Arts·Art 101

Art 101: How an art movement gets its name (and why your uncle can't be an Abstract Expressionist)

What's Surrealism? Why is someone a Cubist? Answers to the art movement questions you've always been too afraid to look stupid by asking.

What's Surrealism? Why is someone a Cubist? Answers to the art movement questions you've always wondered


Hey guys! Maybe this story will sound familiar. So a friend of mine was having dinner with his family last week, and his uncle made a big announcement. He said, "I'm an Abstract Expressionist painter now!" And then he showed everybody a huge canvas covered in paint splatter.

This video is about why that dude definitely isn't an Abstract Expressionist — and why you can't be one, either.

Watch the video:

Art 101: Movements

3 years ago
Duration 5:29
Professor Lise tells us all about art movements and why your uncle can't be an abstract expressionist even if he wanted to.

Hi! I'm Professor Lise. I have 89 BAs, 42 Masters and 13.5 PhDs and I'm here today on Art 101 to tell you why the names of art movements like Abstract Expressionism matter. A movement, by the way, is what happens when a bunch of people get together and say they're making art, and then everybody else says, "OK."

Let's get into it!

Remember Cubism, the form of art pioneered by art history's top douche-bro Pablo Picasso and his bud, George Braque? They spent a lot of time painting portraits, musical instruments and tables at cafes, but the way they did it was pretty radical. In a world that was obsessed with painting the world around them as realistically as possible, they were making paintings that looked really flat, not very realistic at all, and almost like they were trying to show you every possible angle of an object or a person at the same time.


So how did Cubism get its name? Like a lot of art movements, that story begins with a crappy, resentful person. Not Picasso, but a critic. In the case of Cubism, it was a guy named Louis Vauxcelles. He went to see work by Braque and Picasso and was less than impressed at how different from all the other art it looked. So when he wrote about their paintings, he talked about the work as "cubic weirdness," describing it as "bizarreries cubique."

Picasso and Braque took that insult and ran with it. Cubism remained the name of the movement, and these two guys (and some of their friends) upped their game. They kept on making paintings that threw linear perspective in the trash and played around with ideas of space and time, and Cubism became a hallmark of what we call modern art.


This story brings up an important point. Yes, the word Cubism covers the visual style of paintings by Braque and Picasso, but the word has more specificity than that. And by specificity, what I mean is: the word doesn't just describe art that looks like it's made of little cubes. It describes a time (the early 20th century), a place (Paris) and a set of ideas (they were trying to take traditional ways of painting apart, while being rebels who ate cheese and baguettes). An art movement is specific. It's a specific person in a specific time and place, doing something specific.

Here's another example: just because somebody makes a painting of a fish eating a pancake doesn't make them a Surrealist painter. If you're painting a clock melting in a desert where light bulbs are having a sandwich party, that could seem like a pretty surreal painting, but here's why fish, pancakes, light bulbs and sandwiches do not equal Surrealism.

Surrealism, the movement that started in the 1920s in Europe, was a literary movement as well as a painterly and sculptural one. It was founded by a poet named Andre Breton, and it was a movement meant to look at things that were irrational or nonsensical — to protest the sort of art, and the sort of thinking, that came from logic and reason.

Surrealists hoped they could instead make art that came straight from their unconscious, that they could create a mainline from their hand to the deepest part of their brain. And that's how you get works in the 1920s like teacups made out of fur or a painting of a pipe that is not a pipe.


Confusing stuff.

Let's try one more. You may be hearing the word "minimalism" lately, especially while your uncle is throwing away all his possessions because he watched 40 episodes of Marie Kondo and now fancies himself a Minimalist.

It's not true! He's not a Minimalist!

Minimalism — what some people might call the most boring art movement that ever existed — emerged in America in the 1960s, kind of named by a British writer named Robert Wollheim who was discussing this new form of art that used super simple elements. He called it "minimal art." It mostly involved surly men like Donald Judd who made things that looked like boxes and who liked looking really serious while drinking wine. Or Agnes Martin, who based all of her paintings on a precise grid. Minimalism was a form of abstract art, and it was trying to do some of the same stuff Cubism did before it — like getting away from the idea that art should be imitating the natural world.


As we've just learned, art movements are specific to a time, a place, a set of ideas and a bunch of grumpy artists (and even grumpier critics). They're also important! Art movements help us understand what artists were trying to accomplish. They shaped history, they could influence society and they were a really good reason for artists doing radical things to write manifestoes and get noticed by the public.

They helped us distinguish different forms of art by defining unique categories. Names like Cubism and Surrealism helped the public to understand the difference between different types of art with different concerns.

OK, so why can't you or my friend's weird uncle be an Abstract Expressionist? It's because Abstract Expressionism was over by the 1960s. Uncle Doug is not trying to react to abstract painting of the early 20th century. He's not trying to take down the patriarchal system of linear perspective or find out how abstract painting can make you feel.

(Also, he doesn't drink nearly enough to qualify.)

See you and your entire family next time for more Art 101!


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.