The Differences Between Traditional & Modern Art

Those not coming from a background in the arts often have difficulty realizing the profound differences between traditional and modern art. While many of these differences are rooted in the social circumstances under which art has been historically produced, there are also differences that you can discern by simply looking at the two types of art.

  1. Subject Matter and "The Shock of the New"

    • Art critic Robert Hughes has described the affect of the avant-garde on the viewing public as "the shock of the new." While this is difficult to understand from a contemporary perspective, wherein new art is nearly always expected to be shocking (to the extent that the shock factor and its ready assimilation into universal acceptance almost makes it seem banal), there was a time when painting a naked woman in a non-religious context, surrounded by a group of men, seriously offended the public morale. This was the affect of Manet's legendary painting, "The Luncheon on the Grass," when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1863.

    Abstraction vs. Figuration

    • Whereas traditional painting and sculpture was nearly always based on the human figure or the landscape, modern art broke with this tradition in what is commonly referred to as abstract art. In abstraction, nothing that we are able to recognize from the real world appears in the painting or sculpture. Rather, the artist conjures shapes and designs from his imagination and projects them into his own visual space. One prominent example of abstract painting is Joan Miro's "La Leçon de Ski" (1966). A group of artists in New York in the 1940s and 1950s known as the Abstract Expressionists would take this even further by privileging the act of painting itself over the finished product. Jackson Pollock is perhaps the most famous member of this group.

    Traditional vs. Nontraditional Media

    • Whereas art has traditionally been defined within the parameters of painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture, throughout the 20th century these limitations have been transcended through the development of new media such as video art, performance art, land art and installation art. Even traditional mediums like painting and sculpture have been significantly altered. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Dieter Roth would forgo traditional materials like oil paint and clay, instead using found objects, junk and store-bought materials in fashioning their paintings and sculptures---often creating curious artworks that belonged neither to the traditional categories of painting OR sculpture.

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  • "The Shock of the New"; Robert Hughes; 1991
  • Photo Credit the artist image by Louise McGilviray from

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