Do Art Movements Still Matter?

Alina Cohen
Oct 24, 2019 10:32PM

Humans are wired to categorize the world around us, creating labels and hierarchies to organize a glut of information. We ask during a game of 20 Questions: “Is it a person, place, or thing?” Memory itself is dependent on clustered, linked associations. If we hear the word “sleep,” we recall other words such as “dream” and “bed.” It’s no surprise that we often think of art history this way, too, grouping artists by the time, place, and medium in which they work. The term “Impressionism” conjures Claude Monet’s water lilies and Camille Pissarro’s Parisian boulevards. In contrast, the term “Romanticism” brings to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s lone wanderer or J.M.W. Turner’s lush seascapes.


The idea of art as a progressive series of “movements” is a modernist schema and continues to shape the way we think about people who make paintings, sculptures, and performances. As Pavel S. Pyś, curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, recently wrote to me, “Time usually needs to pass for us to categorize and label a particular historical moment.” Movements are more helpful for scholars, museums, and audiences attempting to understand artists of the past than they are for artists making sense of the present. Since the middle of the 20th century, the idea of movements has eroded as the art world has become increasingly fractured.

During the Renaissance, historian Giorgio Vasari posited the superiority of Florentine artists in his tome Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). He grouped his artist biographies into chronological sections that revealed the gradual progress that Renaissance figures made over time. Artists such as Paolo Uccello and Filippo Brunelleschi pioneered the use of linear perspective in the early 1400s, which their successors Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo built upon. If Vasari didn’t explicitly place different artists into movements, he laid the groundwork for future art historians who attempted to understand artists through their social networks and aesthetic lineages.

During the 18th century, German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann pioneered the field of art history as he lauded ancient Greek aesthetics and helped inspire what we now think of as Neoclassical art. Jacques-Louis David painted scenes from Greek and Roman lore, such as Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Death of Socrates (1787). In The Apotheosis of Homer (1827), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted the classical writer surrounded by other celebrated Greek and Roman poets, such as Virgil and Sappho. It’s helpful to think of Ingres and David as part of a larger Neoclassical movement in which European artists adopted the Enlightenment values that were sweeping the continent at the time.

Yet the idea of this Neoclassical movement elides the individual differences between the artists. Ingres ventured into a more romantic, sensual mode when he wasn’t painting state commissions. He’s certainly more famous for his fleshy odalisques than his adherence to the aesthetic principles David revered. The idea of a “movement,” then, can be much handier for understanding groups of paintings than for making sense of artists’ individual, lifelong practices. It can also be helpful in tracking shifting societal values: Romanticism rebelled against the sound order of Neoclassicism, and then stark Realism rebelled against Romanticism. In this conception of art history, movements were less about new discoveries (like linear perspective) than they were about the dialectical tensions between different modes.

The logic of artistic progress began to falter around the middle of the 20th century, when predominantly white, male painters such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman attempted to reach the endgame of their discipline. If so many artists had continued to advance painting in one direction, they assumed, then there had to be a conclusion to the entire endeavor. Art history regards both men as critical voices in the Abstract Expressionist movement, yet their work—at the surface level—could hardly be more different. Pollock’s canvases are riots of splatters, while Newman’s are sober monochromes split by vertical lines. In this case, the idea of a “movement” is helpful in understanding what these artists believed in, but fails to account for such opposing approaches to the same problems.

On the other hand, artists throughout history have harnessed the power of categorizations by banding together and developing manifestos of their own. In 1909, Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti penned The Manifesto of Futurism, advocating danger, aggression, and speed in art. “Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” he wrote. The Futurist movement, often considered one of the first movements of the 20th century, ultimately succumbed to fascist politics: The right-wing propaganda undergirding the work tainted all artists involved.

The leftist Surrealists have weathered history’s whims much better. By publishing The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, André Breton gave the world a name for the aesthetic principles to which artists such as Man Ray, Kurt Seligmann, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, and their extended cohort adhered. In their photomontages, painting, and photography, they responded to the fracturing world around them and critiqued the mounting violence that eventually led many of them to flee Europe. By creating the Surrealist movement, they took control of the narratives surrounding their work and created a global network that allowed them to escape the ravages of World War II.

Today, the concept of “movements” has lost significant potency. In the United States, a plurality of new aesthetic and theoretical approaches to artmaking in the 1960s and ’70s—Minimalism; feminism; performance art and Happenings; the Pictures Generation’s wry approach to photography—replaced the idea of one dominant artmaking mode nationwide. A focus on international artists also means that we’re recognizing the geographical assumptions and limitations of art movements. They’re a product of Western thinking, which long privileged work made throughout the West.

Pyś suggests that there’s a more fruitful way of considering contemporary art. “We can observe particular interests gathering momentum [among artists],” he wrote, citing technology, institutional critique (using art to undermine the art world’s own structures of power), and the environment. At the same time, Pyś continued, museums are “embracing disciplines typically beyond their mission or programs, evidenced today by the wider embrace of interdisciplinary practices, and the presentation of dance and performance within visual arts contexts.” While the concept of “movements” was helpful in erecting barriers between different groups of artists in the past, contemporary art is more interested in breaking down such divisions.

In 1986, art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote The Originality of the Avant-Garde, explaining this disintegration. Instead of focusing on the “cult of originality,” artists were recognizing that newness itself was impossible: Even the grid—the basic structure underlying a painting—was itself a copy of the woven canvas beneath. Critics and artists became more interested in voiding “the basic propositions of modernism” and “exposing their fictitious condition” than in trying to reach some art endgame that never existed in the first place.

More recently, British critic Alan Kirby suggested that even Krauss’s ideas are passé. In his 2006 article “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” he posited that we’ve reached an era of “pseudo-modernism” with intellectual states of “ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety: Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Le Pen and their like on one side, and the more numerous but less powerful masses on the other.” Kirby’s argument implies that it’s impossible to decouple aesthetics and politics; as our geopolitical tensions change, so does our art, criticism, and conceptions of “movements.”

Artists continue to push back against the categories that art history has created—a political endeavor in its own right. “To label an artwork one way or another is inevitably to prescribe it a particular tradition, set of expectations, and field of possibilities,” Pyś wrote. “We gain the most from artists whose works refuse and challenge the boundaries we (curators, historians, audiences) try to give them.”

Alina Cohen