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Modern Art USA: Men, Rebellion, Conquest, 1900-1956 Book by Rudi Blesh; Alfred A. Knopf, 1956
1. The World Stirs in Its Sleep
"Modern," both adjective and noun, is a comparative rather than an absolute term. It is applied by definition to the just-conceived or the newly developed thing. Thus the applicability of the adjective, equally with the meaning of the noun, is forever changing fluidly as the times themselves change and as human viewpoints change with them. Yet there is nothing equivocal or essentially vague in the term "modern" as applied to the art of the last fifty years, although in that time the concept of what art is--as well as of what is art--has been vastly broadened. By "modern" art in the visual fields, we understand today painting, sculpture, and allied plastic expressions that began in 1903-4 in France and soon departed basically in method and aim from all similar art as it had been known--to put it most broadly--in Europe from the beginning of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century.
Since 1904 there have been many developments, many changes, and many different schools in this modern art: Fauvism, cubism of several sorts, futurism, expressionism, neoplasticism, Dada, surrealism, and so on. They seemed startlingly new and different as they came along, and so they were. But we now can see them all as parts of the same thing: a new kind of art which expresses our times and which changes, as we do, with them. Equally clearly, we recognize as the forerunners of modern art in the third quarter of the nineteenth century Gustave Courbet's anti-romantic realism and then that of Manet; Edgar Degas's camera viewpoint, and the light-color theorems of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and the other impressionists. Each of these was, to a degree, revolutionary in its time. None, however, broke with the Renaissance idea of art as representation of outward appearance, with the illusionism of deep, perspectived space on two-dimensional canvas, with the centuries-old idea of what a picture essentially should be.
Finally, we clearly recognize today as the immediate forebears of modern art four gifted and remarkably individual painters whose significant work was done in the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century. These were the so-called postimpressionists: Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. "Post-impressionist" was a term tossed off in 1910 by the English critic Roger Fry. Only Seurat, with his method of painting in dots of color (pointillisme), was in any accurate sense an impressionist. Actually the four men were very different in their work, and from one or another of them can be traced the directions that modern art, with its bewildering complexity of methods, aims, and viewpoints, has taken. But the four were as one in the revolutionary idea they shared: that it is the artist's duty to express himself, the artist's right to be completely of his own time. These prerogatives, which we readily grant today, were not so readily granted sixty years ago. From them automatically follow the basic tenets of modern art: continually to question all things--what is form? what is beauty? what is essential reality? what should content be? From questions like these, so closely allied to the questionings of the physical and mental sciences then arising, art became and continues to become a contemporary human expression. Art's being of its own time is its chief justification as a serious creative pursuit, and in retrospect is the unique value that we ascribe to each of the great art periods of the past, and the value, as well, which paradoxically makes each one timeless. The Roman copyists...