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Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Contemporary Art but Were Afraid to Ask

The 'Contemporary' vs. the 'Modern'

Since the popular explosion of what is referred to as 'Contemporary Art' in the late 1980s through today, the confusion and intellectual insecurity surrounding the term has only grown with the term's dissemination.  While the World of Contemporary Art may seem daunting and secretive to the outsider, it is easily understandable (as much as, say, baseball is understandable) if you allow yourself to get to know it's precedents (i.e. history. This document was written to clear up any misunderstandings still surrounding the issue.

There arose, after the posthumous popularization of the term ‘Modernism’ or ‘The Modern’ in recognition of the death of the Modern, (marked by a noted change in the current of popular visual art away from direct figuration - see separate article), a need to discern distinguish newer works of the avant-garde from what went before. The Modern (as in Modern Art) had always been something of a handy catch all phrase for most – Modern being that which was ‘of it’s time’ or 'of The Now’.

However... like any oft-used term or turn-of-phrase, it became victim to semantic overload (i.e. – it had acquired an unwieldy associative burden with specific types of artwork) and was therefore becoming meaningless and confusing as a descriptive term. It therefore became necessary to elect a new word to represent that which was ‘cutting edge’ and of ‘The Now’. This word was ‘Contemporary’ – at the service of denoting what we now call ‘Contemporary Art’. It is more or less as simple as that, etymologically speaking. We use the term to denote the art of the ‘avant-garde’ since the aforementioned juncture.


The Birth of Contemporary Art in Thirty Seconds

The terms Contemporary Art is GENERALLY used to describe artwork following a certain idiom or canon (more on this in a bit) though commonly understood in a rough epochal definition as Avant-Garde work from the 1960s onward. The term was developed as a means of distinguishing it from something called 'Modern Art' (generally understood to have been born in the 1880s through the early 1960s). So when we refer to work as 'Modern' it generally means something made in the early to mid 20th century - when used for long enough, specific terms tend to become too 'loaded' and associated only with a specific range of phenomena. And so it is with Modern Art. When the Minimalists showed up in the 1960s, a whole new way of looking at the world and at art was required due to the fact that after Modernism had abandoned traditional subject matter and representation, now the very means and tools used for representing anything was being questioned. Within the world of Visual Art, this was a distinct paradigm shift. And so the term 'Contemporary Art' was born.


On the Death of Modern Art
While there can be many axes along which we can place a yardstick for exploring the properties of an art movement, one rather eminent property of what we call ‘Modern Art’ is what can be called ‘direct figuration’

which is to say, the preoccupation or concern with representation (even and especially in Abstract Expressionism, which was a direct reaction against ‘representational’ figuration – i.e. painting a chair to look like a chair in some way or other). And so – though the Abstract Expressionists felt themselves to be abandoning representational art, it was still very much part of the same canon, very much indeed concerned with representational art.
Various parties, in a ‘conspiracy’ of an international zeitgeist, changed that (I would personally accuse the Situationist International and Yves Klein, in his way – and then, borrowing in turn from them – the great popularizer Andy Warhol). At any rate – whoever you might point the finger of blame for this state of affairs towards, there came at this time a move away from direct figuration, further away from the naturalist representation of the premodern, by abandoning the very techniques of it's manufacture.

A new freedom of 'expression' was embraced. Where Jackson Pollock and others following his lead had discovered the use of materials from the industrial construction trade (Duco, or aluminized roofing paint, etc.) - it should be noted that this was only a superficial break from his medium (it was still 'paint' and used as paint).


Contemporary Art in the Capitalist Arena

Further adding to the confusion, with the high prices fetched at galleries an auction houses alike, that it has become, like it or not, a Luxury Good, and therefore also subject to the laws of Capitalism and it's rhetoric (manipulation of it's perception by it's power brokers, etc.). Since the 1980s, when objects created under the umbrella of the Contemporary became prestigious to acquire and valuable as a status symbol to display conspicuously in the head offices of Wall Street trading firms, it's identity in our culture has been shifting and becoming even more complex.

Indeed, it probably requires less effort for the uninitiated to apprehend the object of contemporary art as a capitalist object. We are all familiar with the marketing, branding and sales architecture of consumer goods as a function of living in a society structured on consumerism. This is perhaps the single most complicating aspect of the fight to understand the culture of visual art. Nonetheless - the object in question can still clearly exist independently in both spheres - as an 'Object of Culture' and an 'Instrument of Capitalism'. There is no conflict of interest necessary when looked at under it's separate lenses.

jeff koons with silver plated bunny rabbit1980s Art Star Jeff Koons and Silver-Plated casting of an inflatable rabbit. Oh - the Irony... How far can the envelope be pushed?


NEXT: Understanding the Modern and it's Genesis

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