“Coming Back to Traditional Art”

I’ve always been an art fan, but never a modern art fan. Give me Rembrandt. Give me Michelangelo. But never give me Rothko or Picasso.

In this essay, I explore a brief excursion on the transition from traditional art to modern art, and the reasons why our artists today should consider the art of centuries ago. This essay was published in the Summer 2010 edition of Celebrating What’s Important to Me, an anthology of children’s essays published by Creative Communications, Inc.


To some people, modern art is a wonderful, creative display. There are many cases in which the modern painting or sculpture evokes a sense of admiration from the audience. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for instance, has attracted thousands. The Saatchi Gallery of London hosts some of the best-known works of any era across the globe.

However, when modern art is compared to traditional art, particularly that which was created between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, there is a huge difference. Traditional art prompts clarity, details, and purpose to convey some story or meaning that reflects the hardships or triumphs of people. Modern art has not done this. In the areas of paintings and sculptures, it has not achieved fine detail or high quality. It has obscured the detail and hidden the meaning so that most viewers are left to wonder, “What is the purpose to the art that we’re looking at?”

Art is a portal through which the artist expresses his emotions and feelings. It has a definite purpose and meaning to it. It conveys an idea or story through crafted, time-honored means. If artists and viewers wish to know how to attain or discern excellent art, they must study the arts from centuries ago. They must see the results that have come from nearly five thousand years of work to see the beauty, excellence, and clear purpose that can be defined as excellent art.


2 thoughts on ““Coming Back to Traditional Art”

  1. “It has obscured the detail and hidden the meaning so that most viewers are left to wonder, ‘What is the purpose to the art that we’re looking at?'”
    But isn’t that the point of Modern Art– not to be immediately clear, but to make the viewer think about what the piece could mean, and try to understand that there could be multiple layers of meaning to it (and what those layers are)?
    I think that Modern Art is the visual art version of the Modernist movement in literature, circa early 1900s. That movement was about seeing words in a different way: Not necessarily as a vehicle for meaning, but as entities in and of themselves. Modernist writings were a deviation from the long-held traditions, and the point was trying to get people to see beyond those traditions.
    Modern art is supposed to be abstract, and serves a purpose in doing so. I don’t know what your feelings are on Modernist literature (fodder for another blog post! :D), but Modern Art can be similar to the techniques used by Modernist writers in their work. Compare Pollock to Faulkner, Picasso to T. S. Eliot or Franz Kafka, there would be similarities.
    While Modern Art might not be appealing to everyone, it does serve a purpose. I think it would be unfair to hold it to the same standard as traditional art, when they are about portraying two different things (or portraying the same thing in different ways). It would be like comparing a discussion of butterflies to a discussion of quantum physics: they are related in some aspects, but can’t be held to the same standard. What do you think?

    1. Yes, there certainly is a point to Modern Art: to allow the viewer to discern the meaning behind the art, and perhaps to find meaning for himself. I do agree that Modern art and traditional art each has its own standards that sometimes can’t be compared with the other.

      However, I believe that the standards of traditional art have been lost in Western culture, and I want to see those standards come back into our culture. Sadly, barely anyone in the today’s museum exhibits displays something as detailed as the paintings of Rembrandt or Caravaggio. Even Picasso used to paint as elegantly as they, before he trended to things more abstract. Nevertheless, I know that countless people resonate with Modern art because they find something of value in whatever meaning is hidden behind the paint or sculpture, yet I choose to prefer the meaning I find in traditional art, because I admire the unique skill wrought in the paintings that excel the details of a photograph.

      I’m sure there will continue to be artists like the Modern ones we’ve described. Even on Northwestern’s campus, I find bizarre exhibits such as paintings of skinned deer or a machine that smashes eggs. I’m guessing the artists were encouraging people to think outside the box toward something as menial as game or eggs, or to see these objects in a different light than what they’re normally used to seeing.

      Regardless, I love whatever paintings match the quality of the Renaissance or Realist art, but I’ve definitely found some Modern art that has that same kind of detail. (See “Frank,” by Chuck Close https://collections.artsmia.org/index.php?page=contemporary#) It comes close to a Rembrandt self-portrait, but I prefer the oil paintings of those Renaissance oldies. They make me happy. 🙂

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