What’s the Deal With Modern and Contemporary Art?

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “I/My kid could paint that!” while sitting in a museum, I would probably have enough for a long distance call on a pay phone that would last several minutes. This is of course assuming I lived in an alternate universe where pay phones still existed. Look, I get it, sometimes the stuff they hang in galleries and museums is a little hard to understand, but it is there for a reason. In the interest of saving my ear from the comments of those who think that art that looks a bit simple does not require skill and for the sake of diffusing useful knowledge, I’m starting a series of articles on breaking down modern and contemporary art into understandable chunks.

Let’s start with one of the biggest stumbling blocks I see people hit when encountering that “newish” stuff in the museum. Modern and contemporary art are not interchangeable terms. Modern Art, despite its name, does not refer to the art that is being produced right now. In fact, most would argue the modern art period ended at least 50 years ago. Contemporary art is what most folks use for what is being made now. You may also see postmodernism used, but in this lady’s not so humble opinion, that only really applies to a specific movement, not everything that is being made.

Edouard Manet, Le Dejuner sur l'Herbe
Modern Art starts here. (According to some people anyway)

“Ok, so Modern Art ended in the “˜60s – when did it start?” I hear you wondering. Well uhhh… that sort of depends on who you ask. Modern Art is a broad meta-category of art, not a small self-applied category, so a lot of different things can be argued to be part of it. I typically associate Modern Art’s start with the Post Impressionists as the first sort of proto-modern artists. Of course, a lot of other movements fed into this. You have the Realists rejecting the idealised figure, Impressionists throwing out the idea that the studio is the best place to create art, and Whistler popularising “art for art’s sake.” If you really want to pin down a moment for Modern Art to start though, a popular opinion is that it started with Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe). That, my lovelies, was painted in 1863. Still, I think you really see the proper start of Modern Art in the 1890s roughly. There are hundred year old paintings that are Modern Art. This is why you may hear a bit of snickering coming from the art crowd if someone conflates Modern and Contemporary Art.

Now that we have a timeline, lets look at some of the traits that bind the various and sundry Modern Art movements together.

Probably the biggest item on the books is a desire to experiment. The old traditions of what makes good art were discarded in favor of finding new ways to create and express. Some common themes include making the medium more evident in the work (visible brush strokes, tool marks, etc.), using different stylizations to affect the message (this has happened somewhat in the past, but Modern Art sees it happening at a rapid fire pace, with several changes sometimes happening within the body of work of a single artist), and pushing at the boundaries of what art even is.

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
And remember everybody, Picasso painted this five years before the plot of Downton Abby starts.

The second big change is that, while Modern Art is still a very Western art movement, inspiration and stylistic influences start coming from a far wider set of sources. Charmingly, several artists claim inspiration from “Primitive Art.” Of course, when they say primitive, they mean “not by white people.” Blessedly, this isn’t all colonialistic boot stomping. There is also a marked fall in “nationalistic” styles. Styles tend to be bound more by ideals than locations now that travel is getting so much easier.

Finally, and this is somewhat related to the previous two, Modern Art favors abstraction to naturalistic representations.

Contemporary Art, on the other hand, is the term used for more or less all the art from World War II onward. Yes, that overlaps with Modern Art some. If you want to try and pull apart the nest of mating snakes that is the transition from one art style to the next to find a debarkation point, you can, but I think you’ll be happier just accepting that they tend to overlap.

Irrational Geometrics, Pascal Dombis
Irrational Geometrics by Pascal Dombis, a digital art instillation.

It’s a little tricky trying to define exactly what’s going on with Contemporary Art as a whole, largely because it is still happening, but also because it’s pretty scattershot with its ideals and goals. There are a few things that crop up frequently though. There is a trend of lessening the distinction between high art and low art. You also see a good deal of further questioning of what is art, taken now to new levels with concepts like process art and conceptual art where the finished object is no longer the central focus of the artwork. Contemporary art also does not put abstraction on a pedestal the same way Modern Art often did. This is sort of part and parcel with not making as big a distinction between high and low art. And there is this whole wide world of new media that the digital age has brought to us, that is only just beginning to see full utilization.

So now we all know the difference between modern and contemporary art, right? No one is going to raise my blood pressure by calling art made today “modern”? Good. I now open the floor to comments and questions. There will be future installations of this column dedicated to other badly understood art movements and artists. You will learn such useful tidbits as why a urinal tipped on it’s side belongs in a museum gallery, why Van Gogh was not an impressionist, and why you cannot just spill paint on a canvas and sell it to an art collector for a billion dollars. So how about it, Persephoneers? Any questions about the art world you are dying to have answered?

