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Breaking the Rules

Art history is made by those who reject tradition. Every evolution of artistic pursuits is the product of subversion. The most monumental changes art has undergone are always a radical rejection of the old. These explosions of creativity and the beautiful new forms of expression they bring are always treated as heresy by the gatekeepers of the old aesthetic order.

The new is always feared by the stewards of the old. The critics, academics, and artists who spent their life championing a certain form of artistic expression are often too devoted to their conceptions of what makes good art to see the value in fresh approaches. They view wide-reaching deviations from their aesthetic precepts as an affront to themselves and the ideas and rules they preach. Furthermore, they fear losing power, influence, and relevance in a world they did not help to create.

In the Middle Ages painting, tapestry, and works on paper were flat. The concepts of perspective and depth had never been considered. Instead, flat figures resting upon (not in) the surface of the work were the only game in town. However, with the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th century everything changed. Painters finally figured out how to create the illusion of space and tree-dimensionality. This tremendous advancement was initially rejected by some as a hubristic distraction from the religious scenes they portrayed (at this time the only subjects painters were permitted to portray were religious scenes or portraits of nobility). However, the alure of Renaissance painters’ radical realism was too powerful for royalty and the clergy to resist. While there was some pushback against Renaissance painting the real battle between change and tradition was yet to come.

Over the subsequent centuries, painting changed very little except for a border acceptance of subject matter outside of religion and royalty and a slow movement towards even more illusionistic painting. But, in the late 19th century everything changed. Probably the most radical and definitely most contentious change took the art world by storm: the unthinkably audacious introduction of Impressionism. All modern art began with Impressionism. Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist canvases might look nothing like Claude Monet’s water lily paintings, but without the liberated approach to artistic expression pioneered by the Impressionists Pollock would have never been able to convince anyone that enormous canvases covered in wild drips and splatter of paint were art of any kind. The Impressionists freed the painter’s brush like never before.

Until the Impressionists’ arrived painting was judged by how closely it mimicked reality. So, you can imagine the artworld’s shock and outrage when a group of upstarts began to produce works that whole heartedly rejected illusionism. Instead of trying to paint an objective and realistic depiction of the world they painted their subjective impressions of it. They sought to capture the emotional and personal side of perception with more loose and gestural compositions. It was venomously attacked by most of the artworld elite, but the dam was already broken and no one could stop the flood. Once the subjective gaze of the artist was established new styles of artistic expression blossomed with incredible rapidity.

This is all to say that the history of art is the history of change. Rigid tradition is arts greatest enemy, and every artist must remain faithful to their vision and no one elses for art to continue to flourish and evolve.


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