Organizing the Chaos of Modern Art

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction (public library), David Cottington discusses the origins of modern art in the avant-garde, the relationship of modern art to modern media and consumer culture, and the increased prominence of the artist.

The cover of Modern Art with a studio yellow color swatch

In his first chapter on the avant-garde, Cottington explains the role of the Museum of Modern Art in establishing and stabilizing the modern art movement:
In the meantime, certain collectors were deciding to what seems, in retrospect, to have been the inevitable next step, and to found a museum (as opposed to a gallery) that would display their art - and thus their taste - to the public.  The Museum of Modern Art was established, in 1929 in a house in mid-town Manhattan, for this purpose.  It was the only public collection anywhere in the world devoted exclusively to modern art.  It's trustees appointed as the Museum's first curator a young art historian, Alfred H. Barr, Jr, who brought with him not only a scholarly education but also an eye trained to make clear distinctions of both form and value.  The appointment was shrewd, for this combination of qualities enabled Barr to undertake, by means of series of themed exhibitions, the ambitious project of laying down a historical narrative of modernism that placed the Museum's collection at its centre.  This both consecrated its artistic values and secured its position as arbiter of what was not just good or bad, but the most important art of the century.  Some of Barr's exhibitions were such landmarks that they set the terms by which modern art was understood, and reshaped its chaotic eventfulness as a linear 'development', for the next half-century.  The exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art of 1936 has a catalogue which has hardly been out of print since, and whose frontispiece diagram mapping that narrative has been as reproduced as most of its exhibits (30).
 Incarnate Beauty also features the VSI volumes on beauty, art history, and art theory.  The Very Short Introduction series is published by Oxford University Press.