Until recently, the word “modern” used to refer generically to the contemporaneous; all art is modern at the time it is made. In his Libra dcll’Artc (translated as “The Craftsman’s Handbook”) in 1437 Cennino Cennini explains that Giotto made painting ”modern”. Giorgio Vasari writing in sixteenth-century Italy refers to the art of his own period as “modern.” Modernism in art is used as a term.
As an art historical term, “modern” refers to a period dating from roughly the 1860s through the 1970s and is used to describe the style and the ideology of art produced during that era. It is this more specific use of modern that is intended when people speak of modern art. The term “modernism” is also used to refer to the art of the modern period. More specifically, “modernism” can be thought of as referring to the philosophy of modern art.
In her book of the same title, Suzi Gablik asks “Has Modernism Failed?” Does she mean “failed” simply in the sense of coming to an end? Or does she mean that Modernism failed to accomplish something? The presupposition of the latter is that modernism had goals, which it failed to achieve. What were these goals?
For reasons that will become clear later, the question of modernism has been couched largely in formal terms. Art historians speak of modern art as concerned primarily with essential qualities of colour and flatness and as exhibiting over time a reduction of interest in subject matter. It is generally agreed that’ Edouard Manet is the first modernist painter, and that modernism in art originated in the 1860s. Paintings such as his Le Dejeuner sur I’herbe are seen to have ushered in the era of modernism. But the question can be posed: Why did Manet paint Le Dejeuner sur I’herbe? The standard answer is: Because he was interested in exploring new subject matter, new painterly values and spatial relationships. But, there is another more interesting question beyond this: Why was Manet exploring new subject matter, new painterly values and spatial relationships? He produced a modernist painting in action oil on canvas.