tractor .  Image Source

Rene Magritte, The Green TractorImage Source

Again, as with Pollock, it seems beside the point to scrutinize these paintings in-depth and in words. They actively discourage rational analysis and want to speak for themselves.

I will mention that I love surrealist art. Behind the strangeness and the contradictions and the paradoxical logic, there is a deep humility regarding what Magritte, with tongue-in-cheek, calls “the human condition.” Like the Dadaists before them, the Surrealists were a group of gadflies, who knew that they knew nothing.

For the surrealists, when it comes down to it, our perceptions constitute the extent of our knowledge.

Dreams, fantasies, and all forms of art are every bit as “real” as daily experience, since they’re all perceived in different-yet-equal terms. (Most of the great artists—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Bob Dylan, to name a few— know this, but the surrealists make it explicit and invite the viewer to understand that “life-is-but-a-dream” with them.)

Some have called the movement self-indulgent, and, to an extent, maybe it was, but Surrealism ultimately wanted to do away with preexisting notions of identity and explore the wild frontier of subjectivity without “self”. When your target is selfhood itself, it’s difficult to avoid accusations of narcissism.

Surrealism merely suggests that we should embrace the weirdness that accompanies waking up after a long sleep, or the stray thoughts that infringe on the lulls of conversations, or occasional sensations of déjà vu. Important moments, all of them.

So, to sum up: dozens of art movements—including Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, De Stijl, and many others—popped up in the early 20th century, and all were indebted to the Impressionists for beginning the long march away from realism.

These movements grappled with the same basic question: how should art respond to the new existential earthquake? Each group’s answer was unique—some looked to two-dimensional forms, others looked to dreams, Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists said “Screw everything!”

Even the cynics, though, were sincere and ambitious. For many, this period (1910—1930) represents the height of modern art. Things only got stranger as time dragged on.

Over the course of the twentieth century, modern art continued its march from representation, embracing full abstraction instead. In other words, for an increasing number of artists, the trees were all gone.

Piet Mondrian,  Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yelllow , 1930.  Image Source

Piet Mondrian, Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yelllow, 1930. Image Source

Wassily Kandinsky,  Composition VIII , 1923.  Image Source

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923. Image Source

Mark Rothko,  Orange and Yellow , 1956.  Image Source

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956. Image Source

Kasimir Malevich,  Black Square , 1918.  Image Source

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1918. Image Source

Postmodern Coda (1945—???).

Jeff Koons, Landscape (Tree) III, 2007.  Image Source

Jeff Koons, Landscape (Tree) III, 2007. Image Source

Where are we now?

The answer is complicated.

Since the aftermath of World War Two, it’s been the age of “contemporary art,” a confusing term since it now encompasses a range of forms (installation art, performance art, multimedia, etc.) and spans almost seventy years. It doesn’t help that this timeframe also constitutes the period of “postmodern” art, an even more confusing term, especially since most “contemporary” art is “postmodern” and all “postmodern” art is “contemporary.”

I’ll try to clear the air. You’ve probably heard of postmodernism. It’s tough to describe in a few lines (and feels a bit cringe-worthy to do so, for reasons I’ll explain), but here it goes:

In one sense of the word, “postmodernism” refers to a movement in philosophy and the arts.

In the turbulent 1960s, intellectuals (many of them French) built on the work of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Heidegger, Saussure, and many others. Their ideas were dense and densely-expressed, but consistent themes ran throughout; to name just a few:

  • All experience is fundamentally linguistic
  • However, all language is arbitrary, unstable, and refers to nothing but itself
  • There is no such thing as Truth with a capital T
  • Or Knowledge with a capital K
  • Gender is a construct
  • And capitalism breeds materialism, oppression, and homogeneity

This group—which includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Jean Lyotard, Louis Althusser, Frederic Jameson, and many others –have also been grouped under the heading of “post-structuralists” or “post-humanists,” but none of them were particularly fond of labels.

Wading through the jargon is tedious (though worthwhile) and, in any case, most of us simply don’t have the time to decipher it. The central principle at the heart of postmodernism is this: meaning is relative.

Though it may not sound particularly groundbreaking, the emergence of the relativity of meaning has had huge ramifications for public life. On the one hand, it means anything goes. Believe what you want, smoke what you want, be who you are.

On the other hand, the discovery of relativism has opened the door for a breadth of attacks on Enlightenment, establishment ideas. It’s the foundation of social justice. If someone holds that the nature of any [person, religion, lifestyle] MUST be equal to X, Y, or Z, then—in today’s climate—that person or institution will be swarmed by a host of relativists. This is (mostly) a good thing, empowering opponents of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. If meaning is relative, there’s no single way to be black or white, gay or straight, man or woman, American or Russian or Chinese. (Nor is it easy to determine shared moral values—the thorny flipside of relativism.)

