The Difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art and the Fine Line in Between

What is the Difference Between Modern Art and Contemporary Art, picture of woman gazing at panorama painting

Defining the difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art

Modern Art and Contemporary Art have a tendency to be used interchangeably.

While the terms ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ are essentially synonyms used to describe the present moment, when used in the context of art, the two words can mean completely different things. To understand what is the difference between modern art and contemporary we will investigate the period of time, influences, and role of each movement and observe examples from each style.

What is Modern Art?

Modern Art refers to primarily visual art produced roughly between the years 1860 and 1970 and originally emerged alongside the broader societal developments of Modernism. As a product of the Industrial Revolution during the early nineteenth century, urbanism fostered the gathering of intellectual communities while the harsh working conditions of factories inspired sympathies for the working class. The combination brought about a spirit of revolt against old ways both philosophically and artistically.

New technologies also opened new doors for creative exploration. Namely, the proliferation of the camera provided the ability to document people, places, and events, thereby transforming the function of art and painting.

Dorothy Catherine Draper crop
One of the oldest photographic portraits known, 1839 or 1840, made by John William Draper of his sister, Dorothy Catherine Draper.

Examples of Modern Art

Preceding the emergence of modern art, movements such as Neoclassicalsim, focussed on achieving beauty and perfection through realism. Through this aim for perfection, artists used depictions of classical scenes and mythological figures to express the ideals of virtue and morality.

Vigee Lebrun–Julie Lebrun as Flora
Julie Lebrun as Flora; by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun; c.1799; oil on canvas; 129.5 x 97.8 cm; Museum of Fine Arts (St. Petersburg, Florida, USA)

But with the rise of Modernism, and the availability of photographic depictions of a scene, Modern Art sought to depart from classical convention and progress towards greater abstractions in detail and form. Seeking to portray what a camera couldn’t reproduce, emphasis was placed on the individual emotions and impressions of the artist.

Impressionism

The first ‘-ism’ of Modern Art was Impressionism, prominent until the 1880s. Here, rather than aiming for life-like accuracy and detail, the thick and pronounced brush strokes of the artist took center stage in the paintings. Rather than what was perceived, attention was given to how something was perceived, and the perceptual experiences of artists were relayed through their works, often focussing on anomalies of color and light. Two of the most recognized Impressionists from this time were the French painters Edouard Manet and Claude Monet.

Cassatt Mary At the Theater 1879
Mary Cassatt, Lydia Leaning on Her Arms (in a theatre box), 1879.

Expressionism

Expressionism followed at the beginning of the 20th century. In contrast to the perceptual experience of real-world scenes, artists began to use painting as a medium of emotional expression, capturing the inner state of the artist or subject in a painting. In Expressionism, themes like loneliness and anxiety are explored through loose, painterly swirls and abstract compositions.

Edvard Munch 1893 The Scream oil tempera and pastel on cardboard 91 x 73 cm National Gallery of Norway
Edvard Munch, 1893, The Scream, oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73 cm, National Gallery of Norway.

Dadaism

Other Modern Art movements that followed were Cubism and Dadaism. Both these movements abstracted form and composition even further to explore not only inner mental states but also the nature of reality itself and its multidimensional potential.

At the same time, the subconscious of a person began to be tackled through Dadaism and Surrealism inspired by the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Here the rational world was challenged and fantasy and irony became major themes. In addition, these modernist ideas were also becoming adopted in music and theater.

https://youtu.be/U4WlTijUNc0

Pop Art

Finally, the development of Pop Art, with its clearly defined aesthetics of bright, bold, eye-catching imagery, created a bridge to what we now call the era of Contemporary Art. Taking us into the 1960’s Pop Art borrowed from the cynism of Dadaism and applied humor, irony, and influences of popular culture and commercial advertisement to provide social commentary.

What is Contemporary Art?

The rise of Modern Art reflected the cracks in society during the two world wars, but after the second world war, the world was in a state of rebuilding anew from the ashes. The world became disillusioned with the pretenses of white picket fences and were demanding an end to wars and the expansion of civil rights. Other influences at the end of the 1960s included increased access to travel, media, and education which expanded political and social consciousness.

While Contemporary Art generally refers to art created in one’s own lifetime, the period of Contemporary art is largely determined to have started in the 1970s and continues to this day.

Examples of Contemporary Art

Experimentation with new mediums is a defining aspect of the contemporary movement. During this time innovations in Installation Art, Performance art, and Video Art made waves throughout the art world. In the 1970’s video art first came on the scene with artists like Vito Acconci and Peter Campus.

Photorealism

In defining Contemporary Art as a new wave of artistic exploration, Modern Art painting techniques that rejected the realism of the Classical period too was rejected and replaced with a trend of hyper-adherence to detail. In Photorealism, photography as the definitive medium of visual documentation is challenged as works in Photorealism strive to go beyond the technological limitations of a camera, offering hyper-real detail and sharpness.

Minimalism

In a similar vein, in trying to reinvent modernism, contemporary practices also challenged modernist abstraction with the doubling down of Minimalism. Here, forms are reduced to only the most basic geometric shapes and elements, applying the principle ‘Less is More.’ This reduction of all details to the bare bones allows works to breathe and makes space for only the essential aspects of the work to be contemplated with greater intensity.

Tonysmith freeride sculpture
Tony Smith, Free Ride, 1962.

Conceptual Art

Under the umbrella of Conceptual Art, literally anything, an idea, an object, or an event, made with the intention of being art and presented in the context of the art world can be considered a work of art. With Conceptual Art the idea behind the work becomes the work, and the rest is implementation and presentation.

For me, Conceptual Art epitomizes our presence in the current artistic time, letting ideas and concepts reign rather than aesthetics. In this case, the medium of choice is one’s own thoughts, and how it comes across is a matter of translation.

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I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (wallpaper), 2000/2015. Vinyl. (1931-2020) MOCA. Photo by Flickr user rocor.

What is the Difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art?

Aside from timelines, when looking at what is the difference between modern art and contemporary art it is critical to explore the role art takes during these periods.

Modern Art had a way of packaging its movement with defined aesthetics, themes, and styles. These movements became vehicles that pushed certain artists to the forefront, becoming spokesmen of the movement. This created a cyclical win-win, where artists propagated a movement and that movement promoted artists.

Contemporary Art, on the other hand, sees artists working in a fashion which was continually rejecting and reinventing the past. To be part of a movement restricted an artist’s individuality and originality and became a form of safe convention.

The result is that contemporary artists were continually reinventing the wheel as opposed to Modern Arts nack for going along for the ride. And in the case of Contemporary Art, the wheel itself kept changing, offering up each time a new understanding of wheelness.

Another important difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art was the exploration of different mediums. As mentioned earlier in the article, Modern Art focussed primarily on Painting though sometimes branching over into Sculpture, whereas Contemporary Art pushed the boundaries on new art forms such as Video, Photography, Installation, and Performance.

The last major difference between Modern Art and Contemporary Art is the focus of the artist from the personal to societal.

Irbid Jordan Nida Alhamzeh 029
Irbid, Jordan, “We are Arabs. We are Humans”. Inside Out is a global participatory art project, initiated by the French photographer JR.

While Modern art used the visual arts to express and deconstruct emotional, perceptual, and mental states, a lot of art created today uses visual mediums to investigate social and political issues. With globalization, the world has become smaller and our political awareness has become heightened. Art in the contemporary era allows us to address, understand, and discover nuances about our social and political realities.

“All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political.” —Playwright, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This sentiment reflects both the current role of art, and the obligation of the artist to take ownership of what, how, and why they produce what they produce. Only time will tell where we

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