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Modern Art 101

Modern Art 101

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Updated on Jan 28, 2008

Do you think your kindergartener paints better than Jackson Pollock? Think again, my friend. It’s easy to dismiss modern art, which can be abstract and hard to understand. If you do, though, your kids will miss out on a revolutionary way of seeing the world.

Before the invention of the camera, art was all about reproducing reality. After, things changed. No artist could create as detailed or as accurate a portrait of the world as a photograph, so modern artists decided to change the way we see it instead.

Technically, modern art flourished from the late 19th century until 1980, when contemporary art was born. The Fauves, or “wild beasts,” were Expressionists who experimented with simple lines and flat colors to pare art down to its essentials. Cubists like Pablo Picasso were Abstractionists who used distorted proportions to show that they were neither reproducing the real world nor straying from it.

Still think Jackson Pollock just spattered paint on canvas? Not so fast. Pollock was an “action painter” - an abstract expressionist who used paint not merely as a medium, but as a release of pent-up psychological forces. And if you think pop artists like Andy Warhol were “just” illustrators, consider the fact that more highbrow artists had chosen to ignore commercial art for years, deeming the everyday lowbrow. With his famous pictures of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Warhol brought attention to the images we’d all taken for granted.

Modern art often appears simple, making it easy to dismiss. But the reality is that every artist builds on the work of previous generations, and so-called modern art is the product of hundreds of years of artistic expression. When seen in context, modern art can make us see the world with fresh eyes, and for no one is this experience more important than to a young child, whose constant experimentation is his means of understanding the world. Here are some ideas to get your modern artist spattering and daubing:

  • Walk through the galleries of your local art museum in chronological order. Or visit www.moma.org/education and click on “Destination Modern Art” for an online trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
  • Ditch the coloring books. Supply your child with paper and paint and ask him: “What color is happy?” “How do you draw anger?” “Can you paint what you dreamed last night?”
  • Play with texture. Set out a poster board and let your child apply dabs of clay, pieces of string, and scraps of paper. Use paintbrushes, cotton swabs, sticks and fingers to paint.
  • Cut a sponge into a shape and let your child make repeating prints, a la Andy Warhol. Or pick an image from everyday life and ask her how she’d make people look at it differently.

While modern art may look strange and sometimes a little silly to adults, to children, it can prove a wonderful mirror to their natural playfulness and creativity. And while they may not get a Pollock-sized payload when their first masterwork gets framed on the fridge, kids will learn that expressing themselves through paint isn't just kids' stuff. 

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