What is the difference between Modern art and contemporary art?
Generally, the response to this question goes something like this: “Contemporary” is a term that refers to art made today by living artists. “Modern” art refers to the art movement of Modernism—with a capital M—which began around the 1850s and concluded mid-20th century.
While this general response places these terms chronologically, it does not describe what the differences actually are. This is because the term “contemporary” is not the name of an art movement. And while the term “contemporary art” is formally deployed by art institutions, what it delineates is the Post-Modern movement. So, now, this sets up the more accurate question: What is the difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism?
These are two umbrella terms, each marked by points of rebellion against forces that once restricted the definition of art. Modernism is rejection of Realism in favor of new modes of painting and a critical examination of art itself. The movement began with the Impressionists and cut the path toward Abstract Expressionism. Eventually, the abstraction of Modernism became the prevailing notion of art and the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg narrowed the definition of art to only these ideas.
Post-Modernism is a rebellion against Greenberg’s standards and aimed to, once again, open the definition of art. As a result, Post-Modern art collapses hierarchies between high culture and popular culture, erases the boundary between art and life, and refuses any authority that restricts the definition of art to any single understanding.
This commentary originally ran January 25, 2012