Contemporary Art vs. Modern Art

Dear Liza,

Frank Benson’s “Portrait of Elizabeth”, from 1901, is Modern Art

I learn a lot when I go to PAM, our art museum, with Auntie Bridgett. She has studied art history, so she helps me see things in perspective.

All these styles, from 1890 to 1940 or so, are Modern Art!

For example, I always thought that since Modern usually means the newest and most current thing, that Modern would be the newest, latest art. I was wrong! Modern art, as it turns out, had a specific time span, from just before 1850 to about 1950. So Modern art is older than me!

One of Monet’s Parasol ladies, about 1875, is Modern Art

Modern Art also had a lot of different styles in it… Picasso’s cubism, Salvatore Dali’s surrealism, and abstract art are all “Modern” art.

Abstract, Modern Art

Art that is done NOW, (or at least, since 1950) is called “Contemporary” Art.

Since it is newer and not carried in as many museums or art books, people aren’t as used to seeing it… so they say “That’s not art,” which is exactly what people said about the great Impressionist Monet (1850s-1920) when HE started. It was “smudgy”, “sloppy”, and “unfinished”. They didn’t get it.

Aldridge’s “Biophilia”, from 2007, is Contemporary Art

So when I see Contemporary Art and think “That’s not art”, I try to hold my tongue. I try to see what idea the artist is trying to get across, and how well that did it. It can be a challenge, but challenges are good.

Art keeps making me ask questions and think harder about things.


Grandma Judy

Hank Willis Thomas Has More to Say

Dear Liza,

The next set of galleries in the “All Things Being Equal” exhibit at PAM hit much closer to home for me. Called “Unbranded, a Century of White Women,” it used magazine advertisements to look at how stereotypes of white women had been used to sell products, but also, how the stereotypes themselves have been cemented in society so firmly that we see them as fact.

Mother and daughter baking, selling baking soda and gender roles

Since each other these images is THE picture that a company chose to sell its product, you have to ask… why this one? Mr. Thomas proposes that the men creating the ads wanted women to see themselves only as mothers, bakers and cleaners, and that these were noble, life-fulfilling roles. This kept them safely cloistered at home and let the men run things.

Making a new generation of housewives…

But it got even darker.

This ad featuring half a young woman’s unwrinkled face and half with wrinkles due to sun damage, is supposedly selling sunscreen. I remember when it was in one of my mother’s magazines, and she talked about how important it was to wear a hat and use sunscreen, because “no one wants to look like that.”

What she didn’t talk about, was that old age, for women in particular, was to be postponed at all costs. And she didn’t talk about it because it was assumed. Women were worthy while they were young and pretty.

Getting older….be avoided at all costs?

Other ads showed women in “a man’s world”, but always in a way that threw a bone to males and their opinions as being ‘right’.

For example, this politically active, joyous woman is celebrating at a political convention…. while wearing a pointy bra. “Yes, you can vote and stuff,” it seems to say. “But you still have to wear this ridiculous underwear to be a real woman.”

Underwear as …..power?

This ad shows two fellows mountain climbing with a woman, who is coming up from behind and slowing them down. “See?” The ad says, without words. “If you leave the kitchen and insist on being out in the men‘s world, you just look silly and ruin it for everyone.”

These images were created by companies to sell products, but were often seen by people as “showing the way things were.” Women should teach their daughters (no boys were used in any of these campaigns) to clean and bake. Women are prettier when younger. Women do look silly when they step into the political arena. See? It’s right there in the magazine.

So, when you watch TV or read online or in a magazine, look at what’s being shown, and ask yourself, “What are they really selling?”


Grandma Judy