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What Is_?Modern and Contemporary Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Modern and Contemporary Art

In this, the first of the What_ is? series, we explore what is meant by these two words, which might at first glance seem to mean the same thing.  Within the introductory text below you’ll find a brief overview of what we mean by many of the other terms associated with Modern and Contemporary Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Within the context of art history, the term Modern Art refers to art theory and practice, predominantly in Western Europe and North America, from the 1860s to the late 1960s – the period associated with Modernism. Modern Art is defined in terms of a linear progression of styles, periods and schools, such as ImpressionismCubism and Abstract Expressionism. In general usage, there is considerable overlap and confusion between the terms Modern and Contemporary, both of which refer to the present and recent past. Modern is a term which has a broad application depending on the context in which it is used. It can refer to the present or the contemporary. In terms of social, political and philosophical discourse, modern refers to the period that began with the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. More generally, modern can be used to refer to all things since the early Renaissance. The relative and temporal nature of the term resists a clear or fixed definition, and is subject to considerable debate in terms of meaning and timeframe.

The term Contemporary Art refers to current and very recent practice. Attributed, approximately, to the period from the 1970s to the present, it also refers to works of art made by living artists. Contemporary Art tends to be assessed thematically and subjectively, drawing on an expanded range of theoretical and practical disciplines. Contemporary Art can be driven by both theory and ideas, and is also characterised by a blurring of the distinction between art and other categories of cultural experience, such as television, cinema, mass media, entertainment and digital technology.

The period from the 1970s onwards is also described in terms of Postmodernism, a social, cultural and intellectual movement characterised by a rejection of notions of linear progression, grand totalising narratives and critical consensus associated with Modernism, favouring an interdisciplinary approach, multiple narratives, fragmentation, relativity, contingency and irony.


In art history, the period associated with Modernism, 1860s – 1970s, is characterised by significant social, cultural, technological and political developments in the western world. Industrialisation, urbanisation, new technology, the rise of the middle class, the secularisation of society and the emergence of a consumer culture resulted in new conditions in which art was created, exhibited, discussed and collected. The open market replaced patronage as the means of financing art, giving artists the freedom to engage in more experimental and innovative forms of practice. Inspired by new developments in technology, in particular Photography and Film, traditional practice and methodologies, including perspective and representation, were discarded in favour of more experimental approaches, such as Abstraction, resulting in new forms of expression. Such innovative practice was referred to as Avant-Garde, and Modernism comprises a series of sucessive avant-garde movements, such as Impressionism, Fauvism and De Stijl. The modernist period was characterised by a belief in the progressive tendencies of modernity, evident in movements such as Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism, and in architecture in the International Style and movements such as the Bauhaus.

During the course of the twentieth century, disillusionment with aspects of the modernist enterprise: the impact of industrialisation, global war and developments in military technology, resulted in some artists adopting strategies of disruption and subversion, evident in movements such as Dada and Surrealism. Alternatively, some artists resorted to more personalised and emotional forms of practice, such as the Expressionist movements Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke. After World War II, the centre of Modernism shifted from Europe to America and was dominated by Abstract Expressionism. Underpinned by a theoretical framework of Formalism, which emphasised form rather than content in both the creation and reception of the artwork, this ‘art for art’s sake’ argument contributed to the increased objectification and commodification of the

Social, cultural and political changes during the 1960s resulted in considerable shifts in arts practice. Artists were concerned with the increasing commodification of art and the role of the art institution – the museum or gallery – and its relationship to broader socio-economic and political processes. Informed by new developments across a range of theoretical and practical disciplines, such as FeminismPostcolonial TheoryPsychoanalysis and Critical Theory and drawing on earlier strategies of disruption, artists devised new forms of practice, such as temporary, textual, performative or didactic work, to complicate the perception of the art object as commodity. Conceptual artists emphasised the primacy of the idea over the material art object. Rejecting assumptions about art historical continuity and critical consensus associated with Modernism, artists pushed out the boundaries of what was possible in the creation, presentation and reception of art. Experimental forms of practice, such as FluxusMinimalismPop Art and Performance Art, emerged in response to the perceived constraints and limitations of Modernism.