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

23 replies on “What’s the Deal With Modern and Contemporary Art?”

The only thing I don’t like about contemporary art and contemporary literature is that I think depressing and disturbing work is valued a little more than life-affirming work. I think it’s harder to make something positive and still have it not suck, personally, but the negative is sometimes seen as more “brave” or “authentic” or something.

But actually I know very little about contemporary art and I’m mostly talking about writing.

Dramatic has always been taken more seriously than comedic though hasn’t it? I dunno, but I don’t think I can point to a period in time when it hasn’t been the case. How many comedic works make it into literary cannon? How many that don’t involve some massive tragedy? There was for a while there a real rejection of happy endings full stop for a while, though I can say at least in film (my deepest area of knowledge) that seems to have stopped, and having your characters make it through the film and come out happy is no longer seen as the Hollywood cop out. Still there is a critical bias against works that aim to please rather than openly challenge their audience, but I don’t think that is new, or exclusive to contemporary works.

I am with you though, those who do uplifting stuff well deserve a lot of respect because it is really hard to balance feel good with good art.

Mmm, I think there has been a shift, at least in Western writing. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen didn’t get criticized much for their happy endings. Shakespeare’s comedies are respected along with his tragedies, and the same goes with the classic Greek plays like The Birds or Lysistrata. If someone were writing poetry in Whitman’s exultant, expansive mode today, I’m not sure how well it would be received, though I am in the middle of trying to write more positive poetry. I actually think happier writing may be challenging to a cynical contemporary audience.

I don’t know as much about painting, but it does seem like as you wander into the modern and contemporary sections of museums all the sudden things suddenly become way more brooding and fucked up, you know? Obivously there’s brooding and fucked up pre-20th century art, and cheerful contemporary art, but still, the disturbed stuff seems much more prevalent in the recent collections.

But what do I know.


I’m actually a big fan of both modern and contemporary art, with the exception of color studies. I just don’t understand color studies. Like, Mark Rothko what’s a girl got to do to throw a few distinct blobs of color on a canvas and rake in millions of dollars? But otherwise I’m down with abstract art. We have a pretty spectacular modern and contemporary art museum in my city, and my grandmother, who used to be an art teacher, used to take me there all the time when I was growing up. I learned from a young age that art can look all kinds of different ways, which I think made it easier.

One of my favorite artists is a contemporary artist named Julie Mehretu, who does massive, massive works that feel like a combination of the chaos of a Jackson Pollack with the order of maps. It’s really hard to describe, but here are a few examples. Just imagine that some of them take up an entire gallery wall!


As a former art school person (video major), I am definitely used to the debates over what is art, why, and how much better/worse one style is because of [totally opinion-based arguments].

My favorite artist has long been Robert Rauschenberg, whose work is often lumped into ‘junk art.’ I was fortunate enough to get a private tour of his studio in Florida. At one point I almost tripped over a box – which contained a work he’d done with Jasper Johns that had sold for around 7 million. I walked a lot more carefully from that point on. Somewhere in my backups I have pics of the stuff I was allowed to take pics of; one of my faves is of the boathouse that was out back, which I heard was destroyed the next day when a hurricane hit (I was leaving town that night so just missed it). So, even while it was always hard to explain to people why his work was so important/significant, it now also has a huge personal meaning to me as well, which is much easier for people to ‘get.’

I would disagree that what is art is a totally opinion based argument. I think most of us bring some set of objective measures and scales to the debate. That said, we can all argue the merit of any set of objective measures, but it isn’t just opinion that motivates the argument. Philosophy of art is heavy stuff.

And I think a lot of art now has gotten to the point that you need someone to give you a little bit of a decoder ring for it, particularly as artistic literacy isn’t always taught in school or seen as a necessary skill. If you were never taught about focal points, it’s kinda hard to be impressed that a Jackson Pollack painting doesn’t have one, for instance. Once people manage to crack it open the language of visual arts, their ability to “get” contemporary art goes way up.

Sure; what I was trying to say is that I have been subjected to a lot of the ‘I don’t like it, therefore it’s not art/any fool could have done that’ discussions with people who really have no interest in art nor of learning anything about art (and therefore they only make arguments based on their opinion, not from a place of knowing or caring about art or their motives). Of course, the people I am talking about are not interested in any sort of intellectual debate on anything and pride themselves on being ‘simple folk’ who like being ignorant of all that ‘city’ stuff. So, while most of us here on this site might have some sort of scales, not everyone that I interact with is so… educated.

