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Modern versus Contemporary Art

Dear Artsperts:
My daughter and I just got back from visiting New York City and we saw lots of art galleries and art museums. But we have to admit, after seeing all that art, we are confused, what is the difference between modern art, postmodern art, and contemporary art?
Signed,
Contemplating Contemporary Art

Dear Contemporary,
You are not alone in feeling confused about the various terms for describing art today. Many museums attempt to describe the focus of the museum’s collection by using words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’. It is fair to question how a Museum of Modern Art differs from an Institute of Contemporary Art. It can seem as though they are describing the same thing.

The term modern art carries the sense of being something that broke from prior traditions in art. Some art historians date modern art as early as the mid 1800's with Édouard Manet. Generally speaking though, modern art typically defines abstract art from about 1910 through the 1960’s.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art or MoMA, was established in 1929 to expose America to the art of the day; the collection and exhibitions were largely dominated by art works coming out of Europe. The French Impressionist painters and sculptors arising at the end of the 19th century are largely credited with the first modern art movement, even though artists like England’s J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) and Norway’s Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) seem to precede them as modernists by breaking from the “norm” of realism and providing some of the first examples of abstraction.

We also have American examples of breaking from realism in the art movement started in 1912 by Americans Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890-1973) and Morgan Russell (1886-1953). Their Synchromism art movement was based on the theory that color can be arranged like notes are composed in music. The short-lived synchromists are largely credited with the first avant-garde American art.

It was not until 1935 that a group of young American artists organized in New York City by Byron Browne and Balcomb Greene successfully protested against the MoMA’s tendency to only show modern art coming out of Europe. World War II brought a wave of European artists to relocate to American shores and New York successfully took the focus of the modern art world from Paris and other European cities.

By about the 1950s the art world was in need of a term to describe art that broke from tradition, but was created more recently. Contemporary art is created any time from the 1950s through today.

If we haven’t lost you yet, then there is your question about postmodern art. Not all contemporary art is postmodern since contemporary art encompasses art created in the same style as modern art – just created more recently in time. Postmodern art is a break from the conventions and ideals of modern art and includes performance art, installation art, digital art, collage, and concept art.

These terms are the art world’s attempt to label and define art that attempts to break from labels and traditional definitions. So perhaps it is easier to rely on the old expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” and we hope you enjoyed the art you saw, no matter how the experts labeled it.

Sincerely,
The Artsperts



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