Emerging concerns about the ecology and the environment are evident in Land Art and Environmental Art. Reconsideration of the relationship between the artwork and its context, in particular its re-location outside the parameters of the museum or gallery space, contributed to the development of Site-Specific ArtInstallationSocially-Engaged Art and Participatory Practice. Equally, feminist and postcolonial discourse concerned with identity formation, challenged the linear narrative of Western, Eurocentric, male-dominated art history, favouring multiple narratives and Hybrid practice. Advances in technology, particularly in FilmVideo and Digital Technology, contributed to the development of New Media Art. The disestablishment of the museum or gallery as the primary locus of display and consideration of art, resulted in the emergence of a broader range of forums, such as BiennialPublic Art and Artist-Led Initiatives.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rise of the art market resulted in an increase in the number of GalleriesCollectorsDealers and Art Fairs, and also the establishment of many large-scale Art Museum and galleries in major cities. A growing trend towards collaboration between artists and curators contributed to the raised profile of the Curator. In the late 1990s, a renewed interest in the role of the viewer as participant and in situating the artwork within a social context, contributed to the emergence of new forms of collaboratory and Relational practice. Contemporary Art in the twenty-first century comprises an ever-expanding field of practice. Concerns with regard to the commodification and objectification of the artwork continue to inform both the production and critique of contemporary art. Attempting to identify the way forward, some theorists and practitioners are revisiting the possibilities of Modernism, while others identify the need for a new modernism, what the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud refers to as Altermodern, which addresses the globalised, transient, hybrid nature of Contemporary Art.


Reading List

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, (ed.) Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973.
Bruce Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the Twentieth Century, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.
Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity, London: Verso, 1998.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Emma Barker (ed.), Contemporary Cultures of Display, London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 1999.
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presse Du Réel, 1998.
Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
Frances Colpitt (ed.), Abstract Art in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Claire Doherty, Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004.
Editors of Phaidon Press, Vitamin 3-D: New Perspectives in Sculpture and Installation, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2009.
Steve Edwards & Paul Woods (eds.), Art of the Avant-Gardes (Art of the Twentieth Century), New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004.
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois & Benjamin Buchloh (eds.), Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
Francis Frascina & Jonathan Harris, Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts, London: Phaidon in association with the Open University Press, 2009.
Francis Frascina & Charles Harrison (eds), Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, London: Paul Chapman Publishing, Ltd., 1982.
London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University, 2003.
Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking About Exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1990 – 1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Malden MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
Charles Harrison, Paul Wood & Jason Giager (eds.), Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
David Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945 – 2000, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism in Consumer Society’, in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, NY: The New Press, 2002.
Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985.
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004.
Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Jean Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Pam Meecham & Julie Sheldon, Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, London: Routledge, 2000.
Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Gill Perry (ed.), Themes in Contemporary Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004.
Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Brandon Taylor, Contemporary Art: Art since 1970, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Dorothy Walker, Modern Art in Ireland, Dublin: Lilliput, 1997.
Linda Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society, 1970s – 1990s, Litchfield, CT: Art Insights Inc., 1997.
Linda Weintraub, Making Contemporary Art: How Today’s Artists Think and Work, Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Caroline Wiseman, Modern Art Now: From Conception to Consumption, Ipswich: Strawberry Art Press, 2006.
Paul Wood, Francis Frascina, Johathan Harris & Charles Harrison (eds.), Modernism in Dispute: Art since the Forties, New Haven & London: Yale University Press in Association with the Open University, 1994.
Paul Wood (ed.), Varieties of Modernism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004.




We invited Francis Halsall and Declan Long, lecturers in Visual Culture in the National College of Art and Design and coordinators of the MA ‘Art in the Contemporary World’ to write an essay How soon was now? What is Modern and Contemporary Art? This essay provides an overview of Modern and Contemporary Art, identifying some of the challenges that arise when attempting to define this complex and contested sphere of theory and practice. Their essay includes examples of modern and contemporary artists and artworks, some of which are included in IMMA’s Collection.

By focusing on IMMA’s Collection, we hope to draw attention to the range of artworks in the Collection that span both Modern and Contemporary Art, including paintings by Jack B. Yeats, Cecil King, William Scott, Louis le Brocquy, Tony O’Malley, Sean Scully and Elizabeth Magill; drawings by Kathy Prendergast, Tom Molloy, Alice Maher and Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland; sculptures by Dorothy Cross, Iran do Espírito Santo, Louise Bourgeois, and Rebecca Horn; prints by Victor Vasarely, Robert Motherwell and Antoni Tapies; installations by Gerard Byrne and Liam Gillick; and lens-based work by James Coleman, Willie Doherty, Jaki Irvine, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno. We also hope to highlight the potential of IMMA’s exhibitions and Collection as resources for further investigation and enquiry into the subjects of Modern and Contemporary Art.




Video: What is Modern & Contemporary Art? Pt. 1


Video: What is Modern & Contemporary Art? Pt. 2