How Modern Art Is Different From Traditional Art


The Scream, by Edvard Munch, 1893. Image source: Wikimedia.

In an amusing short story, Satyajit Ray narrated a funny incident in the life of an artist. This artist had worked for several days on an oil painting that he titled ‘The Somnambulist’, and which he wanted to submit as his entry in a competition sponsored by the Academy of Fine Arts of the state government. On the last date of submission, instead of sending his painting, by mistake he dispatched the cloth that he had used to wipe and clean his brushes. However, the organizers considered that dirty cloth to be a modern art work and selected it for the first prize!

For most of us, this incomprehensibility is the underlying criterion for any work of art to be classified as ‘modern art’. It goes to an extreme that whenever we fail to understand any artwork, we label it as modern art!

Therefore, it is pertinent to take a pause and try to understand what exactly is modern art and how is it different from traditional art. I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Prof. Soumik Nandy Majumdar, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, who gave some insight into the basics of modern western art. Here I discuss some elementary concepts that I learned from his talk.

The biggest difficulty in understanding a piece of modern art is that one cannot relate it with the forms and features of the world around us. Even if human forms are depicted here, they are mostly distorted and one can easily see that they are quite far off from actual human form in terms of anatomical details and body proportions.

The first aspect in which modern art differs from traditional art is in its subject matter. The traditional art concerned itself mostly with the upper class subjects — the rich and the powerful, whereas in the modern art we come across depiction of common people in everyday situations and feeling ordinary human emotions. The industrial revolution and the accompanying changes in society also had a great influence on the subjects of art works. Thus we see industrial towns, factories, modes of transport, working class, and so on getting more prominent and important place in paintings. In addition, political and social changes also influenced the subjects and the ideas depicted.

The second aspect of modern art is the approach of depicting the subject i.e., the technique, the way of applying colours, handling the tools and so on. Advanced technology and scientific development lent further ideas, scope and techniques to modern art, which is ever increasing in terms of range and variety.

Most importantly, the basis of modern art is in ideas and concepts, which may or may not be abstract in nature. In Prof. Majumdar’s words, “Modern art is an interpretation of reality, instead of an imitation of reality.”

P.S.: You may have a look at my recent art works here.


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17 thoughts on “How Modern Art Is Different From Traditional Art

  1. dilkiaawazsunoblog

    so nice to know about new things.. and when you share your learning with someone its, even more, fun.. thank you for doing so..

    Depicting of a reality of life in a different form is modern art.. is it??? again perception what plays the role here as well.. correct me if I am wrong..

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Yes Shilpa, sharing knowledge always brings happiness, especially if one loves the subject.

      Observation is an important part of art. However, in traditional art, the artist observes the nature and tries to reproduce it, whereas in the case of modern art, the artist still observes nature, but does not attempt to reproduce it. The distinction would become more clear when I discuss the subject in future posts. Please keep visiting.

      1. Amit Misra Post author

        Thank you so much! I plan to present further details in future posts. My objective is to bridge the gap between artists and general public so that the latter could appreciate any work of art.

  2. sarusinghal

    One amusing story it was – a rag making an artist rich. I hope the prize money was good. I don’t understand modern art. Thanks for explaining the ‘subject’ and how it is applied in modern art. I still have a long way to go. I went to Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, I was spellbound by the work displayed there. I feel if I spend time understanding modern art, I would appreciate it more.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Even more amusing was the fact that the artist himself worked on traditional art and did not like modern art 🙂

      I completely agree with you. Even if one does not work in the field, some basic knowledge does help in better appreciation of the work and subject. It is nearly same as in classical music, classical dance, and classical poetry.

  3. Durga Prasad Dash

    Nice to read this article. In fact I wanted to know these differences. You have put it in a beautiful manner. In fact after photography took away the imitation part of the visual art, modern artist had to innovate. Of course even before photography, the various forms of traditional folk arts were not imitative. So, even what we call modern art may date back to ancient times.

    Your first paragraph earns a few chuckles 😀

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Thank you Dash Sir! In that story, Satyajit Ray maintained suspense till the very end. The artist simply received an invitation from the Academy for the award ceremony. He was confused as to how could he win when he hadn’t even participated! So he went there specially to resolve the mystery 🙂

      The distinction of folk art when compared with other forms is very interesting. I would discuss it in a future post, especially in the context of Indian vs western art.


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