Help me! Understanding Modern art.

©2010-Cathy-Read-Conformity- Abstract Painting

Understanding Modern Art is challenging

It can leave you wondering what on earth is going on?

I have a confession. I’ve always found understanding modern art confusing! There, I’ve said it!

First of all, Modern and Contemporary Art are not the same thing.

The terms are often confused, but not the same. Modern art is work created from around 1860’s to 1970’s. Contemporary Art is work created after that time. Technically any artist alive and creating today is a Contemporary artist. Their work might be considered more traditional in style,but they are still contemporary artists.

©2010-Cathy-Read-Conformity- Abstract Painting
©2010-Cathy-Read-Conformity- Abstract Painting

There is more to Modern Art than what you see.

I always zoned out during art history. I was disinterested. All those names, dates, formal artwork. Maybe it was the teacher or just me? But before mid 19th century, art seemed fusty, I liked the Pre-Raphaelites. Mainly through spending hours at Manchester Art Gallery. Van Gogh was interesting but then the 20th Century stuff was just playing, wasn’t it? All that dripping paint and squares and splodges of colour. But there are rules and theories behind what you see. Cubism is the presentation of more than one side at a time, good abstracts have rules and restrictions that. Once you scratch the surface there’s more to see.

Art appreciation is a concept I struggled with.

Surely if the art is any good, it shouldn’t need explaining? The meaning should invade your mind like some type of telepathic connection between the artist and the viewer. Basically, I like what I like, I didn’t always know why but you get the picture. I liked some modern art and contemporary art, just not ALL of it. I must like it right? Otherwise why create abstracts like “Conformity here?” That’s OK though.

It’s OK not to like it.

Another art teacher once took a group of us to the  Whitworth Gallery. She was enthusing about the colours and textures. The particular one we were looking at had all the colours and texture of vomit – I’m not exaggerating. I could feel part of me wanting to understand it and share her enthusiasm. I think I might have managed it… But inside I was screaming “This is rubbish! Let me see some pictures I can understand, please! Something, anything, I can recognise.” I’ve come a long way since then.

I realise now that one can appreciate an idea or the skill required to create something and still want to distance yourself from actually looking at it.

It may be too unsettling. Too tame for your tastes. Too bright, too dark. There are may reasons not to like a painting, all of them valid. Art is a personal taste but if it evokes a response then it has, in some way, done it’s job. There have always been artists prepared to show the uncomfortable side of life,  Once you realise that, you can stand to look at things you wouldn’t want in your home and maybe, just maybe, you can find something that excites you because you dared to look at the stuff you’d have avoided in the past.


Besides, other artists are a healthy source of inspiration.

There’s a handy little book “How to survive modern art” by Susie Hodge. It’s an idiots guide to art movements of the last 120 years. Idiot equaling me in this instance! The format is this:-

  • A bit about the movement (main theories and aspirations),
  • examples of artist’s work in the style,
  • move to next genre!

Fab!!!! No waffling on and it has visual aids.

I can now say my Conformity Painting is Op art meets tie dye with a bit of Jackson Pollock thrown in for good measure! What do you think? Maybe the Jackson Pollock is a bit much?

Education is the key.

I have seized the bull by the horns! Engaging in personal study- art books, programmes, and talks, mainly, with a healthy smattering of internet and art galleries when schedules permit.  The aim is working out what on earth there is in this “modern art” business. Art is important to me, I grow and develop as an artist by understanding what went before. Sometimes, the concept does require explanation, read the artists statements and other writings provides an insight

That basic book gave me the confidence to realise I could grasp some of these etherial art concepts without feeling I was selling my soul! Since then I’ve read more books, visited more exhibitions.Education is an ongoing thing, but I think I’m appreciating it more, yes. And understanding what they were trying to do.

However, I still don’t like conceptual art

Understanding Modern art For the Love of God - Damian Hurst
For the Love of God – Damien Hirst

Well, most of it. Like with all things, there are good and bad pieces of Conceptual Art but now I understand the theory. Appreciating art and liking it are not necessarily the same thing.

What Art inspires you or makes you want to bury your head in your hands and say For the Love of God?













6 Replies to “Help me! Understanding Modern art.”

  1. Thanks for leaving me a comment at my website (braonthree). I left you a response there. I think myself that there is art from every period and every genre that is both beautiful and interesting, but my tastes in EVERYTHING tend to be the epitome of eclectic.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Sehnen. You are right, of course and eclectic is such a good word, isn’t it? I’m all for it. I think there is something good in every genre. So good it transcends the boundaries and, dare I say it, reaches the popular domain because of its brilliance.

  2. I love this very informative, people often mistake modern and contemporary art thinking the terms are interchangeable. I love all different types of art from a variety of periods but some of my favourites are pre-raphaelite paintings.

    1. Thank you for commenting Melinda. Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m expanding my tastes, it’s so much easier to do with the internet and there are so many exciting exhibitions around at the moment.

  3. It’s great that you’re able to create something in a genre you’re not really into. Incredible skill to stick with it. lol It’s so easy to buck against what you’re not interested in and not follow through.

    1. Thank you for commenting Elly. Yes, the sticking with it can be really tough but you always learn something in the process so it’s worth hanging on in there.

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