Breaking the rules of art

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If art can be used as a weapon to challenge society and politics, it can turn on itself as well. Since the beginning of the 20th century, many artists have worked with art forms in order to modernise art. To what extent has art been modernised by artistic movements?

I. Emancipating from a traditional definition of art

1) The artistic avant-garde

The term “avant-garde” is used to refer to artists who experimented with their art form in order to create new boundaries. Examples of avant-garde artistic movements include Cubism, Futurism and pop art. In 1914 in poetry, Imagism led the way for modernism. Poets such as Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and T.E. Hulme focused on fleeting moments such as a train coming into a station, a leaf falling, etc. Imagist poets believed that everything could be beautiful and they wanted to glorify and reproduce everyday moments. They wrote short poems of a few lines to reproduce the brief nature of their subjects. Their work thus completely differed from the long lyrical poems of Romantic poets.

In American painting, abstract expressionism emerged after World War II with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The subjects of their paintings are never easily discernible as they use the dripping method popularised by Pollock.

2) Contemporary forms of art

In the late 1980s in the United Kingdom, a new group of artists emerged: the Young British Artists. The YBAs include visual artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Their goal was to move away from the search for beauty in art to an art form that shocks viewers by using unpleasant imagery.

They also challenged the very definition of the art form: they moved away from traditional forms of visual art (paintings, photographies, collages) to include performance art and different objects. For instance, one of the most striking artworks from the YBAs is Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991): a dead shark in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde.

II. Art in the consumer society

1) The banalisation of art

With pop artists such as Andy Warhol, art further moved away from its traditions. Pop art is a criticism of the consumer society through artworks in which everyday objects are incorporated. For instance, Warhol depicted thirty-two cans of soup in Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) for the thirty-two flavours offered by the brand.

This type of work allowed a questioning of the nature of art: art was not elitist and elevated anymore, it could be involved and revolve around popular culture and everyday life.

2) Denouncing the commodification of art

Artists can also choose to be polemical, such as street artist Banksy. While in New York in October 2013, he installed a small stall close to Central Park, where an anonymous man was selling unidentified spray paintings for sixty dollars. Banksy later revealed he was the artist, making these artworks suddenly much more valuable. Through this stunt, he participated in the deconsecration of art: art is to be accessible and consumed by everyone, not just by wealthy privileged collectors in museums.

Banksy’s critique went further in 2018 when his 2006 piece, Girl with a Balloon, self-shredded while it was sold at Sotheby’s. The artist explained that he did not want his art sold at auction and that he built the shredding system to make sure the art piece would be destroyed if it was ever to become part of the art business.


Sotheby’s is an auction house in the UK and the US. It is famous for auctioning artworks, collectibles, real estate and jewellery to wealthy buyers.