20th Century Art: Representational Abstract Art

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One of the most influential and significant periods in the history of the arts is the 20th century. It was a period that consisted of many rapid and radical artistic changes that gave birth to endless ideas, possibilities, experiences, and visions. Not only were ideas, styles, tradition, aesthetics, and several other concepts challenged, but also the way of viewing, observing, and perceiving art was challenged as well. Each movement saw art in a different way, had a different perspective on what art is, and each tried to implement that to our lives. The changes between the movements didn’t happen overnight. The political, economic, and philosophical changes in the centuries were the influence. They were reflected and conveyed in the works of artists in these movements. In each movement, artists explored different themes and styles. They explored various materials and techniques and had different approaches to the concept of art. Some movements were inspired and influenced by other movements, while some were a rejection towards others. Each movement made us question what we already knew. Each movement brought us new ideas, concepts, and perspectives. People might argue that although all art movements have a goal, a purpose, and a style, they don’t all necessarily have a defined concept. I believe that all art, especially all 20th century art, is in-fact concept art. Even though some of the movements weren’t primarily concerned with a concept, they still had a conceptual basis for the way these movements approached their art.

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Every movement emerges out of political, cultural, or social circumstances. As a reaction to World War I, the Dada movement emerged. In the “Dada Manifesto” by Tristan Tzara, he believes that “a work of art should not be beauty in itself, for beauty is dead.” (Tzara 249) The Dada movement was a reaction towards the horrors of war therefore, they abolished the concept of having the focus on aesthetics. They used their art to ridicule the standards of society. They wanted art that focused on the mind and not on the eyes. Their concept was beyond the work of art and how it looks.

According to Walter Benjamin in his text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, The Industrial Age changed what we perceive as art. New technologies for mass production would challenge the traditional form of art, visible in the “readymades” that manifested in the Dada movement. Marcel Duchamp’s readymade “Fountain” was one of the most controversial works of this movement. It consists of a urinal with pseudonym “R. Mutt” on the side of it. According to Marcel Duchamp in his text 'The Case of R. Mutt,” some people “counted it as immoral, vulgar” and others thought “it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.” (Duchamp 248) By signing on the urinal, Duchamp claimed it as a work of art. His concept challenged the idea of what art can and cannot be as well as who gets to decide that. Duchamp explains that “he took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - created a new thought for that object.”(Duchamp 248) This artwork is an example of what Dada's concept is all about. Its concept was to challenge traditional and formal artistic conventions and make people question the concept of art, the purpose behind it, its role in society, and the role of the artists. It was about the fact that the idea linked to the artwork is more important than the physical look of the artwork.

One of the movements that was greatly influenced by Dada is surrealism. Surrealists implemented the role of the unconscious in their artworks. Their art was all about the imagination and the subconscious. They would draw everyday objects in absurd and unfamiliar ways. The artworks had a dream-like state and quality. After the anger, violence, and destruction in World War I, surrealists wanted people to dig into their subconscious mind and their emotions instead of concealing them and keeping them in. An example of a Surrealist artwork is Salvador Dali's 'The Persistence of Memory.' It is representational in a way. It depicts clocks in nature; however, the clocks aren't normal. They're bent in a way which makes them seem as if they're melting. They represent the 'dream-like state,' a characteristic of the Surrealism movement. According to Max Ernst in his text “What is Surrealism?,” to dive into the subconscious, “all is required is courage and a liberating method, a voyage of discovery into the unconscious that will unearth found objects (‘images’) in an unfalsified state.” (Ernst 492) Because of that, people might argue that the techniques used in surrealism, such as automatism, to capture the thoughts of the subconscious mind, make Surrealism have no concept or idea behind it. They might also argue that since it’s about our subconscious then there is no idea behind our work. This isn’t entirely true because Surrealists got the idea of diving into the subconscious from somewhere. They were influenced by the freedom of imagination and the power of the mind that made them come up with that idea. They also came up with several techniques and ways to try and enter their subconscious mind. This makes surrealism have a concept behind the basis of it: to express their emotions by entering their subconscious mind. It might not be their basic and main idea, but it was in there.

Another art movement that challenges the statement “All 20th century art is concept art” is Abstract Expressionism. It has similar ideas to Surrealism as they both allow the unconscious mind to play a role in their artworks. However, their techniques and their artworks are very different. Surrealism was kind of representational. It depicted objects and somehow reality in an unusual way. Expressionism didn’t depict reality in any way. Abstract Expressionism just like the name states, is very “abstract.”

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