Art 101 for the Young Professional: Basics

“Surely nothing has to listen to so many stupid remarks as a painting in a museum.”

– Edmond & Jules de Goncourt

As a thriving young professional, it is crucial to have well-rounded taste. Just as it’s important to know a good wine from glorified grape juice, understanding the basics of what makes a brilliant work of art is mandatory. It may not be in the spotlight, but the art world is becoming bigger and more exclusive, and collectors are investing in more works for shocking amounts of money. Due to this, you are bound to find yourself conversing about visual culture at some point within your career.

From client galas to exclusive auctions to museum dates, just a simple mention of artistic form or content can have your acquaintances floored. Nobody wants to be known as the guy or girl who says, “I can’t tell a Picasso from my five-year-old niece’s finger painting experiments.” 

Luckily, we have you covered. For a select few weeks, featured here will be an ongoing index of artistic periods, terms, artists, and conversation do’s & don’ts. Consider it the Art History 101 course you never took, simplified, YP style. 

Part One

Part one consists of the basics: Just where and when in the world art has been created over time. Below are three key artistic periods and what you need to know about each of them.

Just like the rest of the world during approximately 1300-1700, the arts went through a major overhaul. New developments in science, literature, philosophy, and religion had artists changing their game in terms of what they saw art could do and how they produce it. More emphasis was placed on human potential and the power of one’s mind to create. The most prolific of all artists during this time, Leonardo da Vinci, made noise by applying scientific theory to his work. The Last Supper, painted in 1498, strategically draws the viewer’s eye closer with a series of planes to a center vanishing point. This angling highlights each apostle’s emotion, as Jesus, the painting’s focal, reveals that one will betray him. Many Renaissance paintings are underlain with a storyline pertaining to religion, bestowing an air of mystery. A Renaissance art conversation can give way to deeper discussion about science, philosophy, or even conspiracy theory (Think Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). It is hard to resist an old world debate; the possibilities are endless.


Early 20th Century – Post War Modernism
Developed following the Industrial Revolution, Modernist Art embodied yet another historical era of human progress. This period includes artists such as Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Piet Mondrian. Artists were notorious for experimenting with several methods during this time, which explains why it is hard to contain all of “modern” art under a single overreaching term. The arts were able to transform much political and social thought through simplifying reality and aestheticizing the machine. Cubism, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and George Braque, presented the image from multiple viewpoints through painted geometric shapes, interlocking planes, and collage. Cubism echoes Einstein’s theory of relativity, conceptualizing that space and time are never fixed. Psychology also had much impact on the arts, with Freudian concepts sparking Surrealism. Surrealists, such as Salvador Dali, practiced painting dream-like landscapes embodying one’s unconscious mind. It is understandable why modernist works of art tend to sell for millions – they involve the most complex fusions of formal and conceptual practices


The contemporary period refers to what is currently occurring in the art world, approximately 1970 to present day. It involves anything from painting, to installation, to videography and photography. Perhaps the most interesting feature of contemporary art is how it comments on current popular culture. Andy Warhol reigns in this scene with his pop-art creations, along with Keith Haring, Edward Ruscha, and rogue graffiti artist Banksy. Much of contemporary art can also considered somewhat controversial, as Young British Artists (YBA) member and famous artist Damien Hirst has displayed. Hirst frequently manifests death in his work, becoming famous for a series of installations featuring animals preserved in formaldehyde. So how can this be considered art you may ask? That is just the fun of contemporary art – going past the unexplainable and into the artist’s mind. 

Photo Credit: Coventry Telegraph

Now that you have some fundamental time periods down, stay tuned for next week’s guide to a few essential terms and phrases that will make you a superstar in an on-the-spot conversation about art.

Cover photo: Nannette Kredlow.