A Quick Overview of Twentieth Century Art

Art in the 19th Century

Art in the 21st Century

1500-year-old Bamaya Buddha, destroyed as idolatrous by the Taliban, March 2001
The flag of the Taliban government -- easily the world's least imaginative flag.

Art in the 20th Century

Art is the whole point of civilization. [n.1]

Yet in all the Turn of the Century hoopla -- as one best-of list after another hit the airwaves -- the most noticeable gap was the absence of awards for best 100 art works. Of course, this shouldn't be a surprise. Rigidly hierarchical standards of excellence are to the art world as salt is to a slug. If we could objectively state that one painting is better than another, then the art world would be thrown into chaos.

So let's get right to it!

To determine the 100 most important art works of the Century, I simply counted up the number of times a particular work of art was reproduced in the following history books.

For example, the fact that Grant Wood's American Gothic illustrates three art history books, while Edward Hopper's Nighthawks illustrates five books is a pretty good indication that the experts consider Nighthawks to be the more important of the two.

I also gave a work a few bonus points if it was displayed more prominantly than its peers, such as on the cover, or in color among mostly greyscale illustrations.

Because even the most artistically inclined of us probably don't recognize all these works by name, I've linked most of these artworks to free, non-profit sites that display them. Unfortunately, because the copyright police are ever vigilant, sites that display modern art are always in danger of being shut down, and the odds are pretty good that my links will send you blindly off into the ether. Therefore, to refresh your memory in the absence of a real picture, I've also included a brief yet helpful description of what each of these 100 finest artworks looks like. That way, you'll know which painting is that one with the limp watches.

The 100 most important art works of the 20th Century

The Books I Counted:


[n.1] Well, the arts, sciences, and philosophy in general. If you never progress beyond eating, reproduction and the avoidance of predators, you might as well be a squirrel. [Back]

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Last updated February 2003

Copyright © 2003 Matthew White