Of '-isms,' Institutions, and Radicals

A commentary on the origins of modern art and the importance of tradition

Of '-isms,' Institutions, and Radicals
This painting by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884) depicts Lamartine, a reformist, before the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, rejecting the Red Flag on Feb. 25, 1848. The red flag represents terror, blood, and a "party's republic," Lamartine told the crowd. (Public Domain)
Michael Wing

For many centuries, classical Western art was transmitted from generation to generation. Masters passed down their skills to disciples, who eventually became masters themselves, and so it continued. Over many generations, their techniques were honed to a high level of perfection.

This tradition lasted up to the 20th century, when it ceased all at once and artistic inheritance was replaced quickly by one "-ism" after another—impressionism, post-impressionism, and cubism, to name a few. What caused this radical transformation, and why is art changing at such a rapid pace today?

As trends in modern art have changed like the wind, drifting further and further away from what most would consider "normal" art, it's become increasingly hard to define what art is.

Painting doesn't always involve painting. Sculpture doesn't always involve sculpting. Some artists are calling a light flickering off and on "art," while others put dead animals on display and call that "art." Some say overturning moral boundaries is "progressive," while some even say that acts like a person vomiting expands our idea of what "beauty" is, and on it goes. While these artists may come up with well-crafted explanations to support their work, I think these leave many people more puzzled than before.

Looking back through history to when all of these new art movements or "-isms" began, we find that they were conceived amid the radical political movements of the mid-19th century.

By 1848, there was a wave of change moving across Europe, and simultaneous rebellions swept across the continent. The rebellions were led by various groups, working in concert to oppose the conservative order, ranging in ideology from moderate revolutionaries (Liberalists and Nationalists) to extreme radicals (Communists).

On the other side, the conservatives believed the monarchy, which had been inherited from ancient times, was appointed by God, and they wanted to preserve this hereditary order. The moderates wanted to abolish the monarchy and establish constitutional governments, while the radicals wanted to eliminate all forms of government, allow workers to control industry, and redistribute the wealth among themselves.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the "Communist Manifesto" that same year. In this book, they stated that the goal of communism was "the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions"—in other words, a bloody revolution and the destruction of traditional culture. They believed that the working class, the proletariat, should then rule the world as an egalitarian dictatorship. All men would be "equal" and free of oppression from the state, they said. It was an idea those hungry for change were quick to latch on to.

The revolts of 1848 were soon put down by conservative forces, yet revolution remained in the minds of groups across the continent. Two decades later, after the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian war, radical groups took advantage of the chaos to besiege Paris and refused to accept the authority of the French government. Known as the Paris Commune, this radical occupation was later declared by Marx to be the first communist revolution.


One participant of this revolution was the realist painter Gustave Courbet. He organized a group of radical artists, the Federation of Artists, which included a number of famous painters such as Manet, Daumier, and Corot. As part of Courbet's mandate, the Federation tore down a neo-classical monument called the Vendôme Column (which was later rebuilt) and also sought to abolish the leading French art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts—the center of the art world at the time.

Courbet was a realist painter who sought through his work to undermine the classical methods of painting. Classical painting aimed to express beauty through the human form by idealizing it. Established proportions and conventions for representing the human body were employed to bridge the gap between the transcendental world of ideas—goodness, beauty, and so forth—and the real world.

Like many realist painters of his day, Courbet depicted the world as it really was—sometimes ugly or mundane. "It is society at its best, its worst, its average," he wrote of his realism in one letter.

And he did as such with revolution in mind, with an aim to undermine the classical tradition and liberate the arts. He wrote on more than one occasion that he studied art without regard for any system, and that he did not want to copy the ancients but to discover his own individuality, to be original and contemporary. After all, Courbet had a penchant for marketing and was well known for his appetite for fame. "My success in Paris just at present is incredible. I shall soon be the only artist left," he wrote in one letter.

His work was praised by contemporary and later radicals alike, including those who went on to emulate his work. His break from the academies and institutions and from realist philosophy made him "a pioneering figure in the history of modernism," according to an essay by Kathryn Calley Galitz, an art historian with the Met Museum.

After the French government regained control of Paris, the political situation eventually stabilized. But during the last few decades of the 19th century, groups of artists began to feel the fever of revolution. Before long, defiant new art movements sprung up one after another. First came the Impressionists, then Post-Impressionists, then the Fauvists, then the Cubists, and so forth.

The first of these began when students of the École des Beaux-Arts decided one day to break with tradition by painting outdoors (painting was traditionally done indoors). They also had new ideas about painting objects subjectively, as the eye sees it—based on an impression—as opposed to the traditional way of painting objects objectively, based on established conventions and ideas; hence they were dubbed the Impressionists. Their techniques differed, too. Whereas the classical method required clean linear contours and the smooth blending of tones, the Impressionists painted objects without contours and in choppy, unblended brushstrokes.

Initially, the Impressionists were met with fierce hostility from the arts establishment, and their works were banned from the official exhibitions called the Salons. They were nevertheless granted the right to show their work at an alternate venue dubbed the Salon des Refusés or the "exhibition of rejects"—a rather unflattering title. Yet it is claimed that their exhibition drew more visitors than the official venue because of the newness of their painting. Indeed, as the years passed, people became more fascinated by the works of the Impressionists, and as their pictures became increasingly acceptable, it eventually became commonplace to see them in the official Salons alongside traditional works.

