It is a common misconception that “Modern Art” and “Contemporary Art” are interchangeable terms to define art in our current context. This is actually incorrect. Modern art and Contemporary art actually describe two vastly different periods of time; Modernism (the umbrella term for Modern art) was a period that lasted from approximately the 1880s to the 1960s, which is now what historians most accurately guess as the beginning of Contemporary Art.
One reason for this misconception may be that at the time, Modernist art was considered Contemporary art, because this term denotates any art being made in the present. Therefore, at some point in history, any and all artworks have been considered contemporary. This shift from what was once considered contemporary, to what we now see as such is a highly debated topic that is profoundly difficult to resolve due to the unstable definition of contemporaneity, and the plethora of questions it raises to critics, art enthusiasts, and art historians alike.
Modernism was an era marked by a multitude of ‘masters of art’, including Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Edouard Manet, among many others who sought to revolutionize art. By rejecting classical and traditional ideals, Modern artists founded a new art based on new forms, practices, and values that were entirely derived from their contemporary culture and dedicated to the future. They believed that by reconfiguring these aesthetics, they could transform modern and political life.
At the beginning of the Modernist period, industrialization, nationalism and imperialism were transforming European life, and many artists used this to grapple with the issues of what constituted their unique modernity. Rather than religious belief, Modernism focused on aesthetics which were entirely different to traditional ones. Traditionally, art was idealized religious and/or mythological figures who were seen as godly and otherworldly, however, Modernism sought to turn this aesthetic on its head, and achieve a conscious sense of the experiences of modern life.
These avant garde artists succeeded in setting European civilization of a new path, and completely changed the ‘ideal’ art form into a diverse range of movements that all emphasized and protested different social, political and artistic aspects of life. The aesthetics/characteristics that were introduced by Modernism have been thoroughly integrated into our contemporary world in a plethora of ways, and have continued to evolve and configure themselves to match the social, political, aesthetic and artistic ideals of our time.
Since the “end of Modernism”, there have continued to be art movements such as Impressionism and Surrealism that continued on the path that Modernism set. However, like our current social and political climate, art has transformed and become more diverse in terms of mediums, methods and approaches. Expanding on what Modernism began, Contemporary art explores and reflects the artists opinions, philosophies and style based upon current events and ideas.
The primary difference between Modern art and Contemporary art is the integration and reaction of society, as well as the actual society in which the art is producing commentary on. Though Modernism is significantly integrated into our contemporary society, there are changes that have helped create a clear difference between the two eras.
The 1960s was dramatically different to our current world. The art forms that we study now were radical and highly controversial, only revered among artists alike. Women or girls not only had unequal rights, but they did not have the freedom to have careers or significant educations. Men and boys were drafted for the Vietnam war. Gay men and women were discriminated against. People with disabilities were thrown into institutions.
Now, we have equality, opportunities, and inclusion. In arts, a plethora of art galleries and museums provide artists with the ability to become known and make a living, compared to the minimal amount in the 60s. We live longer. We have cures for deadly diseases that killed people 50 years ago. We travel frequently. We’re better educated. The internet has provided wider access to the world. However, the fight for justice and equity remains a prominent issue.
Beyond the cultural and social differences between Modernism and Contemporary art, there continue to be artistic differences that help us to characterize and differentiate the two. The key difference between these periods is a conscious shift in focus from aesthetic beauty to the underlying meaning ofan artwork,a prominent mark left by Conceptual art throughout the years. In Contemporary Art, the process and idea behind an artwork are far more important to the artist than the end result.
In simple terms, Modern art was coined as such as it did not aim to build upon previous artistic forms, instead it aimed to experiment and redefine art completely. This period shook critics and audiences while inspiring peers and generations to come. Contemporary art, beyond its open-ended time frame, is a challenging concept that encompasses all the art made today. The very notion of defining this era has become so integrated and personalized within our society, that it is almost the most significant characteristic; challenging and questioning the art being made. Sparking from the Conceptual art movement, Contemporary art values the process by which the artist created a piece over the end result, transforming artists ideas and methods into the art form rather than a formality.