In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Art

  • Introduction
  • 18th and 19th Centuries

Art History Contemporary Art
Terry Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0007


As an art-critical or historical category––one that might designate a style of art, a tendency among others, or a period in the history of art––“contemporary art” is relatively recent. In art world discourse throughout the world, it appears in bursts of special usage in the 1920s and 1930s, and again during the 1960s, but it remains subsidiary to terms––such as “modern art,” “modernism,” and, after 1970, “postmodernism”––that highlight art’s close but contested relationships to social and cultural modernity. “Contemporary art” achieves a strong sense, and habitual capitalization, only in the 1980s. Subsequently, usage grew rapidly, to become ubiquitous by 2000. Contemporary art is now the undisputed name for today’s art in professional contexts and enjoys widespread resonance in public media and popular speech. Yet, its valiance for any of the usual art-critical and historical purposes remains contested and uncertain. To fill in this empty signifier by establishing the content of this category is the concern of a growing number of early-21st-century publications. This article will survey these developments in historical sequence. Although it will be shown that use of the term “contemporary art” as a referent has a two-hundred-year record, as an art-historical field, contemporary art is so recent, and in such volatile formation, that general surveys of the type now common for earlier periods in the history of art are just beginning to appear. To date, only one art-historiographical essay has been attempted. Listed within Contemporary Art Becomes a Field, this essay (“The State of Art History: Contemporary Art” (Art Bulletin 92.4 [2010]: 366–383; Smith 2010, cited under Historiography) is by the present author and forms the conceptual basis of this article. Contemporary art’s deep immersion in the art market and auction system is profiled in the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Art Markets and Auction. This article does not include any of the many thousands of books, catalogues, and essays that are monographic studies of individual contemporary artists, because it would be invidious to select a small number. For similar reasons, entries on journals, websites, and blogs are omitted. A select listing of them may be found in Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011; Smith 2011 cited under Surveys). Books on art movements are not to be found because contemporary art, unlike modern art, has no movements in the same art-historical sense. It consists of currents, tendencies, relationships, concerns, and interests and is the product of a complex condition in which different senses of history are coming into play. With regret, this article confines itself to publications in English, the international language of the contemporary art world. This fact obscures the importance and valiance of certain local-language publications, even though many key texts were issued simultaneously both in the local language and English, and many others have subsequently been translated. In acknowledgment of this lacuna, a subsection on Primary Documents has been included.

18th and 19th Centuries

During these centuries, “contemporary” is almost entirely incidental to terms associated with “beauty,” “taste,” or, more controversially, “mainstream (juste milieu)” vis-à-vis “modern,” when it came to highlighting the qualities toward which art was understood to aspire, or, equally broadly, the social purpose it was understood to serve, as is demonstrated by the remarks in Carr 1878, Benjamin 1877, and Burty 1878. Yet, contemporaneity of one kind or another does appear as an element within some of the key moments of transformation in art––the defense of modern painting in Ruskin 1848, the famous definition of modernité in Baudelaire 2008, and in Courbet’s programmatic realism (see Nochlin 1971), for example––and as part of some of the most important developments in the organization of artistic practice, such as museums, profiled in Lorente 1998.

  • Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life.” In The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. 2d ed. Edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, 1–41. Arts & Letters. London: Phaidon, 2008.

    Written in 1864, Baudelaire’s definition of modernité––“the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art, the other half of which is the eternal and the immutable” (p. 12)––contains contemporaneity as its essential entry point, its temporal turning, the moment at which the truly modern artist subjects his experience of the impacts of modernity to a formal figuration that, he hopes, will create an art that has some chance of becoming, under criteria that it is helping to bring about, “eternal.” This edition originally published in 1964.

  • Benjamin, S. G. W. Contemporary Art in Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877.

    A collection of three articles that had recently been published in Harper’s Magazine, the author (a prolific American journalist) offers informative and engaging reports on the role of academies, the state of the art market, and major tendencies in the visual arts––from painting through sculpture and the graphic arts to the crafts and industrial design––in England, France, and Germany. Republished as recently as 1976 (New York: Garland).

  • Burty, Philippe. “Gustave Courbet.” The Academy, 16 February 1878.

    In a lengthy obituary of the recently deceased Gustav Courbet in the “Contemporary Art” section of the February 1878 issue of The Academy, Parisian art writer Philippe Burty notes “Some of his pictures, apart from any influence of system, and under the free influence of his natural genius, are admirable works, worthy of the museums that do themselves the honor of welcoming contemporary art, and do not confine themselves exclusively to the study of ancient schools” (p. 153).

  • Carr, Joseph Comyns. Examples of Contemporary Art: Etchings from Representative Works by Living English and Foreign Artists. London: Chatto & Windus, 1878.

    Reviewed by Frederick Wedmore in The Academy, 16 February 1878, as “an exquisite gift-book” consisting of images taken from the journal L’Art, with commentary by the author. Mixed levels of competence in the engravings are noted, but Wedmore remarks of the writing: “In the main his criticism is of the highest order of contemporary work, and it is contained in a volume which the well-to-do will offer to the fortunate” (pp. 151–152).

  • Contemporary Review.

    A journal of politics and the arts, founded in 1866. Initially edited by Henry Alford, Anglican dean of Cambridge, it was intended as a church-related counterpart of the resolutely secular journal Fortnightly Review, edited by the novelist Anthony Trollope. Under its second editor, James Thomas Knowles, it embraced current discussions of evolution, and authors such as Gladstone, Huxley, and Ruskin. During the 1880s a series of articles on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attracted controversy.

  • Lorente, J. Pedro. Cathedrals of Urban Modernity: The First Museums of Contemporary Art, 1800–1930. Historical Urban Studies. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

    Surveys the establishment, in European capitals during the 19th century, of collections of the work of living artists alongside the permanent collections of art from the past. Beginning with the Musée des Artistes Vivants in the Luxembourg Palace, Paris, in 1818, annual exhibitions assessed the work of preferred artists for inclusion in state collections. From 1863 onward, independent salons showed work that officials refused to include in such exhibitions. Survey completes with the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  • Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Style and Civilization. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1971.

    Nochlin was the first art historian to locate the grasp of contemporaneity as an essential factor among those whom the French realist artists used to distinguish their art from the neoclassicism of the academies. Courbet’s goal was “to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of the epoch, according to my own estimation” (Gustav Courbet, “The Realist Manifesto,” 1855). Also cited in Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848–1900: Sources and Documents, by Linda Nochlin (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966). See especially pp. 25–33. Realism republished as recently as 1990 (London: Penguin).

  • Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Vol. 1. 4th ed. London: Smith, Elder, 1848.

    In the preface to the second edition, reprinted in this volume, Ruskin addresses those who criticized his argument that Turner’s exceptional achievement as an artist is as great as––and in landscape, greater than––any of his predecessors, ancient and recent. “He who would maintain the cause of contemporary excellence against that of elder time, must have every class of man in array against him” (p. xiv). Republished as recently as 1987 (New York: Knopf), edited and abridged by David Barrie.

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