This field encompasses the development of art since the late eighteenth century, in particular the modernizing movements and their respective counterreactions. Twentieth-century art, in particular, critically tested, dissolved, and further developed the traditional understanding of art, an understanding that is still common today. Probably at no other time in its history has art undergone such a deep-reaching change to its foundations and appearance. Almost nothing is like it was before. The familiar results of this process are quickly named with keywords like abstraction, object art, installation, and performance, with numerous well-known names of artists, with the surrealisms and expressionisms, with the emphatic escalation and total debilitation of the author. But art’s becoming questionable to itself also tests the discipline of art history and its methods. How can one adequately understand this deep-reaching process of the displacement, transformation, and expansion of art? What models are suitable for describing it?
These questions mark the central content of modern art history. They signal that the changes art has undergone also have had repercussions for art history. The widespread talk of “classical” modernism or the extreme economical valuations of this art should not fools us in this regard. The understanding they signal does not at all correspond with the academic consensus.
In Basel, engaging with modern art can always draw on the significant inventories of the city’s collections, some of which (like those of American abstract expressionism and minimal art) have themselves already made history. Modern art serves as a good foundation, both historically and methodologically, for proceeding into the field of contemporary art or for looking back at premodern art history so as to uncover connections between the modern and the premodern. When modern art radically questions itself so as to acquire productive possibilities of a new kind, then this also presents a chance and a challenge for scholarship.