Sometimes someone saying ‘that’s crap’ is someone without a thought-out reason behind it, and they’re not going to put any effort into digging deeper than that :)

Ahh. The old “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,” folks. They suck. That is an attitude I have nothing for. I kinda feel like if you bothered to come to a gallery in the first place you should want to learn about it.

Edit: That is except to be as vocal about explaining art as possible. I will happily spread knowledge where ever I can find someone to listen to me.

Something that I appreciate about the art world these days is that it is becoming less of a class luxury and that the barriers between high brow and low brow art are blurring. Street artists are receiving recognition, but studio artists–as far as I know–aren’t losing their audiences as a result. The last time I was at the SAM, I really enjoyed the wide variety of art portrayed. There was a lot of art from the 1800s and before, but there were several moving contemporary sculptures and paintings as well. I’m really excited to read more of these pieces!

Oh man, the place I teach is also a gallery and last year they had a show for a group of street arists at in the next gallery over (same building) was a show for the state’s old guard women’s artist society. They opened on the same night. It was an awesome mix of humanity.

My issue with contemporary art is that I only have one way of evaluating it: if I don’t find it visually interesting – if I don’t want to really spend time looking , being intrigued/excited/moved by what I’m seeing, then it’s bad. With earlier art movements, I can also look at technique, subject, historical context, comparison to other works by contemporaneous artists, etc., as well as my personal reaction to it emotionally. I might not like it, but I can appreciate it more easily. Whereas with contemporary art, if I don’t like it, that’s kind of it…

I’m not totally sure I follow. I make judgement calls on art based on technique, subject, comparison with other artists, etc. all the time. Contemporary art still has all those things. The tricky bit is that unlike movements of the past, we haven’t had all the crap filtered out for us yet. Sometimes art I consider bad is hanging in galleries. We may have the art world loving our age’s Bouguereau while our Van Gogh toils in obscurity. There isn’t really a cure for that.

unlike movements of the past, we haven’t had all the crap filtered out for us yet

Ha, very good point.

I suppose what I mean is that if the work is abstract – which most contemporary art I’ve seen is – then I have less to work with to place it. Yes, of course, an artist is using some technique or other to make the art, but it’s their own. And often the artist seems to rely on the blurb beside the piece to make it meaningful and/or interesting, and I find that really irritating.

I think there is a ballence to be struck there. I don’t really mind if someone uses the title line or a sentance or two to give a work some context, but you have to get me to care enough about your work in the first palce to make me read the card. If not then you’ve probably gone off the conceptual deep end and aren’t making good art anymore. That said, (and this may be because one of the places I work is also a gallery) I think figurative work is coming back in vouge. You can paint people again without being told your work is “illustraitive”.

Edit: note to self, quit trying to post from phone.

 I don’t really mind if someone uses the title line or a sentance or two to give a work some context, but you have to get me to care enough about your work in the first palce to make me read the card.

Yes, exactly. It probably says something about my tastes that my favourite London gallery is the Portrait Gallery – work of whatever era, I love it there:)

I and my degree can vouch for everything you just said! o/

An anecdote I could add to this is visiting the Pompidou centre with my BF for the first time, and him, artistic but sceptical about high-brow contemporary art, being surprised that he actually enjoyed the floor with contemporary art more than the one where they have all the foolproof, worth-gazillions kind of modernist classics. There’s no need to be intimidated by contemporary art. For every pretentious third-rate conceptualist out there, there are other truly gifted artists creating poignant, beautiful, witty, enjoyable work.

I believe art is a form of communication, and I find that good art usually connects with the spectator and communicates itself well. If a piece is just confusing to you as a viewer, and you can’t get it on any level (aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually, etc.) no matter how you look at it, it might simply not be very good. Nobody’s saying you have to like it all.

Pompidou! I remember going there when I was younger–between 6th and 7th grade. Prior to that museum, my idea of art was strongly rooted in realism, which was why I loved parts of the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay. I think the value of my experience at Pompidou was that it pushed my own perceptions on art and who could make it and who it was that determined what made “art.” I also ended up with a migraine about halfway through that visit, but I blame the fluorescent lighting and the glass tubed escalators.

Absolutely. Admittedly I think art may be getting a little overly self-referential, which can lead to some difficulty in understanding for those not used to the language of visual arts. Still, I think it’s more accessible than a lot of people think because we have this cultural stereotype of the artist who is disconnected from reality and into making obscure things that mere mortals may not comprehend. Good artists are almost never that person.

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