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Modern Art, Postmodern Art and Contemporary Art - What's the Difference?


Generally speaking, the words modern and contemporary are synonymous in the English language, both describing the neoteric or present-day. But in artistic vernacular, the phrases describe distinct art movements, inevitably resulting in some confusion.

While any art can be perceived as modern at the point of its creation, there is a division between the Modern, the Postmodern and the Contemporary in artistic spheres. In this article, we'll take a look at the history of these art movements and break down the conceptual and aesthetic differences between the three terms.


mid-to-late 19th century - 1970s approx.

​Characteristics: The rejection of tradition, particularly Academic art and conservative values | Artistic experimentation, abstraction and innovation in terms of subject choice and the elements of art | Symbolism and iconography | Emphasis on techniques, processes and materials | Conscious response to the surrounding environment | Idealized views of humanity, society and progress Key movements: Impressionism | Post-Impressionism | Fauvism | Symbolism | Dadaism | Surrealism | Expressionism | Cubism | Abstract Expressionism | Minimalism | Pop Art Artists: Edouard Manet | Claude Monet | Paul Cezanne | Vincent van Gogh | Marie Laurencin | Helen Dahm | Wassily Kandinsky | Georgia O'Keeffe | Pablo Picasso | Hilma af Klint | Marcel Duchamp | Natalia Goncharova | Frida Kahlo | Jackson Pollock | Andy Warhol

So what is Modern art? Marked by a significant artistic departure from the traditionally held styles of the past, Modern art or Modernism was an artistic movement that largely developed with the spread of capitalism, industrialization and advances in science and technology. Although the exact date of Modernism's inception is debated, most point to the mid-to-late-19th century as the dawn of the artistic experimentation and expression spurred on by a rapidly evolving technological and social climate.

Die Treppe, Helen Dahm, 1907 modern postmodern contemporary art iris28
Die Treppe, Helen Dahm, 1907 - WikiArt

With many experiencing a growing disaffection with the conventions of the previous era, fresh perspectives and new mediums inspired a renewed artistic wave as artists adopted an invigorated mode of seeing and working across artistic genres. From Impressionism to Pop Art, Modern art pushed the boundaries of artistic conception, execution and consumption.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to define Modern art is by describing what it is not. From the 17th century, the dominant western art movement - Academic art - demanded artistic perfection, intellectuality, narrative, rationality and idealism. Great emphasis was placed on the overall message of the painting, which required an uplifting, high moral character and allegorical references to classical, historical or religious subjects.

Actaea, the Nymph of the Shore, Frederic Leighton, 1853 - WikiArt
Actaea, the Nymph of the Shore, Frederic Leighton, 1853 - WikiArt

In addition, the Academy implemented a hierarchy of art, ranking the six predominant genres of art in terms of prestige and value. History and Myth were assigned the top spot, followed by portraiture and then genre painting. Landscape and animal painting held fourth and fifth spots respectively while still-life was relegated to the lowest rung. This ranking system narrowed the subjects portrayed by artists, and it dictated what art was perceived as worthwhile to the consumer.

The Painter's Studio, Gustave Courbet, 1855
The Painter's Studio, Gustave Courbet, 1855 - WikiArt

Modernism was built to overturn the values of rigid academia. From the mid-19th century, artists and critics began to challenge the long-held conventions of the past and Academicism's monopoly on the art market. Often characterized as an early manifestation of Modernism, Gustave Courbet exhibited The Painter's Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life in 1855. Painted during Courbet's involvement with realism in the mid-19th century, the artwork exhibits a skull resting on a copy of the Journal des Débats in a possible gesture aimed at the Academy exalted by the press[1].

One of the best-known examples of the transition away from academic art to Modernism was painted by Édouard Manet. The Salon des Refusés, French for Exhibition of Rejects was an event sanctioned by Emperor Napoleon III to conciliate artists who joined forces to protest the harsh jury decisions made in 1863 for the Paris Salon. The event marked the official recognition of an artist's right to make and display art without a stylistic classification[2]. Those included in the Salon des Refusés celebrated a new spontaneity and originality, and it was here that one of the key examples of the rejection of Academicism was unveiled - Édouard Manet's controversial Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863).

