Existentialism and Modern Art

This weekend I had the chance to take a day and really think about the parallels of existentialism and modern art. Within the philosophy of existentialism, philosophers focus on questioning our existence, authenticity, freedom, and individuality.

Reading a chapter within a book titled Irrational Man by William Barret makes the reader aware of how much of modern art is misunderstood by the masses.

Traditional art, though maybe not a favorite, is appreciated and respected among people. The great masters who so literally and formally depicted the figure and subject are in quite contrast with the modern artist. Consider a movement such as cubism, where the human is depicted in fragments, organic shapes and distortions throughout the skewed planes of the composition. This leads man complex and confused as the study of existentialism often has the same frustrating effect. As Barrett points out however, to turn away and say you don’t like it because you don’t get it just exemplifies how powerful the art actually is. When a sore spot within us is hit, we don’t like it, we feel intimidated and often violated, so we brush it off and move on. We are all guilty of this, as it happens everyday from minuscule interactions to the dialogues we have with ourselves in our heads. However, embracing the unknown often gives us the answers we didn’t even know we were looking for.

Freedom is the foundation of existentialism and as art has progressed, there is no other movement that offers more creative freedom than that of modern art. The artist is able to create their own individual world view and project that onto society who can take or leave whatever they find valuable. The authenticity of modern art always arises when questioning its value in comparison to traditional art. The human often finds artwork that has been created with technology less authentic than paint on canvas. Then the offended artist must ask the question of what really makes something authentic. If something’s been created at the expense of the artist’s vulnerability without any censorship of feeling and emotion is this not already authentic in and of itself? If the answer is yes and the latter has been part of your process, then keep making authentic art.

Through modern art, an intellectual expression of time is visually displayed for us in hopes that we are able to recognize truths and address it individually. Modern art provides the door to escape as it requires the essential parts of the human as seen by the existentialists: the freedom of creative expression, questioning what is and is not, thinking individually, emotionally, vulnerably, and the demand of being genuinely authentic in an inauthentic world.

After all, art is just a by product of our time.

Existentialist philosophers:

  • Kierkegaard
  • Nietzsche
  • Camus
  • Sartre

If you’re interested in reading the book cited above, visit the Learning Commons Knowledge Bar to put in your request.

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