So what is contemporary art? Semantically speaking, contemporary tends to refer to the present time; it was not always, however, the preferred term for discussing art of one’s time. In 1941, MoMA Director Alfred Barr urged more students to study the art of their time, stating “The field of modern art is wide open and crying for scholarly research.” But the 1960s changed all that – people started talking about “postmodernism,” calling into question whether we were still in a phase that could be called modernism. “Contemporary” thus became the preferred term to talk about the present moment. Today, we generally use the term “Modern Art” to refer to art made between the late 19th century and the 1950s, while “Contemporary Art” is often used to refer to art after the 1970s, although it sometimes describes art post 1990s. For disambiguation, some will use “Post-War” to refer to art made from 1945 until about 1970. But these terms are not set in stone, and no doubt many will take issue with the delineations made here.
Scholars and critics love to debate the ways we divvy up time. October magazine, an important academic journal, recently devoted an entire issue to a “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’.” Some respondents discussed this as a “crisis” or used the term “perpetual contemporary.”Julia Bryan-Wilson called professors of contemporary art “futurologists” since they have to predict what art will be deemed important by future historians.