When Did Contemporary Art Start?

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If the concept of contemporary art baffles you, you’re in good company—elite, in fact.

The problem isn’t just that nobody can agree on what contemporary art is; it’s that nobody knows when the contemporary era begins. Some curators see a likely candidate in 1989: the year of the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the long-overdue anticolonialism of the “Magiciens de la terre” exhibition in Paris. Other influential figures have offered different start dates, ranging from the early 1970s (according to Smithsonian curator Melissa Ho) to 1945 (so say many German curators) to the 1910s (sociologist Nathalie Heinich’s preference). You’d have an easier time getting a consensus from a roomful of Kennedy conspiracists.

“Time,” wrote Thomas Mann, “has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year.” If only it were that simple. Historical divisions are arbitrarily drawn and endlessly debatable, but sometimes they’re the only way to make sense of things—and so, if the last few decades’ worth of culture have anything to recommend them, it is worth asking, Raymond Carver–style, what we talk about when we talk about contemporary art.

Search the prevalence of the phrase “contemporary art” in print between the early 19th and 21st centuries on Google Books, and you’ll find that the term was virtually unused for 120 years. There has always been “contemporary” art, of course, but until recently, it was almost always filed under the not-quite-synonymous label of “modern.” Give “modern art” the Google Books treatment, and you’ll get a mini-history of the Western avant-garde, with peaks in each of its crucial years: 1848, 1922, 1968. Since the late ’60s, however, “modern art” has become considerably rarer, while “contemporary art” has doubled in popularity.

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