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, Edouard Manet, 1863
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, Edouard Manet, 1863 - WikiArt

Depicting two female and two male subjects sharing a picnic in a viridescent forest setting, Manet's painting is punctuated by the gaze of a woman who unabashedly returns our scrutiny. Entirely and somewhat mysteriously nude, the woman disturbed viewers with her lack of inhibition, as she casually turns to engage her audience.

Up until the inception of modern western art, most portrayals of nude women were tied to figures of mythology or allegory. In painting an anonymous and naked woman in a casual setting, at a scale previously reserved for historic, mythological or allegorical content, Manet reconceptualized the potential of art, the artist, and the role of the viewer.

Those who exhibited at the Salon des Refusés presented the public with a clear alternative to styles sanctioned by the Academics. Polarizing and reinvigorating, the exhibition shifted the Academy away from the standard of artistic discourse. Manet's willingness to challenge artistic tradition is a fundamental aspect of modern art and Le déjeuner sur l'herbe is often viewed as the genesis of the Modern art movement.

From Manet's painting, numerous innovative movements began to truly take hold. Visual artists of the Romantic movement dropped the specific narratives conveyed by Academism in favour of exploring abstract concepts like beauty, truth, love and justice, focusing on emotion as a driving artistic force. Realist artists avoided artificial, speculative or supernatural elements and themes and the Impressionists advocated frenetic painting en plein air to render the bare impression of form.

House of Parliament Sun, Claude Monet, 1903
House of Parliament Sun, Claude Monet, 1903 - WikiArt

Modernism was generally based on idealism and a utopian vision of human life and society. With a strong emphasis on progress, Modernist artists often sought universal principles or truths such as those formulated by religion or science. These truths could then be used as tools to understand, depict or explain reality. Modernist artists experimented with form, technique and process rather than concentrating on rendering perfect subject matter, hoping to find a way to truthfully reflect the experience of the modern world.

In a revitalized art world, Modernist movements like Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism came to life. Post-Impressionism was made famous by artists like Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh, exhibiting a focus on extending the limitations of Impressionism. Surrealism and several anti-art movements like Dadaism cropped up in the late 1910s to the early 1920s and artist groups like de Stijl and Bauhaus developed new theories about design and art education.

The continuation of Modernist movements in art expanded into the middle of the 20th century. However, some artists began to reject the nature of Modern art, splitting off to form a Postmodern movement through increasingly conceptual intermedia formats.


1970s - now

​Characteristics: A reaction against Modernism | Anti-authoritarianism | Refusal to conform to a single style or definition | A merge of high culture and popular culture, art and everyday life | Appropriation of earlier styles and conventions | A mix of different artistic and popular styles, aesthetics and mediums | Playfulness | Scepticism | Irony | The critiquing of concepts like universal truths and objective reality Key Movements: Installation art | Intermedia multimedia | Video art | Conceptual Art | Performance Art | Digital Art | Second-wave feminism | Neoexpressionism Artists: Cindy Sherman | Gilbert & George | Barbara Kruger | Guerilla Girls | Damien Hirst | Yoko Ono | Robert Rauschenberg | Jeff Koons

Postmodern art describes a body of art movements that began in an effort to repudiate aspects of Modernism or the phenomena that emerged in its wake. Aiming to reconnect with social issues through artistic means, Postmodernism arose in reaction to the ideas and values of the Modernist movement, starting an era that followed Modernism's dominance in cultural theory and practice.

The term Postmodernism was first adopted around 1970. In many ways, Postmodernism refuses definition - there is no single style or theory on which the art movement depends. Embracing numerous approaches to art-making, it is generally accepted that the beginning of Postmodernism developed from Pop Art in the 1960s, absorbing other movements including Conceptual art, Feminist art and Neo-expressionism.

Barbara Kruger what is post modernism contemporary art
Barbara Kruger - Wikimedia Commons

Modernism predominantly revolves around idealism, a utopian vision of human life and a belief in progress. Postmodernism is usually characterized by degrees of scepticism, suspicion, anti-authoritarianism and irony, critiquing the concepts of universal truths and objective reality[3]. Postmodern artworks also frequently exhibit text, appropriation, recontextualization and the merging of fine and high arts with low art and popular culture. Movements such as installation art, conceptual art, intermedia and multimedia are often described as Postmodern, with particular emphasis on art incorporating video technology.

