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How contemporary is contemporary?

On my vacation to Santa Fe over the holidays, I stopped by an artist’s booth to look at the watercolors, prints and note cards of Santa Fe that she was selling. We started chatting, and during our conversation, she asked if I was an artist and what kind of art I made. Once she learned that I had moved from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to the Bay Area in California, she made the comment that if I lived in a city and studied art in a city, my art must be contemporary. At first I said “well, it’s not as contemporary as others’ art,” since I feel like there are some traditional, or more accurately modern (see next paragraph), qualities to my paintings. But later I backtracked and said, “well, if you’re making it now, it’s contemporary, right?”

The word contemporary when describing art actually has a specific meaning, but I have experienced a lot of variety in its definition. Generally, it describes art that is happening now, but there is some disagreement about when “now” started. There is also disagreement about if we should even call current art contemporary at all, or use a more descriptive word. In my art school, I learned that first there was Modernism, also with a varying start time, either starting in the 1860s with the Impressionists or in the 1950s with the Abstract Expressionists, or anywhere in between, and ending at some point in the 60s or 70s with Minimalism, Pop Art, or with the social revolutions of 1968ish. Then came Postmodernism; art about art from the 1980’s. Finally, some refer to the period of art that we are in now as Contemporary, others refer to it as Ultra-Modern (a return to Modern Art, but enhanced), and still some argue that Post-Modernism is not over. But the MOMA recently had an exhibition about Contemporary Art that started in the 70’s, which basically lumped everything together after Modernism. And I am never sure where Warhol fits in… modern? postmodern? And not to be a total smartass, but at any point in history (Renaissance, Romantic, Modern, etc), couldn’t any artist claim that they made art that was contemporary?

Art offers us new ways of seeing the world. Art from 50 years ago still feels relevant because it reflects and is connected to our society’s structure, and we’re still living in the same economic structure (basically, capitalism) as we were 50 years ago. Since our world hasn’t been a fundamentally different structure since the Industrial Revolution transitioned us away from Feudalism, perhaps that’s why we’re splitting hairs when it comes to defining current art movements.

Thinking about all of this, I realize that my art does fit in to contemporary art, especially since it picks up on themes in our economy. I paint the port cranes that unload shipping containers; these are players in the global economy. I also have been making collages out of advertisements from magazines; also part of the system that implores us to continue buying things. So I’m going to own it. I am a contemporary artist.

Here are some sketches and collages I worked on while I was traveling:

One Response to “How contemporary is contemporary?”

  1. Gail Schneider Says:

    Hi Emily,
    This is one of those perennial questions that I don’t think have a one size fits all answer.Even The Museum of Modern Art has been criticized for not moving forward from the definition of modern art that it began with, and has, as a highlight of it’s permanent collection, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, not a painting that could be defined as modern or contemporary at this point. I can think of several artists such as Alex Katz and Wayne Thiebauld who do not like the labels that have been attached to their work. It’s kind of an inside baseball subject of debate that general museum goers probably do not get concerned about. I recently went to the Met with my husband, a non artist, and after taking in their Matisse exhibit, I asked him whether he liked it. He replied that he was not a big fan of the impressionists! In trying to clarify that Matisse was not an impressionist, I explained that he started out being labelled as a fauvist, but evolved(which was partly the point of this particular exhibit of his work, intended to chronicle the evolution of his painting style) . Even for Matisse, the best explanation I could come up with was that he was one of the first modern artists. Maybe that is strictly incorrect, but it helped to place him on a timeline that a layman could understand. I think you have to come up with a label for your work that feels most accurate to you.

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