Two artists may be considered the forefathers of abstract art, both Frenchmen by the names of Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet. Before these gentlemen entered the scene, a painting of an apple was just that and nothing more. But an apple painted by Cézanne depicted not only that apple. Instead, the painting was at the same time a whole new apple, albeit made of canvas and oil, yet still a distinctly separate object from the apple used as a model. The painted object achieved a value of its own, which did not necessarily have anything to do with the world beyond the canvas. This new order of things spread like a forest-fire in the world of art, and this is also where we find the beginning of abstract art, which the wider audiences often (and almost as often justifiably so) find empty and incomprehensible. Cézanne deconstructed what he saw, and then reconstructed it according to his own mind. But even at the times when the end result referred mostly to itself, the audience was still able to recognize the motives they were inspired by. Later on, Modernist art came to be about itself only. This meant that the materiality, such as the size of the canvas, the textures of the brushstrokes, the quality of the paint etc., also became the themes of the paintings.
This, that the art became its own subject, is a fact with many facets. In general, people often think that artists started to paint abstractly simply because they were no longer capable of painting figuratively. The reason was that artists had become lazy and lacking in talent. We, who paint in the abstract tradition, have our defense speech ready, and we are prepared to repeat it over and over again whenever this type of critique sails to the surface. The only problem is that in a way, the critique is not altogether without its merits, but it all depends on what is meant by being capable. It is not credible that thousands of artists would suddenly lose their talent all at once. No, it is much easier then to believe that Claude Monet, the second of the two forefathers of Modernism, was so much better at depicting the reality than all other painters before him, that the artists that came after him did not have much choice, other than to find new motifs for their canvases (to the later time Modernists, it became important, even essential, to constantly come up with something new). One might even make the claim that Cézanne encouraged the subsequent generations to work abstractly, while Monet finally gave them no other choice.
During this period in time, the camera and other techniques for reproduction were invented, and this resulted in a changed status for paintings. On top of that, Monet had found a way of painting that not only described the world better than the camera, but also created the illusion of an even more beautiful reality than reality itself. I would encourage anyone to stand before one of Monet’s paintings of water lilies, and experience that the picture that you have in front of you feels even more lake-like than a real lake with water lilies. And, as if it was not enough, he managed to suspend the separating divide between abstract and figurative painting, even before the artists had realized that abstract painting was possible. All Modernist painters have been influenced by Monet, in the same way as all electric guitar players have been influenced by Jimi Hendrix, even if they may have chosen to play the instrument in a completely different manner. Denial might not seem lie a particularly positive motivation, but of all possible forces, it became one of the more important factors to artist of later times. As we know, denial has a tendency to lead to various sorts of contradictions, and finally it was the paradoxes that brought Modernism to contradict itself.
The desire to constantly discover new approaches to making art soon became a requirement among the Modernist. The artists focused so keenly on the form that the content, which should be of equal importance, fell to the roadside. The art world became too small, which might seem curious, given that we have now reached the time of the information age. Beginning at the late 20th century and leading up to our time, we find instead that the world has become so huge and accessible that our minds do no longer have the capacity to fully understand it. That we would at all be able to control and change the turn of events seems rather slim, given the magnitude of what is happening in our world (environmental damage is not so much about the local factory spewing its waste into the creek, as it is about the holes in the ozone layer).
Art no longer deals with the more mundane realities and truths. Our world has become much too complex for that. Instead, the artists of today start out from a more personal point of departure: themselves. This is something they have in common with the Modernists, but in our time the subjectivity is more pronounced. We may find that in the best work in contemporary art, it is the lack of unnecessary restrictions that is the most striking. The artists do whatever they want, in whatever manner they want, and as long as they avoid patronizing their audience their work is well within the acceptable boundaries.
Art has become more narrative in character in later time. In this sense, form and content are better aligned with one another. Since nothing is forbidden, art has escaped the limiting confines of art as we know it, and that might just be the best thing that happened to the art world in a long time. Art still exists today obviously, but it can no longer be defined. And Modernism too lives on as ever, alongside all the other time periods before it. Art can still refer to and be about itself only, even at times when a painting of an apple is just a depiction of an apple. Nobody deludes themselves thinking otherwise, except possibly myself when I’m in that mood.