Modern Art vs. Contemporary Art: Everything you need to know
As you start learning about art movements and styles, it’s common to confuse modern and contemporary art. The words ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ are often used interchangeably to describe something on-trend or new.
‘Modern’ is typically used to describe the present or recent times instead of the remote past, so it’s a fair assumption that modern art was created recently. In reality, that’s not the case. Modern art refers to art produced during a specific period in the past, and many famous examples of modern art are almost 200 years old.
When we talk about art that is of the now, we are talking about contemporary art. ‘Contemporary’ is the correct term to describe art that is of the present times, typically created by living working artists.
This article will outline the key differences in style and themes between modern and contemporary art and how you can identify them.
What is the difference between modern and contemporary art?
Modern and contemporary art are of two different time periods. Modern art refers to art created from the 1880s up to the 1970s. While modern art is more recent than the Renaissance or classical art periods, it is by no means current.
Contemporary art describes current works of art. Usually, those still living and creating artworks or those who have only very recently died or retired.
Modern art is primarily drawing or painting. However, the rapid rise in technology has drastically increased the mediums available to contemporary artists since the modernist period ended.
Today’s contemporary artists are more experimental with their mediums. Contemporary art could be on almost any medium you can think of – video art, object design, tech-enabled artworks, graphic arts, etc.
Contemporary art can be challenging to understand, digest, and classify. Unlike the art periods that came before it, contemporary art is not united by a style and is not easily grouped into different movements like modern art.
Art of the present day is less focused on being visually attractive and more focused on drawing awareness of attention to the day’s issues. The modern era started this shift away from aesthetic beauty, but contemporary art has taken it further and has shifted the focus to the work’s underlying concept.
Contemporary art aims to be thought-provoking and often depicts a broader range of social, economic, and political issues. Topics such as racism, globalization, terrorism, oppression, poverty, and feminism are common themes of contemporary artists.
Contemporary art is often more of a discussion—a conversation between the artist and the audience. The end result is often less important than the process by which the artist arrived there, and you as the audience are sometimes invited to be a part of that process.
Examples of Modern Art:
Modern art describes an era of ‘Modernism’. The world changed rapidly between the 1880s up to the 1970s, and so too did art styles. Completely new art styles and concepts, never seen before, were created during the modernist era, including photography and the idea of abstraction.
Modern artists started exploring dreams, symbolism, abstraction, and personal iconography in their artwork. Other modern artists like Angelo Accardi and David Kracov, started to test non-traditional materials, introducing screen printing, photography, collage, and modern sculpture to the world.
Art movements of the time were often described with various terms that ended with ‘isms. Popular modern art movements included Fauvism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Post-Impressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Expressionism.
Not all modern art styles use the ‘ism’, and other styles include Pop Art, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, De Stijl, Die Brucke, and several other art movements. Famous modern artists include many household names, such as Pablo Piccaso, Salvador Dali, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Goh, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Henri Mattise, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, and. Georgia O’Keeffe.
Examples of Contemporary Art:
Particular artistic styles or traits do not unite contemporary art. However, it can still be identified by technologically advanced mediums or techniques, political or social subject matter, and other current subject matters.
Yayoi Kusama’s popular ‘Infinity Room’ is one example of contemporary art – distinctly contemporary in its use of technology. The ‘Infinity Room’ is a multi-sensory experience, using lights, mirrors, and music. This “experiential art” style is popular in the current contemporary zeitgeist and was just a whisper of an idea in the modernist era.
While contemporary artists can use any medium, including painting, it is common to see the use of multiple media. For example, Banksy has merged graffiti art with performance and installation. Many contemporary artists, such as Alec Monopoly depict satiric scenes in their artwork or incorporate mixed media materials.
Famous contemporary artists include:
Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kasuma, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, Cindy Sherman, David Hockney, Tracy Emin, Banksy, Anish Kapoor, Yoko Ono, Kehinde Wiley, and many more.
Any living working artist of today is classified as a contemporary artist.
What are the similarities between modern art and contemporary art?
Modern art and contemporary art do share some similarities. Both periods can be considered revolutionary. Indeed, we have seen more change in art over the past 200 years than in any other time span in history.
Both modern and contemporary artists aimed to be revolutionary and experiment, but modern art broke down the barriers for Contemporary artists to truly have freedom of artistic experimentation.
It is uncommon to find an artist classified as a modernist who is still alive and working today. However, there can be an overlap. While many art histories mark the 1960s as the start of contemporary art, you can use ‘contemporary’ to describe art made since the aftermath of World War II in 1945. Therefore, there are living artists who may have created modern art in the modernist era.
One such example is David Hockney, now in his eighties, who was a contributor to the pop art movement in the 1960s, but still produces art to this today. This would make Hockney both a modern artist and a contemporary artist. His body of work is split between the two categories.
What is the difference between contemporary art and postmodern art?
Postmodern art is a contemporary art form, but not all contemporary art can be classified as ‘Postmodern‘. All art of the present day is contemporary. This includes art produced in styles seen in previous eras or using traditional formats and subjects.
Postmodernism, however, is united by similar ideals and stylistic elements, and in many ways, Postmodern art aims to contradict aspects of modernism. Postmodern artists often attempt to connect with current social issues deeply. By comparison, modern art was often emotionally detached from society.
From the 1960s onwards, and continuing to the present day, postmodern and contemporary artists attempt to express social and political concerns.
Art movements such as intermedia, installation art, conceptual art, and multimedia are all described as postmodern.
Famous postmodernist artists include:
Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cindy Sherman, Claes Oldenburg, Marina Abramovic, Barbara Kruger, David Bailey, Judy Chicago, Jenny Saville, Jackson Pollock, and more.
Understanding Modernism, Postmodernism & Contemporary Art
Understanding and categorizing different art periods can be confusing, especially when there are no hard dates when one period ends and the other begins.
But lines can often be blurred when trying to categorize art. Contemporary artists can create art that’s modern in style but is not modern art. Postmodern artists can be contemporary, but not all contemporary artists are postmodern.
As you continue your journey to learn and understand different art forms, you will become more familiar with different styles, eras, and classifications. Exploring a variety of fine art galleries can help with this. With greater understanding comes more context, and ultimately a deeper and more thought-provoking experience of the artwork.