Although this break with tradition may seem like a minor rebellion by today's standards, it snowballed from there. Impressionism was just the first of a multitude of "-isms" that would follow over the course of the next century. And just as the works of the Impressionists became accepted, so did those of other movements. The Post-Impressionists popped up, and they critiqued Impressionist paintings as being merely "pretty pictures." They aimed to break through more boundaries. The Fauvists, or "Wild Beasts," came next, dashing fierce colors onto the canvas.

Then came the Cubists, led by Picasso. A Cubist named Marcel Duchamp turned the art world on its head by presenting a ready-made object—in this case, an actual urinal—as his work for an exhibition in New York. Although this work was rejected at the time, the artists and art schools that came later deemed this as groundbreaking, thus foreshadowing the idea that anything can be called "art."

And things continued in that direction from then on, leading to abstractionism, minimalism, pop art, postmodernism, and so on. These "-isms" eventually gained so much traction that they were able to essentially push out the classical arts from the academies where they once had their home. The traditional arts then were denounced and rejected as irrelevant to the modern world.

Asking Questions

Now, to discover anything from this, we need to start asking questions. Each of these movements more or less saw the preceding one as somehow inadequate and aimed to surpass it by breaking through more boundaries. As this process continued, the new art movements pushed out the old ones.

Let us ask: What value did this radical new art have? Were they right to topple the establishment? What about the traditional works of art; is there any merit in them? I have a few thoughts on the matter and have also pulled some ideas from thinkers, past and present.

 Edmund Burke by James Northcote. (Public Domain)
Edmund Burke by James Northcote. (Public Domain)

I have always felt that good artwork ought to be able to stand the test of time. The classical arts have lasted for over a millennium, while modern works, even those as late as the 1980s, are already considered outdated. The classical arts aimed to portray what is timeless, and these are still admired today. Is there perhaps more to them than meets the eye?

One 18th-century writer, Edmund Burke, known as the forefather of modern conservatism, discussed these issues at length. Regarding the test of time, he said that "we [the British] cherish [traditions, customs, and conventions] to a very considerable degree, … and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them." This seems to suggest that traditions have value by virtue of the fact that they have prevailed most widely among people for the longest time; that is, people in general pronounce that those traditions are good.

With regard to the attacks leveled against the established arts, Burke also argued that things may not be as they first appear when viewed in a broader context. Perceived flaws within traditions might, in fact, have valid reasons apparent in a broader societal context—one spanning generations and encompassing a diversity of social dispositions, ranks, professions, and ages—rather than from the confined views of the individual.

 The Roman Forum in Rome, during sunrise. (Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock)
The Roman Forum in Rome, during sunrise. (Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock)

As Burke puts it: "The real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning."

"The reverse also happens," he added, "and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions."

Based on this statement, I would say that the killings in the name of political revolution, as well as the ugly trampling of moral values in the arts today both qualify as "shameful and lamentable conclusions."

Meanwhile, the perceived "flaws" in the traditional arts may not be as they first seem either: The classical traditions weren't always the most fashionable of arts and may have even seemed stiff, unimportant, and contrived to the liberal-minded people of the day. They nevertheless endure and still manage to captivate people in our society even today. Indeed, their perceived inadequacy was nonetheless "excellent in its remoter operation."

 An overview of Rome. (Vit Kovalcik/Shutterstock)
An overview of Rome. (Vit Kovalcik/Shutterstock)

To develop this idea further, I would say that no individual person or group can produce the sort of socially engendered knowledge that lends to tradition its longevity. To try to innovate something entirely new is profoundly risky (i.e. impossible), and this has already been substantiated by the fact that all of these "-isms" were found to have inadequacies. They turned out to be just puffs of smoke; or in the case of communism, something far worse: a killing machine like nothing the world had ever seen before, a false utopia, and a profound lesson for mankind.

Modern-day philosopher Roger Scruton, whose views are quite similar to Burke's, sums it up quite nicely:

"These things are important, these traditions, and institutions, because they contain inside themselves the knowledge that people need in order to live successfully, and peacefully, together. But it's not a knowledge that can be translated into abstract principles. It lives in the institutions."

It seems to me that modern art was radical in its inception, and is still radical today. From what we have discovered, the modern arts have their roots in communism, an ideology that eradicates all forms of culture. All the subsequent "-isms" adhered to that mandate right up to today, and its proponents would have us accept their testimony without further inquiry.

 Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli Street in Florence, Rome. (Roxana Bashyrova/Shutterstock)
Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli Street in Florence, Rome. (Roxana Bashyrova/Shutterstock)

I wonder how our society might have turned out had it not been so. Just take a look at all the magnificent things that came from the ancient world. Why do we love to visit places like Paris, Rome, and Florence, places filled with classical arts and architecture? Imagine our world today if we had established more of those wonderful things in our lives.

From the time of the ancient Greeks and earlier, artists have sought to uplift humankind through their work. Although the world we live in today may seem ugly and unpleasant at times—one need only watch the global news to see what horrors go on in the world—that just makes the decent things in life all the more precious. The traditional arts aim to lift us out of this ugliness by expressing values such as goodness and beauty. Our ancient ancestors gave us a rather sophisticated vehicle for realizing such ideas: the traditional arts.

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