Oftentimes when people hear words “modern art” or “contemporary art”, emotion-charged responses are to be expected.
Some claim it is genius and lifechanging, some say it’s useless, overrated and snobbish. However, it is difficult to truly assign value and have opinions on any matter without first defining its boundaries and qualities. So, what do the terms “modern art” and “contemporary art” actually entail? More importantly, can they be used interchangeably?
It is certainly valid to claim that one can classify art as modern based on the period in which it was produced. Roughly speaking, modern art pieces fall in between 1860s and 1970s – a period known for its artistic inventions and non-traditional choices. Art of that period exhibits emotional liberation, the spirit of hedonism; these are the times when Cubism flowered in all its beauty and innovation, when Futurism brought about fascination with progressive industrial and technological aspects of the world. Contemporary art in that sense presents more challenges. And indeed, how does one define historical boundaries for a name that has the word “contemporary” in it? Is it art that is made in our lifetimes? Or is art that depicts our lifetimes? Does it have to be created by living artists? Most put 1970s as the beginning for the era of contemporary art, but in the grand scheme of things, it is more viable to draw the line not historically but ideologically.
When we really think about the instances we use the term “modern art” in our everyday language, it usually comes down to not merely a certain historical period, but rather the ideology and the concepts that lay behind a certain artwork. What we tend to classify as modern art (sure, in a generalized manner) is art that does now follow a set of traditional expectations, art that draws attention not just by its content, but by its form, art that calls for innovation and in itself is that innovation. Art that is aesthetically challenging. This is where a line should be drawn, though. While the vast part of the list of former characteristics can apply to both modern and contemporary art, the real division between the two is seen in this specific aspect. While modern art is indeed innovative, it is still focused on the art itself and a lot of times the person experiencing it knows how it should be perceived or what emotions it should evoke; most can agree that what they are seeing is art. Contemporary art defies that. It moves to a more viewer’s impression-focused approach. And thus, all of the exhibits of trash and urinals in a museum gain a completely new meaning – they question the aesthetics of art, usually the most defining quality of an artwork. It is up to the viewer to find meaning, to channel the art they are seeing and turn it into an experience for themselves only. The viewer is not presented with the aesthetics but is expected to create it instead. Having established this difference, it becomes evident that despite the two terms being used interchangeably, it is not modern but contemporary art that receives all that backlash from the society.