Modern Art and Modernity (Gen Ed 1156)





What role do artistic practices play in the formation of modern culture and society, and how does art foster critical reflection and debate?


Aesthetics & Culture icon with text

Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Benjamin Buchloh, and Maria Gough

What makes art modern? What role has modern art played in the constitution of the modern subject? This course traces art’s transformation from tool of aristocratic and ecclesiastical elites into instrument of broad public instruction and civic debate on controversial topics. Spanning roughly three centuries, from the 1730s to the 1980s, the course traces the emergence of art’s broader social resonance and responsibility, and the belief in its transformative power, which remains a defining aspect of much modernist and avant-garde art produced across Europe and the Americas. 

Anchored by a significant date, each lecture explores the social, political, cultural, and technological conditions of a specific historical moment through the lens of a major artistic event. This enables a demonstration of the ways in which advanced forms of artistic practice have played a fundamental role in the formation of modern culture and society by creating and preserving a space for critical reflection and debate. A wide range of media will be considered, from the traditional fine arts of painting, sculpture, and print-making to photography, photomontage, video, installation, and performance art.

The primary laboratory for our first-hand examination of works of art is the Harvard Art Museums. Our ultimate objective is to establish the relevance of modern art and visual culture—to reveal their potential, in other words—as an indispensable basis for your own engagement and debate with our present historical moment. To this end, we will help you develop and deploy visual and historical literacy, skills that are fundamental to your navigation of the visual sphere today. Such competencies will empower you to make sense of the increasingly visual world in which we live, and, thereby, enable you to play a role in safeguarding for future generations art’s capacity to create a space for human imagination and critical reflection. 

'Gold Marilyn Monroe' painting by Andy Warhol.

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