By David James

I’ve often heard Modern Art and Contemporary Art uttered as one and the same. Not so.  As with any field of specialization, subtleties, distinctions and depths prevail.

Modern art is generally and loosely thought of as form that rejects tradition and all prior attempts at thought or emotional control by religious authorities.  Realism was the dominant form of art until around the 1850’s.  In Western thought, these European artists gained a new freedom in their work by owning their dissatisfaction and embracing their individual egos, talents, and capabilities.  A culture of shared ideas in Parisian cafes in all of the arts breathed as a culture, glowed and achieved.  When the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects) was held in 1863, these artists held their own exhibition as if to say:  “We do not recognize the authority of the academy.” For the next 110 years, Modernism marched on.

In my own view, the apex of modern art was the 1960’s.  Artists like Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, and Donald Judd emptied nearly everything out in their work.  They tried to represent nothing more than a feeling.  No illustrations or attempt at figuration.  The ideas were simple yet profound.  They molded new materials and methods to ask the viewer to confront their own experience in sculpture, painting, and earthworks, sometimes covering acres.  Essentially, much of this work requests that viewer reflects on their own visions, prejudices, fears and proprieties.  It had a Zen quality in my opinion.

Contemporary Art is much like what it sounds to be.  It is contemporary.  Many limit that definition to recent years and tack on a figure.  I would say that it is art made during our lifetime that is contemporary.  Now, that opens up a can of worms.  It does not mean that everything made as art is then is art. I got a lovely inspirational text recently from my best art friend.  It said: “Just because no one understands you, does not mean that you are an artist.”  Well played.

What do you think?

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