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More on 20th century art

October 30th, 2003

The modern art debate has divided this section of Ozplogistan and not on the usual lines. I’ve now uploaded my 1999 ReView article, which you can read here . I argue that the decline of painting and art music in the 20th century can be traced to emphasis on formal innovation and the Romantic idea, going back to Beethoven, that the artist creates not for the ignorant audiences of today, but for the the future. It is only a short step from this to the vulgarised idea that, the more shocking you are today, the more highly regarded you will be by posterity.

By contrast, with painting and art music, novels and popular music have flourished in the 20th century, precisely because they remain dependent on an audience, rather than on a closed circle of artists and critics. My conclusion:

The other striking characteristic of the novel is the relative insignificance of formal innovation, as opposed to changes in theme or content. A symphony in the style of Beethoven would be a conscious anachronism if composed today, even if it was inspired, like Beethoven’s own works, by contemporary events. By contrast, although there is a wide range of variation, the formal structure of the 19th-century novel remains the starting point for most modern novelists. This is not to say that writers have been constrained to follow this structure – one need only think of Joyce – or to confine themselves to the concerns and conventions of the 19th century novel. Rather, the point is that programmatic formal innovation, such as that of the nouveau roman school of the 1960s, never acquired the kind of institutional dominance it attained in other arts. In the absence of an audience, the nouveau roman withered and disappeared, but the novel flourished.

The experience of the 20th century shows that it is possible for the activity of art to continue, and even to prosper in an economic sense, without an audience. There are also examples like Picasso to show that, in the hands of sufficiently gifted artists, great art will emerge regardless of the underlying theory. In aggregate, however, the 21st century will surely see the art of the 20th as mannered and trivial. If there is to be a revival of art in the new millennium, it must begin with the revival of the mass audience.

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  1. Ellian Suissa
    January 15th, 2004 at 07:17 | #1

    I really need to know why is modern art a 20th century innovation- what’s difference from modern art than anything infront of it. I need to know because i am putting on a presentaion infront of my school so if you do answer back can you give me the answer in a speech like form instead of a short answer because i want to sound smart.

  2. John
    January 17th, 2004 at 16:31 | #2

    I think if you read the linked article you can get the basic idea. Putting ideas into a speech-like form is part of your job in an exercise of this kind.

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