Walker Art Center

Art Today

Schools and Teachers

A Short History of Art Today

(Printable version of this history (PDF))
The elements and principles are a kind of language for art. Much like writers use words, artists select, arrange, and combine lines, shapes, colors, and textures in a multitude of ways to express themselves and create meaning in art. Just like we need to learn how to read the words in order to understand a story, we often need to learn the language of art in order to understand a painting or sculpture. Viewers of art need to understand the language of these elements and principles to fully appreciate what artist create.

Before the modern era (roughly before the middle of the 19th century) in Europe and the United States, artists employed the elements of art to make their painting and sculptures look more realistic and to express their ideas about their subjects—usually figures, still lifes, or landscapes. They generally worked to create compositions that had unity, balance, and harmony.

Clyfford Still
untitled (1950-C)

From the 1850s well into the 20th century, modern artists began to use these artistic elements to create more abstract art. Eventually, many used elements such as color, line, or shape alone to express feelings, emotions, or concepts and ideas directly separated from any other subject matter.

Sigmar Polke
Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Töchter (Mrs. Autumn and Her Two Daughters)

At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, art historians and critics noticed a difference in ways that artists worked and the ideas that interested them. They began to describe this era as postmodern, literally “after modern.” Postmodernism has been used to categorize widely diverse styles and concerns about making art. What unifies postmodern art, if anything, is a reaction to modernism—at times destroying or debunking traditionally held rules or canons of modern art; at other times copying masterworks of the past in new ways. Generally, meaning in art became more ambiguous and contradictory. The traditional elements and principles of art, and their use in the art of the past, often seem beside the point or purposefully set aside in the work of postmodern artists.

For much contemporary art or art being made today, the content or meaning is more important than the materials or forms used to make it. Until very recently, artists were making art that would engage viewers visually through subject matter and the composition of elements and principles. Contemporary artists seem to be more interested in engaging viewers conceptually through ideas and issues. The elements of art, while still present at times, are often not adequate to understanding the meaning of contemporary art.

Charles Ray
Unpainted Sculpture

“In contemporary art, surface is an expression of anxiety, and no one is as anxious about surface as I am.”
—Charles Ray, 1998
It seems necessary to create new elements of art—or new meanings for the traditional terms—in order to understand much of the art of today. This site explores five new elements for contemporary art: appropriation, time, performance, space, and hybridity. Just as the elements of line, color, and shape are often used together to create a whole composition, these new elements sometimes overlap in the work of contemporary artists. As with much of contemporary art and culture, the meaning and use of these new elements are shifting and morphing as artists experiment and push boundaries in their work. In 50—or even 5—years, these terms may have taken on different meanings, and new words may be discussed as art elements. However, understanding and examining these terms and ideas can provide us with tools to understand the art that is being made today.

If you did not know the dates the three artworks were made, do you think you would be able to guess which in the oldest and which is the newest? Why or why not?

Which approach to art appeals to you the most—modern, postmodern, or contemporary? Give reasons for your answer.

How do you think social or political events such as the Industrial Revolution or World Wars I and II have had an effect on the ways that artists worked or the ideas that were important in their art?

List some words that are the opposites of unity, balance, and harmony. How would you show these opposites in an artwork?

Before you go to the sections for the five new elements of art, try to guess what these words mean. Write down your ideas and refer to them later to see if you were on the right track.