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Modern Art: The Rejection of Tradition in Modernism

Updated on October 24, 2011

Dada was anarchic, nihilistic and disruptive … a state of mind rather than a literary or artistic movement.

“Modernism is typified by the rejection of tradition.  Explore this statement through the in-depth analysis of 3-5 modernist artworks.”

I would like to construct an argument in support of the statement that Modernism is typified by the rejection of tradition.  I will base my construction on the study of three modernist artworks.  Initially, I would like to define the statement in narrowed terms by breaking it down.  “Modernism is typified by the rejection of tradition.”  Modernism, for the purpose of this argument, will be “the modern condition, representing the new” in various forms of art and expression which emerged in the early twentieth century.  The new, for the purpose of this argument, will be “something just beginning and regarded as better than what went before.”  Tradition, for the purpose of this argument, will be “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.”  I will define Tradition still further as those customs or beliefs belonging on the one hand to the artist and on the other hand to the viewers of the art.

The statement, therefore, that I am approaching with my three examples of modernist artwork, is, “The modern condition in various forms of art emerging particularly in the early twentieth century represented new ideas, regarded as different to and better than what went before, and rejected the typical customs, beliefs and practices in various forms of art that went before.”

The three examples of art works that will be discussed herein are:

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, David Malangi’s Brown Snakes, 1963, and John Baldessari’s An Artist is Note Merely the Slavish Announcer, 1966-68.

I would like to, firstly, out of fascination with the period in art and in order to substantiate my argument, consider Dadaism.  This art form emerged after the first world war and “brought to an end a long period of almost uninterrupted material progress and prosperity in Europe, cutting short a great outburst of creative genius in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” (Honour & Fleming.)  Dada was a movement “which dominated the inter-war years.  Dada was anarchic, nihilistic and disruptive … a state of mind rather than a literary or artistic movement.” (Honour & Fleming.)  “Dadaists mocked all established values, all traditional notions of good taste in art and literature.”  Even the name Dada, derived from a nonsensical, “baby-talk” word denied the value of art (Honour & Fleming.)  It became the cult of non-art.  I am particularly interested in the very direct and obvious way in which Dadaism rejected tradition, and represented new ideas.  I am interested in the manner in which Dadaism rejected the already-established system.  This is one art form that directly supports the statement that Modernism (“various form of modern art” as discussed earlier).  It represents modern ideas while at the same time rejecting tradition.  I will now consider an example of Dadaist art, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917. 

Image 1 – Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917 – Image obtained from: The Surrealists Website –

61 (h) cms


When considering various Dadaist artists, I was drawn in particular to the statement that, “Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)… was, perhaps, the most stimulating intellectual to be concerned with the visual arts in this century – ironic, witty and penetrating.  He was also a congenital anarchist” (Honour & Fleming).  His sculptures are “ready-mades,” which are every day objects converted into works of art simply by his own act of choosing them to be works of art.  Duchamp added nothing to the objects he chose, for example his work Fountain (1917), which was an industrial porcelain fitting for a public urinal, set on its side and signed, “R. Mutt.”  Works of art such as this one manifested utter rejection of the accepted and established artistic canons and traditions, discrediting “the ‘work of art’ and that taste, skill, craftsmanship” which a work of art would traditionally embody. (Honour & Fleming.)  “The significance of the ready-mades as ‘art’ lies not in any aesthetic qualities that may or may not be discovered in them, but in the aesthetic questions they force one to contemplate.”  (Honour & Fleming.) The example of the urinal fitting presented as a work of art entitled Fountain is a clear example of the rejection of established artistic tradition, a new – a modern – way of defining and approaching “art.”

What of Modernism in Australia?  In investigating this question I decided to select a second case study from this category.  The reason I would like to consider an example of Indigenous Australian art from the modernist period is that it is quite an interesting topic.  Indigenous Australian art is in no way new, nor was it new in the mid-19th century.  However, the acceptance of indigenous art as a modern art form, accepted as modernist or contemporary art, was new in the 1940s, in modernist Australia.  “Australia tends to lag far behind Europe and America in the extent to which the example of modern masters permeates the living art of the country.” … “The Australian modernist Margaret Preston defied conventional wisdom by arguing for the aesthetic value of Aboriginal art for more than four decades.  By the 1940s her visits to remote indigenous communities had deepened her awareness of both the complexity and the diversity of Aboriginal cultures.”  (Stephen, McNamara & Goad.) .  I would like to now consider an example of one such piece of indigenous Australian art.  In asking whether this particular modernist piece rejects tradition, though, I have to divide the ‘tradition’ into two for the sake of this essay.  That is, Tradition will need to be considered both from the point of view of the artist (an indigenous Australian) and of the viewers or accepters of the art (non-indigenous Australians).  Although indigenous Australian art is considered modernist and accepted as such, it was highly based on cultural experience and tradition and it was in no way ‘new’ for the artist.  However, the general approach to it from the non-Indigenous and even international artistic community was ‘new.’  Therefore, indigenous art, while not challenging existing traditions and concepts among indigenous Australians, was newly accepted and seen in a new light by non-indigenous Australians and, indeed, the world.  Indigenous Australian art was new and different in this broader sense as, “The work of the Australian aboriginal has no ‘display’ about it.  There is no curious desire to astound.  It is never repetitive.  The geometrical designs are balanced, but are never duplicated.  Their caves, rocks, and bark, and they themselves, are painted, either for totemic purposes or for ornament, with strong outlines and clean, unmuddled colour.”  (Stephen, McNamara & Goad.)

