The Shocking Origins Behind the Modern Art Movement

Contemporary art is difficult to define. The social message or idea of a project is often emphasized at the expense of technique. Sometimes it is so simple and straight forward that you wonder if you’re missing something. So how did we go from Leonardo da Vinci to what we have today? And what motivated that change? Today’s guest asked himself that question. And what he has to say might surprise you.

Today’s Guest:

Tim Gebhart writes about art and history. Recently he has been researching socialism’s link to the modern art movement.

The Traditional Role of Art

Could you explain what role art played traditionally?

“An Angel,” 1529-92, Bartolomeo Passarotti, Italian.

Tim Gebhart: The vast majority of the art work is dedicated to spirituality because they had a different way of thinking about the world than we do now. But generally, if you look at the role art played traditionally, it was to basically recapture the world as people have seen it and make sense of it. If you look at their tools, everything was ornamented and decorated. They really placed a lot of value on the natural world and also the deities and Gods that they interacted with.

One example is the Mogao Caves in China. There was a Buddhist monk, he was a wandering monk, and he had a vision as he was walking through the Xinjiang Province desert, and he saw all these Buddhas and celestial maidens and things like that. And it led him to a vision to this cliffside where he painted exactly what he saw. So you see that a lot. — Tim Gebhart

Art’s Role in Western Culture

What about Western culture? What role did art play in the West, and was it different at all?

Tim Gebhart: In Western culture, our painters and sculptors, they originally adhered to the principles of truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the Socratic roots of Western civilization basically. This goes back to Plato, all that. They’re the ones that originally penned what are called the transcendentals on the three aspects of the human fields of wisdom. Basically they’re like principles: truth, goodness, and beauty. These are really the pillars of Western civilization and what it originally stood on in terms of us trying to understand the world that we live in.

Within these principles was man’s desire towards divinity. So these three principles would lead us toward it if we follow it. This is basically the roadmap for them on how to be a perfect human being, basically, in the human realm. — Tim Gebhart

From Divine to Materialistic

So spirituality was an important aspect of art until fairly recently. How and when did art’s role change from revering the divine to today’s modern art?

Tim Gebhart: All the different modern art movements we see, that actually happened with the rise of socialism and other radical movements in France. This was actually a deliberate attempt to hack away at the roots of Western civilization. In France, this is where the modern movement started about the 1830s to 1850s, around there, after that you see art really starting to shift into a completely different realm. But basically that was all intentional. It was meant to disrupt our traditional culture and beliefs and replace them with the modern ideologies.

Aftermath of the Paris Commune uprising in 1871.

The French Enlightenment

In 1770, the French-German author and philosopher Baron d’Holbach wrote “The System of Nature.” He was a very influential figure during the Enlightenment era in France. He touted atheism, materialism, and scientific rationalism as the means and methods of understanding the world.

Tim Gebhart: So we go from the transcendentals–truth, goodness, and beauty–which were the foundations of art and what it was built upon, to atheism, materialism, and scientific rationalism as a means of understanding the world. The differences in the art movements are so shocking because these two different motivations are so shocking.

He [d’Holbach] is saying human beings are basically just material beings. The origin of the cosmos and everything in it, it’s just basically motion. We’re just basically machines functioning to preserve ourselves in this blank, void universe. And so the construction of a lot of our morality, the gods, and everything is just constructed by us to understand the world we live in. So that was his idea anyway. It was very influential in France at the time. Basically that led a lot of the intellectual classes and the cultural elites’ thinking. So basically they took God out of the picture. — Tim Gebhart

The French Revolution

Tim Gebhart: During the first French revolution, it starts to de-Christianize France because these different philosophies really took hold, freeing people from the yoke of moral restraints. The theories of anarchy, communism, utopian socialism, atheism, all that spread in the cafes and salons in France. These were hot topics by the cultural elite and also artists. So several artists are among the ranks that will lead the charge in implanting these new -isms into French society.

Gustave Courbet Leads the Charge

“The Desperate Man,” 1843, Gustave Courbet, French.

Tim Gebhart: Gustave Courbet was one of the most outspoken members of the modern trends in art. He was a staunch atheist and anarchist, and he was one of the leading figures in the Paris Commune uprising in 1871. He adhered to the “Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, which was published in 1848, basically leading out the stratagems to pretty much bring a totalitarian system of government. In France, this was the big thing. The bourgeois had to be taken down, their cultural and political elite. A lot of his paintings showed demeaning, immoral subject matter that really outraged the public.

How this got to be mainstream, after so much outrage, was that he had friends in influential places. Basically, Emperor Napoleon III was a friend of Courbet’s. He was the monarch of a France. He took pity on the impressionists and also the realists and set up the Salon des Refusés to exhibit Courbet and his friends’ works that were rejected by the traditional salons. Over time, with the help of Napoleon III, they were able to basically isolate the traditional art academies and salons in France. They were very vicious towards what they would call old fashioned, out of touch, stifling, and sentimental academies of the day. — Tim Gebhart

Modern Art’s Impact Today

I think a lot of people would be shocked by what you just said; that the purpose of modern art from the very beginning was to undermine Western culture. So what impact has this had on our culture today?

Tim Gebhart: They knocked out all the competition. The traditional art academies, all the techniques, everything, they were buried, they went into exile. The new, more modern, deviant styles, they have free reign in society, and they were all completely influenced by communist beliefs. They basically ridiculed traditional morality left and right. So prostitute paintings were the big thing, the Absinthe Drinker of Manet, the ear mutilated self-portrait of Van Gogh that we’re all familiar with. These people led very deleterious lifestyles. They had a lot of bizarre behaviors influenced by their beliefs.

Art Moving Forward

All of this sounds pretty dark. What can people do with this information?

Tim Gebhart: Art played a very critical role in maintaining a moral and upright society, and art can still have that effect. If we understand the effect art plays in our society, so we know how important it is, then we can create a healthy, respectful society that cherishes life. Because art is so influential in Western society, it has such an important role to play, it can create that downward or upward spiral fairly easily. If positive artwork becomes mainstream, society is going to go with it.

Press play to listen to Tim’s interview. Has your opinion of modern art and its origins changed at all? Please let us know in the comments below.