The Elite in the Arts | Visual Arts
Abstract Painting in a Figurative World

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Igor Miske © Unsplash

A successful artist entering the twentieth century was more than likely a figurative artist, painting in a realistic style that is clearly derived from real objects. There was not much of a choice in the Western world, since the concept of what it meant to be an artist was ingrained institutionally within the educational and commercial institutes of the day.

Academicism, or academic art, was the foundation of the art world from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, and it was based upon universally-acknowledged skillsets established during the Renaissance. In fact, culture was so regimented that subject matter was narrowed to paintings of historical subjects, mythological stories, landscapes, and portraits. It was a language for the visual arts that was commonly understood in and outside the halls of elite arts institutions, making it universally popular.

The art world endured a number of significant shifts during the twentieth century, yet the advent of abstract painting was an enormous rupture that fractured how art was engaged in, studied and experienced. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set the stage for these changes as transportation, manufacturing, and technology were rapidly enhanced between 1760 and 1850. Transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial society prompted artists to rethink their daily lives and what kind of art they should create.

Jackson Pollock, Number 17A Jackson Pollock, Number 17A | © Kent Baldner, Flickr, edited, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

In some cases, this radical movement broadened the consumption and appreciation of art; in others, it ostracized and further removed the visual arts from popular culture. The movements of Romanticism (early 19th century) and Impressionism (late 19th century) set a foundation by stretching preconceived notions of painting and representation so that later movements like Fauvism (approximately 1905 - 1908), Cubism (1907 - 1920s), Expressionism (1905 - 1933), and Futurism (1909 - 1920s) were able to move the needle into pure abstraction and further remove the field of painting from popular understanding and consumption.

Komposition 10 Komposition 10 | © Piet Mondrian, Wikipedia, edited, CC0-1.0

Wassily Kandinsky is considered the earliest pure abstract painter, producing pioneering works in the 1910s and 1920s. In the ensuing decades, artists like Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and Joan Miró, along with their cohorts, further pushed abstraction within their circles of influence, causing rifts in cultural definitions of painting. The 1913 Armory Show in New York City was the first opportunity that Americans had to see cutting edge abstract art from Europe. This led to a general contempt for abstract work because it was too far removed from the public’s values and ideals.
After the Second World War, the U.S. became the center of the art world. Abstract Expressionism (1940s - 1950s) was the dominant art movement in the art world, and Jackson Pollock was heralded as the quintessential artist of the time. His drip-style paintings put the final nail into the academic coffin, ushering in post-modernism and an identity crisis for the art world.

While Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism (1960s) further distanced art from consumption by the general public, the movement of Pop Art (1950s - 1970s) sought to turn the tables by showcasing objects and motifs of pop culture within the same elitist structures that removed painting more and more from the general public. Andy Warhol’s portraits of soup cans typify this concept of mass culture infiltration art with a capital “A”. As the twentieth century ended, the art world adjusted accordingly. Many of these narratives were broken and established a more pluralistic view of the art world, a view that has further blurred the lines between low art (works with mass appeal or utilitarian purpose) and high art forms (a vocabulary of the cultural elite, the wealthy and the educated). The story of the twentieth century painting can be summarized as classical connotations challenged, new definitions established, and two cultures eventually blended.

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