Contemporary Art

?? - now

​Characteristics: The application of a wide variety of materials, concepts and techniques | Defies simple definition | Lacks a uniform principle or aesthetic | Inspiration is sourced globally | Audiences partake in the process of creating meaning about artworks | Artists make innovative use of new technologies | Reflects the diverse and shifting cultural values of identity and belief | Curious artists take on an open-ended process with inquiry-based approaches Key movements: Postmodernism | Minimalism | Pop Art | Photorealism | Performance Art | Digital Art | Graffiti Art | Contemporary Photography | Body Art | Installation art | Feminist Art Artists: Yayoi Kusama | Damien Hirst | Marina Abramović | Gerhard Richter | Barbara Kruger | Anish Kapoor

Contemporary art is the art of today, but its commencement date is still debated. According to the Getty Museum, the term Contemporary art refers to art produced by artists who are alive today[4], while many art historians and critics consider the late 1960s or early 1970s (the end of Modernism) to be an adequate estimate - though disagreement persists as to the exact year. Some say the movement began in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was collapsed and the Tiananmen Square protests occurred. Others again say it was in 1945 when World War II ended [5].

Agalma, Nerea Apodaka, 2021 - Wikimedia Commons Iris28
Agalma, Nerea Apodaka, 2021 - Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary art is a floating concept. Unlike Modernism and Postmodernism which are anchored at a relatively fixed point in art history, the expanse of the Contemporary art movement is still to unfold. Not attached to a specific historical period, Contemporary art coincides with Postmodernism. But by definition, the veil of Contemporary art will eventually have shifted enough to move away from Postmodernism, encompassing future eras of art instead.

From the start, the modern was advocated, defended, set forth as a position among others. The contemporary on the other hand presents itself as something of a default category or a catch-all. Yet its success may not be altogether accidental; and if it is, it may nonetheless be entirely appropriate - Hans Ulrich Obrist

It's often difficult to assign a definitive classification to art as we witness it develop from the inside. But although the parameters of Contemporary art are nebulous, the movement still exhibits some recognisable artistic traits. For example, Contemporary art sees many artists work in a culturally diversified and technologically progressive environment. Living in a global network, Contemporary artists utilize a vast range of increasingly accessible subject matter, materials, methods and concepts to test and expand on present-day topics, often building on or borrowing from Modernism, Postmodernism and earlier artistic genres. Contemporary art is remarkable in its lack of uniformity in ideology and principles, inspiring a larger contextual structure of identity, and materiality.

That contemporary art be considered as classic and enduring can only be judged by future generations - Ian Semple

As eclectic as it is diverse, contemporary art eschews overarching categorizations or -isms [6]. Artists of the Realist movement sought to paint the harsh reality of life with greater honesty. Impressionists set out to harness the perception of a moment through colour, light and texture. But unlike these and many other artistic eras and movements in history, Contemporary art has no discernibly singular objective, and the Contemporary artist is free to respond to any subject that inspires artistic action. Nevertheless, there are some common themes that Contemporary artists engage in. Identity and body politics, current society and culture, spirituality, climate change, science, technology, memory, time, politics, religion and globalization and migration[7] - each has been adopted by many contemporary artists as important themes to respond to artistically.

At this point, the term Contemporary art may be a shifting catch-all, but in the future, it is likely we will look back with different eyes and pinpoint the era with a more definitive nomenclature. And as the world shifts and evolves, new themes will draw out new responses from artists sensitive to the unfurling of history.



[1] Courbet: The studio of the painter - Benedict Nicolson


[7] Themes of Contemporary Art - Jean Robertson

What is Contemporary Art? - Multiple Contributors

Understanding Art - Lois Fichner-Rathus

International Galerie - Kerimcan Guleryuz (Ian Semple quote)

e-flux - Manifestos for the Future - Hans Ulrich Obrist


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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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