Evolution of art since the 1920s

Arches to art: The Mulvane Art Museum is at Washburn's epicenter. The upcoming exhibition, "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America," will open this Friday, Feb. 14, on the second floor.

The world of art is intricate and potentially difficult to understand from an outside perspective. It sometimes helps to look to the past in order to better understand the present.

As we enter a new decade, the time is ideal to look back at how our world has changed since the 1920s – specifically in the world of art.

“In terms of major influences in the 1920s, you would have had Europe recovering from World War I in North America,” said Kelly Thor, chair and associate professor of art history. “It shattered a lot of optimism of the earlier part of the century. Although artists, philosophers, musicians, poets and playwrights had been questioning a lot of the social conventions, they are now questioning political systems and religious and social structures.”

Art seems to have always been born out of society questioning something and constantly looking for new ways to push the boundaries. 

“You have something called the Armory Show in 1817 that's largely, critically lambasted,” said Thor. “But then there’s Stieglitz, the one who so-called discovers O’Keeffe and European artists like Cezanne and Picasso. He helped to acquaint the United States with modern works, which is going to be important for why the US takes the lead in art after World War II.”

After these post war movements changed art for the foreseeable future, the industry of art museums took on a new role and gave marginalized artists a platform.

“Museum professionals figured it out. Museum goers and appreciators figured it out, that there was space that needs to be filled,” said Brett Beatty, assistant director of operations and programs at the Mulvane Art Museum. “The museum has kind of evolved with society to try and fill that space.”

While museums and studios have moved forward into thinking about art in its many different mediums, the art market continues to be dominated by several outside factors including fashion trends, interior design and collectors.

“The same biases of 1920s still persist to some degree,” said Thor. “If you go to any museum today, you're still going to find lots more paintings and sculptures than you are photography, let alone film or video or ephemeral installations. What people tend to buy and collect tends to be objects that are more traditional.”

The Mulvane Art Museum has worked to keep diverse art in its collection – providing a platform to several artists in different mediums.

“We try to give a voice to artists, to cultures and to figures in history,” said Beatty. “We try to bring that to contemporary culture in a relevant way. Museums have become not just places to go see cool stuff, but they have become small cultural meccas where you can engage with art or philosophy or opinions of people that you don't necessarily run into every day.”

Moving into 2020, art is becoming more inclusive and representative of many cultures, voices and ideas. For artists who are seeking ways to find their voice, Thor offers a piece of advice.

“When you weigh into an issue, don't do it blindly,” said Thor. “Do it having done your homework and having thought through the issue from multiple perspectives. Then honor the fact that you get to weigh in now. This is your voice, your perspective, what do you want your audience to take away from this?”

Edited by Adam White, Wesley Tabor, Jason Morrison

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