The first way to distinguish them is chronological since modern art precedes contemporary art. So let’s start with modern art.
The first signs are manifested at the end of 19 century when painters broke with tradition. They seek to free themselves from burdensome standards. They will set about deconstructing the reference systems of the fine arts: imitation of the model, fidelity to nature, the idea of beauty, the harmony of colors, the hierarchy of genres. All these academic canons are rejected. The great figures of this rupture are Courbet, Manet, Cézanne… They are still attached to the painter’s profession, but they transform it: the subjects of the paintings, the ways of painting visibly evolve.
Can we say that from the 1950s, all works are contemporary art?
Not quite! Because chronology is not enough to delimit modern art and contemporary art. Thus, an artist whose career spans several decades can keep his modern purpose and work in the period known as “contemporary art.” The abstract painter Pierre Soulages is a good example of this phenomenon: he began painting in the 1940s. He still works today amid contemporary art, but his painting has remained in a modern way.
We must combine the analysis of the artistic process with the chronology to identify (roughly) what is modern and what is contemporary.
What explains the advent of modern art?
Let us look at modernity in general: we see that it applies to a field much broader than the sphere of art. Modernity is basically a tendency that we have to modify the conditions of our existence, almost at all times; modernizing is vital energy possessed by human beings, which is part of their functioning, a kind of drive.
In art, the same principle exists: reinventing the way of using painting or sculpture, for example, is a feature of modernity.
In all cases, the historical context and technical advances also play a role; for art, the invention of the photographic process obviously weakens the use of painting; industrialization transforms the perception of the world, fascinates, introduces a new perception of space-time. The artists were also influenced by scientific research: the example of Chevreul’s work on color (published almost at the same time as the invention of the photo) strongly impacted the Impressionists.
Politically, the war of 1914 will be felt like a cataclysm, a source of despair for the young generation; the aforementioned war will generate extreme artistic actions, notably through the Dada movement, which takes root in this overwhelming.
How long will modern art last?
Modern energy will be effervescent in Paris until the Second World War when art and artists will move massively to New York. Modernity will be theorized at that time in New York by two main critics (Greenberg and Adorno) who, despite slight differences, will ultimately defend an art obsessed with abstraction, seeking to cut the viewer off from reality, called abstract expressionism.
And after the war, does contemporary art begin?
Indeed, the young artists who emerge after the generation of abstract expressionists, in turn, need innovation! Certain socio-political factors which weigh on the population will be used by the artists: consumer society, moral and social weight, commitment against the Vietnam war … the young artists of the 1960s wanted to reconnect art with life, just as they wish to liberate mores. Abstract art appears to them as empty, sterile, and bourgeois.
What are they going to invent?
This time the artists are not limited to the liberation of form. The work of art must meet the public widely, escape the art market, and often leave traditional mediums (painting, sculpture) to provoke a surge of social emancipation. Art crosses disciplinary boundaries: dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors cooperate and experiment, create performances and concerts, videos are pouring in. The supports, materials, and techniques are diversifying.
Everyday objects and new techniques are used in paintings and sculptures (pop art). The presentation of the distribution is also questioned: ephemeral works are interesting for these anti-capitalist artists because they cannot be marketed. Other fields are explored, such as language,
So contemporary art would be a crossing of borders between disciplines?
Yes, this aspect is very important for contemporary art: sound, dance, video, installation… We must add this very strong diversity of materials and techniques: a contemporary work can take all imaginable forms! It is a new ideology, which can be qualified as an existentialist, which seeks to bring art closer to everyday life, encouraging everyone to make their life a work of art.
But to remind people that art cannot be categorized, I would say that there was almost all of this in the Dada movement in 1919… and that work from 1919 can hardly integrate “contemporary art.”
Similarly, if we look at the 1980s, we see a return to painting in Europe and the United States: it is the post-modern movement.
In fact, painting in the 1990s or 2000s is a gesture steeped in history on the part of artists who know the criticisms made of the painting.
Today, when almost everything has been experienced, there is this “underlay” in contemporary practices, which no longer seek so much to demolish as to “take at an angle.” No practice is rejected, everyone assumes their artistic singularity, and often, we do not limit ourselves to one area.