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.
“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 Ã‰douard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le dÃ©jeuner 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.
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.
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?