disturbing the norm: american art in the twentieth century

It took over two-hundred thousand years of human history for the world’s population to reach one billion people. By 1927 it reached two billion. By 1999 it reached six billion. This rapid growth made the twentieth century a pivotal point in human history. One dominated by technological advancement, war, civil discourse, societal movements, and change.

At the helm of this change was the United States of America. As a leading global power the U.S. ushered in new ways of thinking and viewing the world. Swiss artist Paul Klee once said “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible.” Following this logic, art does not reflect reality- it actively makes reality. The following three works challenge my own perception of reality.

meret oppenheim’s object (1936)

jacob lawrence’s panel 10 (1940)

martha rosler’s balloons (1972)

Rosler, Martha

Each of these works is from a different time, in a different medium, and by different artists. What they have in common, is their ability to disturb the norm. They make you think about the world in a different way. They give you space to insert your own opinions, feelings, and questions.


Meret Oppenheim’s Object bends said reality. André Breton deemed it to be the epitome of surrealism. Breton believed there was a crisis, that society had become stuck. He thought surrealism could cure this by shocking people out of the limits of reality. He once said, “We must not hesitate to bewilder sensation.” Surrealism followed the idea that if you alter an object, it alters your perception of what it is.

Oppenheim’s Object did that. It shocked people- even reportedly making a woman faint. The hair covers every inch of the cup, spoon, and saucer. One can’t help but gag at the thought of drinking out of or using the Object in any traditional sense. It puts the most bizarre improbability on a pedestal, physically confronting the viewer. This forces the audience to ask themselves “why?” and ultimately poses more questions than it answers. Moreover, it speaks to the absurdity of the time, giving way to a broader discussion. The viewer has to think outside of the box and outside of their own reality.


Martha Rosler brings a different reality to light in her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home. In Balloons, she confronts the audience with the reality of the Vietnam war by inserting the horror into the American home. While Americans were aware of the carnage happening across the ocean, they only saw the images on a small screen. This creates a considerable distance, literally and figuratively, between Americans and the Vietnamese people. Thus desensitizing them to the war.

In her work, Rosler always gives the viewer a place to stand. Here it is at the top of the stairs. Looking down upon a Vietnamese father who seems to run towards them carrying the limp body of his son. There is an urgency and darkness that surrounds him, contrasting the bright and modern living room in the background of the piece. Negative space takes up most of the top and right portions of the photograph, which helps draw the eye to the man. It provides the viewer with space to draw in their own conclusions and forces them to think about the reality of war, the safety of their homes, families, and country.

panel 10

Jacob Lawrence similarly forces his viewers outside of their own reality through The Migration Series. He uses a range of colors and subject matters to depict the mass migration of African Americans who fled the South in hopes of a better life in the North. While many Americans of the time felt that “freeing” the slaves and subsequent Jim Crow laws provided many African Americans with “separate but equal” opportunities, Lawrence reveals the reality of being Black in America.

For example, in panel 10, an African American couple looks down at the two bowls in front of them. In relation to the scale of the table, the mismatched bowls are small and a single pan hangs behind them. Lawrence uses grouping to communicate a sense of isolation and captions the image with “They were very poor.” Besides the bowls and pan, the couple has few belongings and little is known about them. This gives the viewer the ability to insert their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs into the painting. One thing is undeniable, the experience of the couple is not an easy one. The rest of the series communicates a similar message and has illuminated the inequalities of our society to millions of Americans to date.


Each of these artists has had its own significant impact on American viewers. These twentieth-century images reflect the diversity of thought that was being cultivated through advancement and revolution at the time. Finally, the average joe began to see representation of themselves in art- it was no longer reserved for the rich and privileged. The mainstream began to accept different perspectives from all races and genders. Artists were no longer put in a box of conventions and more importantly, art was no longer restricted to adhere to a set of norms.

These works have ultimately challenged my perception of what art is and provided me with cultural insights that aid in my understanding of not only art and art history but the world.