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The difference between modern and contemporary art

The terminology can be confusing but it needn’t be

The shock comes when the aesthetics do not really match with the client’s concept of what “modern” art should look like.

One of the biggest misconceptions art dealers or gallerists face when talking to collectors and clients is the misuse of the terms “modern” and “contemporary” while describing their tastes.

Let’s try to put this debate to rest.

There are well over 100 different art periods, provided we go all the way back to primitive art. These periods can be broken down into large categories, each nesting sometimes more than 20 different art movements. Unless you have a PhD in art history, there is no way you’ll be able to identify them, much less properly articulate the specifics of each movement. Heck, I’m an art dealer and I’d be hard pressed to name more than 40 (and I’m being overconfident).

The shock comes when the aesthetics do not really match with the client’s concept of what “modern” art should look like.

Modern artworks: Fernand Léger, Sunflowers / Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Famille à l'âne 1917 / Joan Miró, Femme Oiseau / Marc Chagall, Nature Morte / Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Deux filles dans un pré / Alexander Calder, Untitled 71

We’ve collectively been using the word “modern” in our vocabulary a lot more than “contemporary”. Modern has a more universal appeal, as most people would describe themselves as modern, living in a modern world and generally embracing everything modern. While this is correct from a wording standpoint, it doesn’t quite bode well with the art world conventions. I get it, you live in a modern house and want to buy modern artworks to compliment your interior, but guess what — you might be disappointed by the paintings I’d show you. Looks like something got lost in translation, right?

Modern art starts around 1860 and ends in 1945, which seems like a rather long period of time. The shock comes when the aesthetics do not really match with the client’s concept of what “modern” art should look like. Yes, a Picasso is modern, a Miro is modern, a Calder is modern — whether you agree or not. So why the long face when I present you all these beautiful works? Because what you’re looking for is contemporary art!

Contemporary artworks: Andy Warhol, Bald Eagle / Fernando Botero, Fillette balancoir / Robert Longo, Study For Jet Pilot / Roy Lichtenstein, Maybe / Sam Francis, Untitled 65

Contemporary art starts from 1946 all the way to now. Haring, Basquiat, Warhol, Koons and Kusama are all contemporary artists, and their style and aesthetics are probably what you were after when you stepped into the gallery. I get it, there is a dissonance between the word and what it projects in the collective unconsciousness, but at last this is settled. But wait, what happens to artists that have been producing throughout the 20th century, you might ask?

Touché! This particular scenario puts everybody in a pickle. Dubuffet, Lichtenstein and De Kooning, to name a few, all made artworks before and after 1945. It can be argued that these artists fall into both categories and that individual works should be deemed modern or contemporary based on their date of creation. Cue Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, as it is very apropos in regards to the argument set forth. Truth is, there is no cut and dry answer and auction houses sometimes include a work created in the ’30s in their contemporary sales — go figure.

So next time you enter a gallery and say that you love modern artworks from Basquiat, think back to what you’ve just read and you’ll understand why you’ve put a smile on the gallerist’s face.

The writer is the director of Opera Gallery Dubai

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