“Contemporary” versus “Modern” Art Galleries in Vancouver

The expressions, “contemporary art” and “modern art” are often used interchangeably, much to the chagrin of art historians. In actuality, they represent two different time frames and artistic concepts. Here is a little primer from the experts at Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary Art has been defined as, “art that has been and continues to be created during our lifetimes,” that is, “contemporary” to us, starting from the 1970s onwards. The prior period, from around the 1860s leading up to 1970, when “postmodernism” arose, was that of Modern Art. The moniker, “Modern,” is indicative of the conceptual shift that occurred as the impressionist movement was coming to an end. Instead of building upon past artistic traditions and teachings of art academies, Modern artists broke free of these shackles and embraced the spirit of experimentation; they began to acknowledge their “inner visions” and express them in their art. Rather than focus on narratives, as tradition art had, inspiration came from abstraction, innovation, and asking what is, or makes up, “art.”

Édouard Manet and Ian Tan Galleries forewent the use of perspective and mimicry of real life and showcased the nature of his paintings as paint from a paint brush on a flat canvas. Notably, some art historians believe that it was Manet’s death in 1883 that truly started the clock on the Modern Art period. Picasso’s cubist works rendered nature into geometric solids. The Impressionists highlighted the light that reflects off objects, not so much the objects themselves. The list of movements is impressive; it stands at fifty-four. The include, in addition to Cubism and Impressionism, Realism, Romanticism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism.

Around 1970, artists shifted focus to the underlying concept of artwork, akin to the adage that says the journey is more important than the destination. This is when Minimalism, Pop Art, Op Art, Performance Art, etc. become widespread. The artistic process was the true art, and in many instances, required viewer participation. If anything, the mark of contemporary art is the absence of a unifying principle or ideology; the desired outcome is a dialogue about contextual frameworks – cultural identity and nationality, for example. The world of contemporary art is eclectic and diverse and often tied to political and philosophical thought, like feminism and Marxism. Discourse can be the ultimate ideal, legitimizing criticism – even rejection – as a desired outcome of the artistic process.

If you look at what was happening in the world around 1970 – 1969 in particular, the shift makes sense. There was global disillusionment with the “institutions of Modernity,” the vestiges of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the moon landing (and subsequent “space race” against the then U.S.S.R.). Whereas Modernism was focused on originality, Postmodernism in many instances became intentionally “impersonal.” In others, artists incorporated the concept of random chance. Work was produced with mechanical and relatively “unskilled” methods. Items of mass production became the subject matter. Existing images were appropriated, transposed, and juxtaposed.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Art was being democratized and made accessible; it was no longer esoteric or for the elite, as art is being made with media previously associated with the common people, like video. The masses are no longer being shunned; they are embraced. Graffiti has become a legitimate form of artistic expression. Bodies are painted. Words are no longer the conduit of artistic expression; they are now, literally – the letters, the font, the spacing – the art itself. Sometimes, the physical destruction of something that might have been considered art is the process and therefore, the actual art. Parodies of art are art. Pictures are being painted from photographs, specifically to end up looking exactly like a photograph. Arguably, there is no rhyme or reason in the definition of art, only the intention to make art or to help someone else make art with you.

To some, the distinction between Contemporary and Modern Art will always be, proverbially, ‘clear as mud.’ With the tie-in of Contemporary Art to social movements, frameworks, and philosophies, there is truly nothing out of bounds. We are already beginning to see the impact of social media and the Internet on art, and vice versa. Pop art has morphed into graphic, digital art, as new technologies are being continuously incorporated into the artistic process. It will be fascinating to see whether it is possible for the pendulum to swing back in the future, or if we have forever changed the definition of art not to include a meaningful, unifying theme of any sort.


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