Why You Need to Learn About and Understand Modern Art

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(Not necessarily all of it, but at least a little!)

Getting your head around modern art isn't always easy, but a little understanding of it will broaden your artistic horizons.

Having some understanding of modern art is important to your growth as an artist. (This is not the same thing as having to like it!) It's about knowing a bit about what exists, why and when certain things were done, the context for it, what motivated the artist, what the point of it was, as well as considering the aesthetics of the result. Being open to possibilities and other viewpoints opens your own art to further development, regardless of what styles and subjects you generally prefer.

Like when you were a child you were encouraged and enticed to try new foods to widen your experiences of flavors and meal options, so opening yourself to artworks expands you artistically. If you only ever eaten pre-sliced white bread, you've not experienced what bread has to offer. If you've experienced only one style or era of art, you're missing out too.

Will you like everything? Highly unlikely. Will you be surprised by some of the things you discover? Certainly. Might you discover something you love? Possibly. Will you have expanded your artistic knowledge? Yes.

But Modern Art Doesn't Look Like Anything Real!
The most common argument against modern art is that it doesn't look like reality, that it's not a literal representation of what we see. Usually followed by the implication that only realism requires artistic skill. This type of thing: "To me, an artist is good if they can recreate something that you have to look twice at before knowing it's a painting. It has to be real, and sorry, to me that's the sign of a real artist. I just cannot understand Picasso and modern art at all, a child of five could do most of it.

The appearance of simplicity is not the same as being simple to achieve. Effortlessness comes with skill and technical knowledge. A child could not create a Cubist artwork like Picasso's with its multiple viewpoints in one composition, nor do children patiently glaze colors to create a glowing colorfield or have the knowledge of the properties of different pigments.

Being the first to have the idea is a lot harder than adapting an idea or using it for your own artwork. We're so accustomed to seeing abstract art that it's hard to remember that, in Western Art, it was a 20th century invention. Impressionism, Fauvism... all these names are given to certain styles of art, identifiers to to help us understand individual pieces. Some artists gave themselves the names; others had it thrust upon them (such as Monet's Impression Sunrise painting which gave Impressionism its name).

Modern art challenges traditional art, conventional thinking and perceptions of how we see the world. Realism in painting is what someone with perfect eyesight sees; but what if a painting were instead to show how someone with tunnel vision or cataracts sees things?

The Invention of Photography Moved the Goalposts
Before photography, artworks were the only was to record the likeness of a person or scene. It had to look real. When photography took on that job, artists were freed up to do more creative work. Like the difference between a baker producing breadrolls and a wedding cake.

It's the difference between reading poetry and a recipe. You have to work at it, it doesn't give it all to you upfront and instantly. A painting in a detailed realistic style tells you everything up front and clearly. A painting in a painterly style conveys more than a likeness: it also tells a story of the painting's creation through the artist's brushmarks.

Modern art you have to spend a bit more time with to "get". As your artistic taste expands, so you'll have to work less hard at enjoying modern art. Thought there'll always be pieces you'll never relate to, no matter how detailed an explanation.

How to Go About It
If you live near an art museum, go on the guided tours, listen to the talks, read the information boards. If you don't, browse museum's websites. Information aimed at children and teachers is particularly accessible and tends to be jargon free (or explained well), for instance MoMA in New York. It's daunting at first -- there's so much. But take it slowly; it's a sightseeing holiday, not a commuter trip. I've a list of recommended books on famous painters, all ones I've got on my bookshelf.

If You Enjoyed This, You May Also Enjoy:
• A Child Might Paint It But Could Not Have the Original Idea
• What's the Big Deal About Monet and His Sunrise Painting?
• What's the Big Deal About Matisse and His Red Studio Painting?
• What's the Fuss About the Guernica Painting by Picasso?
• What’s the Big Deal About Cézanne?
• Info on Art Museums Around the World from Susan Kendzulak, About.com Fine Art Guide