Confessions of a Curator: Contemporary Art is not Modern Art

Modern? No Honey, It's Contemporary: A Curator's Rant.

Confessions of a Curator: Contemporary Art is not Modern Art
Mariana Baião Santos

As a curator, part of my job is to have an open mind to new possibilities, connections and propositions, to be constantly on the lookout for new artists and to not have preconceived ideas of what art is or should be. However, there is one thing that is my biggest pet peeve: people calling Contemporary Art Modern Art. It’s the curator’s version of stepping on a piece of Lego – a small pain that sends shivers down your spine.

Yes, Contemporary and Modern are synonyms in colloquial speech as both are defined by “relating to the present”.

But not in Art.

Here’s the deal: “Modern” art refers to that revolutionary period roughly between the 1860s and 1970s. Think impressionism, cubism, pop art – all those artistic movements that challenged the stuffy old masters – think Picasso, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Pollock. They were modern in their time, and the word stuck. These movements are comprised within the era of Modernism. 

contemporary art
Claude Monet’s Water Lilies 1914-26

Modernists were all about breaking away from tradition. They threw out realistic portrayals in favour of fragmented forms, bold colours, and new ways of seeing the world. A Monet water lily painting isn’t trying to perfectly capture a real lily pad, it’s about the play of light and colour on water. A portrait by Picasso might look like someone sat on a person and then stretched them out, but it’s a new way to capture the essence of a human being. All of this experimentation allowed for the wild era of Contemporary Art that came right after. You can discover so many of Picasso’s artworks through the Picasso Museum’s official Instagram page.

It is impossible to define the exact start of Contemporary Art, there are different theories, schools of thought and bodies of work that could fluctuate between the two eras – however it is most commonly accepted it was somewhere between the 1960s and 80s. From the 80s, shoulder pads got bigger, music got weirder, and art? Well, art got contemporary. Contemporary art is the wild child of art history, constantly evolving, reflecting our ever-changing times. It could be anything from a giant inflatable dog to a video installation about clocks and the passage of time.

contemporary art
‘The Clock’, Christian Marclay, 2010

Modern art is like a classic rock album – it had its moment, changed the world, and now resides comfortably in museums, making a comeback here and there for tributes. Contemporary art is that crazy, genre-bending music festival happening right now. It’s messy, it’s weird, and it might just blow your mind, because yes, it can be anything.

The key difference I wanted to highlight through this rant is that anything that is being made now is Contemporary, Modernism was a period that is long gone, no living artist is still a modernist.

So, next time you find yourself marvelling at a neon light installation or a sculpture made entirely of deflated balloons, resist the urge to call it “modern.” Embrace the here and now, and revel in the glorious messiness of Contemporary art.

Unless, of course, you enjoy the withering look from your curator friend. We may not have superpowers, but we can definitely give side-eye that could curdle milk. You’ve been warned.

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