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MODERN ART: What Am I Supposed To See?

Written by Arda Bora Karahan

What do you see while looking at Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, that was completed during the Renaissance Revival? Leonardo da Vinci, as a contributor to the High Renaissance (1), portrayed Jesus in a humanist way with Renaissance dress as the savior of the world and the master of the cosmos (2). He is shown with two fingers of his right hand stretched as he makes a benediction, and in his left hand, a crystal orb is seen to be held, symbolizing the crystalline sphere of the heavens and alluding to the master of the cosmos (2,3) This accuracy might be obligated by entailments of artistic movement he impressed or just a personal choice, but it is a fact that most likely you will see similar things as I mentioned.

Now, let’s take a look at Black Square by Kazimir Malevich in 1915 (4). In your first look, you are likely to see randomly placed off-form white lines on a blue square. Now, let’s examine it by taking into account history. Malevich is one of the pioneers and perhaps the only Suprematism delegate. Suprematism focuses on geometric shapes such as circles, squares, and crosses on a dark background (5). Its artists believed these seemingly basic shapes held within them the pure, distilled essence of our human existence. A plurality of art historians, curators, and critics interpreted that the Suprematist square introduced the “world of feeling”(6), and the white line is representative of its border (6,7), isn’t it? Is it? Was it what he wanted to tell us? The funny thing is there is no right or wrong way to look at it, so the uncertainty of the message aimed to be given led people to regard modern art as strange for decades.

Before explaining, I want to differentiate two adjacent terms: modern art and contemporary art. Modern and contemporary art are types of two different periods. Modern art refers to art created from the 1880s up to the 1970s (9). Generally, “The Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, and “The Young Ladies of Avigno” by Pablo Picasso (10) are a few examples of artworks from the modern art period. Contemporary art is the art of today, produced in the second half of the 20th century or the 21st century (11), and the main period we will talk about. However, I will use modern as a representative of contemporary art, which could delegate both of them.

For an artwork to be considered “trash”, most people evaluate it with similar factors: the fact that a lot of the work produced during these periods is either ugly or far too simple, and also has no message to convey (7). However, an artwork can not be ruled out without a message, because any artwork is a stimulus as an answer to the environment. Just like Salvator Mundi or any other religious works of da Vinci and Michelangelo that were made under the control of patronage by the Roman Catholic Church and other powerful religious leaders of the time, modern art developed as a reaction to the vanishing of reason, optimism, and beauty due to changes in politics, and technological revolutions in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Compared to the other types of art, modern art is difficult to understand, so they have to demonstrate something clearly. Modern art born out of elitism sounds meaningless because if an artwork’s message reaches a restricted fraction, the rest of the world will call it absolute trash. Eventually, to simplify their works, another term was suggested “Reductionism”. This school of thought was concerned that paintings were two-dimensional surfaces with paint on them, and they should remain as such (8). The paintings shall not explain a story, but they should instead be a quest to find out the truth, and this could be managed by eliminating the odd surfaces.

Perhaps the most nonplusing trait of modern art is being an art in which the artwork is an idea instead of a thing. Unlike conventional artwork with high skill, craftsmanship, and content, modern artwork might be realized with found objects or only restricted use of conventional media like painting or sculpture, to reveal a “so-called conceptual art”. What if someone puts a dumpster on a busy street in a city center, and labels it as a museum, is every trash thrown into it regarded as an artwork exhibited in a museum? With the ideology of modern art, it should be, because the main focus of modern art is upon ideas, not objects. Here is another one. If I put a fountain in the middle of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, would the visitors be enthralled and gather around, or would they think there is a sewerage work? I used this fountain example to replicate a milestone of art history: Marcel Duchamp’s Pisuvar. Even if it sounds ridiculous, this artwork was then symbolized as a rebellion against the institutionalization of art. Marcel Duchamp, as a delegate of Dadaism, deciphered most of the paintings before World War I “retinal”, that is, unnecessarily eye-pleasing, and told art to “re-present to service of the mind.” Dadaism was realized as a style of protest against the barbarism of World War I and intellectual rigor and erotism in daily life and art.