Image 2 – David Malangi’s Brown Snakes, 1963 – Image obtained from:  No Ordinary Place – The Art of David Malangi –

62.5 (h) x 39.5 (w) cm


David Malangi’s Brown Snakes, 1963, is an example of one such indigenous Australian artwork considered as modernist.  This work consists of four striped vertical snakes, painted in natural pigments, aligned up a piece of eucalyptus bark.  The website No Ordinary Place – The Art of David Malangi, states: “The evil tree spirit was an occasional subject of Malangi’s. The evil connotation was expressed in painting by a beaked and clawed diagonal figure and jagged forms merging with the gnarled tree forms.”   (No Ordinary Place.)   Contemporary art included Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting.  This phase differed from others in that “it was the business of putting paint on canvas that alone accounted for the Action Painters and led them to abstraction.  They did not represent their emotions or sensations but enacted them before the canvas.”   (No Ordinary Place.)  I would therefore classify this work of art by David Malangi as an Action Painting, an abstract contemporary work of art which enacts a story, that of the evil snake and its personality, on its natural canvas.  Although the enactment of this story is steeped in tradition, history and culture, again I believe that this artwork supports the statement that Modernism rejected tradition in the way that the non-indigenous population regarded these indigenous abstract story-telling artworks as modern works of art in their own right, different from what the non-indigenous artistic tradition had known prior.

“Painting is feeling.  Just as much as a sentence describes, so a sequence of colours describes.  All art is an attempt to exteriorise one’s sensations and feelings, to give them a form.”  (Harrison & Wood.)  In light of the statement quoted here, I would like to consider what the artist is attempting to exteriorise in the case of my third example, that of John Baldessari’s An Artist is Note Merely the Slavish Announcer, 1966-68.   Thus far, the examples of the Fountain and Brown Snakes have, both in their own way, exteriorised a feeling, an idea, whether it be humorous and ironic in the case of Fountain, or that of representing a story of old as in the case of Brown Snakes.  This third artwork, a piece of photographic and textual art, is from the late 60s, a phase of Modernist art “loosely defined by the word Conceptual and coinciding with years of political protest.” (Rorimer.)  I will also consider this artwork in terms of the feelings it is exteriorising.  I will also consider how this artwork supports the statement that Modernism in art rejects tradition and reflects something new.

Image 3 – John Baldessari’s An Artist is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer, 1966-68 – Image obtained from:  Photography Changes Everything –


“The artists who turned from painting and sculpture to photography in the late 1960s found the means to reassess pictorial and sculptural concerns without redress to authorial signs of the hand, compositional arrangement, painted illusionism or three-dimensional materiality.”  (Rorimer.) 

The medium of photography was, for artists, a means for representing issues that, until the 1960s, had only been addressed in painting and sculpture.  “Along with language, photography has provided an alternative to the descriptive and depictive nature of painting.”  (Rorimer.)  This work, The Artist is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer, combines both photography and text to exteriorise feelings and send a message to the viewer.  What is that message?  John Baldessari himself comments on the web page Photography Changes Everything ( that, “I was using photography almost exclusively in my work. But it wasn’t photography that I was interested in, but what art might be, and how photography could give me a quick way to implement my ideas. If I wanted, let’s say, a photograph of a house, any picture of a house would do… If I make a picture a guessing game, I might capture your attention for a little bit longer. There is a hierarchy of vision that I’m interested in attacking and breaking down. If you look at a photograph of people in a room, you’re going to look at their faces first. You’re not going to look at a book that’s on a table. What I try to do is make you look at the book on the table.” 

My interpretation of, after engagement with, this artwork is that Baldessari is playing on words so that various meanings can be interpreted from his work of art and ideas derived from it.  On the one hand he is likening the camera to the artist as a slavish recorder of facts, a pastime the artist is not alone in.  On the other hand he could be saying that art should be more than the recording of facts or events.  It seems his message is that there should be a story, an emotion – and a concept – conveyed in the piece of art.

Whatever Baldessari is saying is up to the viewer’s interpretation.  It demands involvement and thought on the part of the viewer.  Is this necessarily a new approach to art, defying tradition?  I believe that it is after my Visual Cultures studies.  That there is something anarchist, there is something new in Modernism.  I believe that this piece of art reflects the ideas and ideals of Modernism in defying what preceded it artistically and representing new ideas.

Finally, I would like to revisit the statement, “The modern condition in various forms of art emerging in the early twentieth century, represented new ideas, regarded as different to and better than what went before, and rejected the typical customs, beliefs and practices in various forms of art that went before.”

In view of the three works of art considered as well as the documented quotes supporting what the concepts behind them are, I believe that Modernism is, indeed, typified by the rejection of tradition.  However, I am here referring to the tradition of the viewer of the work of art and not necessarily the artist.  The tradition of the times that preceded the artwork, of the majority of those that considered the Modernist works as art.  Modernism as a period of time that defined and typified change and the questioning of preset ideas and traditions resonates with me as an exciting time in art that challenges my own twenty first century mind.


Harrison, C & Wood, P.  2003.  Art in Theory, 1900-2000 – An Anthology of Changing Ideas.  Cornwall;  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Honour, H & Fleming, J.  1982.  A World History of Art. London;  Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Rorimer, A.  2004.  New Art in the 60s and 70s – Redefining Reality.  London;  Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Stephen, A, McNamara, A & Goad, P.  2006.  Modernism & Australia – Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917-1967.  Melbourne;  Melbourne University Publishing Limited.

Various Authors and Sources.  2010.

No Ordinary Place – The Art of David Malangi. (accessed November 2, 2010).

Various Authors and Sources.  2010.

Photography Changes Everything.

(accessed November 2, 2010).


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