Modern Art Essay

Parallel Developments in Modern Art
The notion that modern art developed in multiple cultures and nations is one that needs to be further explored. This stands in marked contrast to prevailing art history doctrine- lionized by the art establishment, which rose to fame and power in the last century. Their view of modernism, going back to the early 20th century, credits Western Europe and later New York (post WW II) as the primary influencers in defining the art of today. While many of those historians acknowledged modernist developments elsewhere, they were quick to denounce them as derivatives of the west, and therefore inferior. The primary reason for this position was not racism or cultural ignorance, but rather total absorption with the prevailing art philosophy of the time- that art should ultimately serve a higher or absolute ideal. This view was reinforced by Clement Greenberg, well known critic and advocate of the 1950’s New York abstract abstractionist school of art, which swept the art world at the time. A product of their times, these philosophies contributed greatly to the discourse on art, but have become out of date with current art thinking. This essay attempts to delineate some of these values and bring them into our present world.

In socio-cultural terms perhaps it appears the mainstream art world moves slowly, but that is only because it is often so far ahead of our culture and time. As an example, while America was basking in post WWII prosperity, including the rise of suburbs, American family values, Leave it to Beaver, etc. the art world was embracing Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and other abstract artists way ahead of prevailing cultural norms. Looking at these movements today, we can analyze their philosophies and ideals and put them into a current context. During these times, art was on a philosophical track towards purity, idealism and truth. Content was out and certainly an artist’s cultural background was considered non-essential and even a detraction from these purist pursuits. These movements later lead to minimalism and other important contemporary art movements of the late twentieth century.

An examination of the art of the last century shows ample evidence that modernist ideas developed throughout the world. In some cases, such as Latin America, the developments were almost in tandem with those of the west. Countries such as Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina have a solid record of contributing to modernist discourse. In other regions, such as Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, modern art development was more latent, but not any less important. While the west was arguably the driver of modernist ideas, and deserves the credit it receives for the innovations, inspirations and sheer strength of its contribution, it is not the sum total of modernism. What has changed is not the history of when and where developments took place, but rather our perspective of their importance.

Since the early 1980’s when the term multiculturalism came into vogue, we began to look at other cultures and their contributions with a new eye. Although sometimes the mainstream art world is slow to catch up, these broad social and cultural currents are making inroads into the modern art world too. We now see that cultural context is important, even critical, in just about every perspective of modern art. While the original goals and philosophies of twentieth century modernism are still valid and relevant, they cannot be divorced from reality such as: culture, language, ethnicity, religion, morality, mentality and history. To put it simply, the world does not solely revolve around western culture! When looked at in this light, suddenly we see that art previously dismissed as “derivative” now takes on a whole new relevance and meaning.

A clear example of this occurred shortly after the French colonized Indochina in the late nineteenth century. During this time French impressionism was the leading art movement (indeed it is the precursor to modern art.) In the early twentieth century the French built and equipped an art school in Vietnam, to educate locals for craft production. Soon the students were demanding to be taught French style easel painting. This proved greatly successful in Vietnam (particularly Hanoi), and soon there were dozens of quality artists painting rural landscapes, cityscapes and still life in uniquely French inspired Vietnamese impressionist and post-impressionist styles. They even had several popular showings in Paris in the 40’s and 50’s. While the art was met with enthusiasm, it was never considered “serious” art by leading critics, but rather a charming yet derivative of French impressionism.

But times have indeed changed and in the last decade these works have received due recognition for their unique Vietnamese style and character as well as their historical importance to the country. Now these artists are exhibited and collected by leading institutions worldwide.

The illustration to the left is of an “old street” in Hanoi’s colonial quarters, painted by Vietnam’s premier national artist Bui Xuan Phai. Up until a decade ago, Phai was virtually unknown by both the west and his own country. He had only one official, government-sponsored exhibition in Vietnam during his lifetime. In an age where young contemporary artists are made into overnight sensations (witness the YBA’s- Young British Artists of Charles Saatchi fame) it is a pity artists such as Phai pass away without recognition during their lifetime. Phai’s only source of encouragement came from his family and circle of close friends, who often traded food and utility items for his paintings.

Just like the previous example there are countless others waiting to “tell their story” to the outside world. Our goal at Amit May Fine Arts is to aid in telling these stories- to exhibit, promote and document modern art from diverse cultures and to critically examine their commonalities as well as their differences. We believe that the telling of these stories will expand and enhance our collective understanding of modern art for years to come.
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