In “L.H.O.O.Q.”, another painting of Marcel Duchamp under the title of “Dadaism”(12), he exemplifies the use of readymade objects to break down the prejudices surrounding art by using one of the most famous artworks of all times: Mona Lisa. Just like the fountain, this artwork consists of impropriation and alteration of a ready-made work, or in other words, adding a mustache and beard. Here, Duchamp found a postcard of the Mona Lisa, and he drew a mustache and beard on it. The title is a pun on a French statement “Elle a chaud au cul”, which has lots of deficit meanings, one of them was “She is hot in the arse.”(13). Thus, it indicates the fact that the presentation of modern artwork is not needed to convey the main ideology.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) | Ressamların Eserlerini ve Hayatlarını Anlatan Sanat Platformu

LHOOQ (1919): Marcel Duchamp's Uncompromising Piece

Well, what will the future of modern art be like? Startlingly, considering its immaturity and novelty compared to the other types, it already has a big contribution of “$2.7 billion(14)” in market turnover and forms 15% of the global art market. Given the present unpredictability and obscurity of existing events, it will be difficult to state shrewd ideas, but we have a chance to make some predictions accompanied by past events. The future mission of modern art could be transformed into another way dissimilar from today’s. Within the approach of which extinguishes the differentiation of artwork and “trash”, modern art could start to be utilized for several purposes. It has already started, indeed. The Central Intelligence Agency was revealed to use modern artworks as a weapon throughout the Civil War. During the Civil War, the decision to include the intellection of art and culture in the deposition of the US was taken as the CIA was founded in 1947. (15) Against the socialist and communist regime of Soviet Russia, the US, and CIA started to support and commercialize America's anarchic avant-garde movement, “Abstract Expressionism”. Abstract expressionism is a 20th-century modern art movement in which attitudes and emotions are expressed through nonrepresentational means with nonobjective art, including painting, sculpture, and graphic art, that does not represent recognizable objects. To maintain and indicate the superiority in terms of art and culture, the CIA fostered the artworks of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist artists. Through the artworks of these artists, Socialist Realism, engorging itself on revolutionism in Soviet Russia was blamed for being rigid and confinable.

In brief, any example given conveys the same thing: the artworks that seem to be made unguardedly and pointlessly were not realized for people to be concerned about its look, but to indicate the point that any object on the “chopping block” is enough to tell the message. Thus, the art movement that was heavily criticized has already gained a place in our lives and will keep interacting with us as long as it serves its primary purpose and conveys its message.


  1. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, May 5). High renaissance. Wikipedia.

  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (2023, April 25). Painting. Encyclopædia Britannica.

  3. Leonardo da Vinci's paintings, Bio, and ideas. The Art Story. (n.d.).

  4. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023a, March 30). Black Square (painting). Wikipedia.

  5. What is suprematism? TheCollector. (2022, September 5).

  6. Artincontext. (2022, May 17). Kazimir Malevich's “black square” - analyzing the famous square painting.

  7. Shears, E. (2023a, April 10). Ed shears. Artabys.

  8. Mullennix, B. (2023, May 14). Why is modern art so bad? (what you need to know). Artistry Found.

  9. Modern vs. contemporary art: What’s the difference? Eden Gallery. (n.d.).,describes%20current%20works%20of%20art.

  10. List of 7 masterpieces of modern art. List of 7 Masterpieces of Modern Art - History Lists. (n.d.).

  11. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023c, May 21). Contemporary art. Wikipedia.

  12. Stockwell, M. (2023, January 30). Lhooq (1919): Marcel Duchamp’s uncompromising piece. Singulart Magazine.

  13. Renee PhillipsRenée Phillips is the Founder/Director/Curator/Editor of Manhattan Arts International. Visit About to learn more., says, P., says, R. P., Says, Y. C., & says, P. J. (n.d.). Home. Manhattan Arts.,is%20hot%20in%20the%20arse%E2%80%9D.

  14. Sulley, S. (2022, December 12). Council post: What will the future of contemporary art look like? Forbes. Independent Digital News and Media. (1995, October 21). Modern art was a CIA “weapon.” The Independent.


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