Anyway, this phenomenon—the gradual acceptance of the relativist worldview—was occurring naturally over time (why such seismic shifts in thought occur is a great human mystery), and the postmodernists simply described it.

Phillipa Lawrence, Bound V57, 2011.  Image Source

Phillipa Lawrence, Bound V57, 2011. Image Source

The postmodernists extended the spirit of modernism through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st; “post—” doesn’t mean “against” modernism but “after” it. They asked tough questions, bucked tradition, and experimented with new forms of expression, often with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Postmodernism also refers to our place in history, our cultural situation. In this sense, it’s probably more precise to use the term “postmodernity.”

Look around you. You’re likely surrounded by commodities. You can probably spot a brand name or logo from where you’re sitting. At the very least, you will be reading this on an electronic device that was manufactured in a foreign part of the world, with a complicated series of processes leading to its conception, creation, and purchase by you. It’s the Apple effect: “Designed in California, Assembled in China.”

We live in the age of globalized economies, mergers and acquisitions, quick money, and dense layers of obfuscation. Things are happening at a breakneck pace, and we understand very little of it.

This economic reality—the feeling of time occurring as a series of market-ready images moving too fast to see—is one aspect of the current situation, which is called “postmodernity” in shorthand.

Another aspect is our strange, heightened sense of individuality. Everyone is his or her own person; we’re all special.

That’s the idea, anyway (and we hear it from a young age). According to the postmodernists, though, everyone living in the West today thinks in much the same way. The voices in our heads all sound alike.

In other words, we each embody a similar attitude toward the world.

This includes our sarcasm, our coolness, our inside-jokes and savvy, as well as our skepticism, self-doubt, and ceaseless desire for stimulation.

I should eat something with fewer calories. I should get a different job. I should check my e-mail.

We share a blasé, knowing attitude, but it’s also restless and dictated by an invisible ideology. Like everything else, it’s a product of history.

We call anything that embodies or reflects this attitude “postmodern.”

The Simpsons is postmodern. Facebook is postmodern. When I began this description of postmodernism and identified my discomfort with describing the subject, in a sort of self-aware, defensive gesture, that was postmodern. So is this self-rejoinder thing I’m doing now.

It’s a rabbit’s hole without end.

So, to a degree, the “self” has been rebuilt, or, to extend the metaphor a bit, reassembled and made customizable. Want to be an astronaut? Go for it. A musician? Follow your dreams.

YOU can get a prescription from the pharmacy. YOU can improve YOUR life with a new diet or exercise regimen. YOU can stream, watch, game, listen, etc., whatever and whenever YOU want.

It’s all about you.

The self is back, but it’s not stronger than ever: it’s constructed out of mass culture and on shifting sand. Day in and day out, we each individually broadcast (in a nice turn of phrase by Jean Tyson) a “kaleidoscope of selves.”

This is all relevant to art because—as is always the case—art reflects the essence of the times. Just like us, today’s art does what it wants: it’s bitterly ironic, superficial, self-2.0-concerned. And relativism rules—anything can be art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude,  Wrapped Trees , 1997.  Image Source

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Trees, 1997. Image Source

Nan Goldin,  The Lonely Tree , 2008.  Image Source

Nan Goldin, The Lonely Tree, 2008. Image Source

Michael Craig-Martin,  An Oak Tree , 1973.  Image Source

Michael Craig-Martin, An Oak Tree, 1973. Image Source

(Just to be clear: that’s a glass of water on a shelf)

As you can see, the postmodernists play the same mind-games that the Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists did, except now the world is globalized, and art is more ironic, more playful, more socially-conscious than ever.

In today’s climate, fine art must shock or surprise in order to be heard over the white noise of mass media. It rarely succeeds, existing largely outside of public view.

And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that contemporary art is in a bit of rut. Who are the great painters of our day? I have no idea, and neither do you. There’s no such thing. As a popular medium, painting lost out a long time ago to television and film, and newer forms (such as the “oak tree” above) are often derided as pretentious, elitist, or just plain silly.


Art, in the general sense of the word—beyond the scope of painting or the sort of thing you see at a museum—is fundamental. Art lumbers on. We’ll always have it, and, if we don’t kill off all the trees first, it might just be our salvation.

A tree I saw along West River, NYC

A tree I saw along West River, NYC

Suggested Reading:

The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich

The Shock of The New by Robert Hughes

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey