Contemporary Vs Traditional Art

by | Jun 18, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

What is ‘real art’? Well, it depends who you ask. Some will tell you that it’s a beautifully rendered portrait or still life, the lighting caught perfectly, the colours accurate, the subject matter aesthetically pleasing. Others will say that it’s a canvas of raw brushstrokes, pure colours and shapes, or a sculpture of twisted metal. Others will say it’s a chair in the middle of an empty room.

Just about everyone, of course, will tell you that art is important, and something to be enjoyed. But in that case, how did so many of us end up with such polarised ideas of what art is, and the ‘right’ ways to create and enjoy it?

Ophelia – John Everett Millais, 1851–1852

Defining the terms

Often, this debate is framed as ‘contemporary’ versus ‘traditional’ art. However, these terms are often muddled, and people might refer to ‘modern’ versus ‘traditional’. Modern art refers to art from about the middle of the 1800s to the 1970s, and contemporary specifically refers to art from the middle of the 20th century onwards, usually starting around the 1970s, while modern art is usually placed on a timeline from the middle of the 1800s.

Traditional art is even more difficult to define. Conversationally, ‘traditional art’ is often used as a catch-all term for realism, but artists have been trying to render their versions of reality for centuries; do we mean an anatomically correct sculpture from Ancient Greece, or a lush pastoral scene from the Victoria era? The various historical art traditions that don’t prioritise realism are, also, frequently overlooked in this debate.


Creation of Adam – Fresco painting by Michelangelo c. 1508–1512.

Traditional Art: lacking in emotion?

Fans of newer art styles might look down on older art styles as lacking in personal expression, comparing them to the freedom that contemporary artists enjoy in expressing themselves without rules. However, any artwork from any century can be viewed as holding a personal expression from the artist; they might be choosing to depict their negative emotions in the rendering of a dark and stormy sky, or the slumped posture of the model in a figurative work. On the other hand, a contemporary artwork might be entirely lacking in genuine emotion. The artist might simply be imitating the emotive expression they have seen others use, or claiming a deeper meaning to their work after they have created it – judging an artist’s true feelings using our own is deceptively difficult! The emotion that a viewer might feel when looking at a traditional artwork is also not to be ignored; we have posted before about the impact of nostalgia in artworks and its very relevant impact on the current art world.

Guernica – Picasso, 1937

Contemporary Art: lacking in skill?

A criticism often levelled at contemporary works is something along the lines of “I could have done that” or even “my child could have done that.” There is a much larger debate to be had here, about the way that an artist might use something simple like a monochromatic canvas of textured brush strokes, or the placement of concrete blocks – both clichés often depicted in a negative framing of contemporary art. In so many cases, however, the skill is more about the reaction the work evokes from the viewer.

Two of the most popular living artists in the current market are KAWS and Stik. KAWS creates works based around simplified, graphic characters, while Stik’s works are even more minimal, with just a few strokes to create each figure against a block colour background. Both might easily attract the “I could have done that” criticism; and yet, those who love these works can see that the artists are using simple concepts and styles to evoke complex messages and emotions.

Stik Sleeping Baby Homerton Hospital Mural — STIK

And of course there are many contemporary art styles which, although not using the same skills as traditional art, require years of study and training to master. It can be harder to appreciate them at first glance, especially if we are unfamiliar with the style and materials. It’s very easy to, say, look at a painting of a bowl of fruit and know that the artist has succeeded in their goal… because we know what a bowl of fruit looks like.

Accessibility and elitism

Often, the more emotional responses to the ‘what is real art’ debate seem to stem from the feeling of being excluded. Those who favour contemporary artworks will often see the traditional styles as belonging to the past, part of large institutions that benefit a chosen few and exclude everyone else. The rule-breaking works of contemporary artists offer a step away from this, providing an equal opportunity for those who want to forge their own paths.

On the flip side of this, however, is the fact that contemporary art is closely associated with contemporary academia. Many of us, on a visit to an art gallery, have seen some strange artwork that we don’t understand, an essay-length text on the wall beside it packed with jargon and obscure references. This approach to art can become its own form of elitism, with those ‘in the know’ being able to appreciate the subtleties of the art and the rest of us left to feel foolish for just seeing colours and shapes.


Picking a side… or not

The questions around old versus new art can provoke harsh disagreements, from in-person arguments to warring factions on social media. As with any argument that runs this deep, we’ll often feel pressured to pick a side. However, it seems that the most interesting things to learn about this debate are always to be found by listening to both sides, and digging deeper to discover the reasons behind each argument.

Most importantly, not picking one side over the other allows you the freedom to choose the art that you love – and if you want to display your bowl of fruit painting next to your array of concrete blocks, don’t let anyone stop you.

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