Contemporary art

The problem isn’t just that nobody can agree on what contemporary art is; it’s that nobody knows when the contemporary era begins.

Mark Rothko said that Rembrandt was the first contemporary artist. It Is far isn’t it? Some curators see a likely candidate in 1989: the year of the Berlin Wall’s fall. Other influential figures have offered different start dates, ranging from the early 1970s to 1945 to the 1910s. 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 is no precise date in history when the contemporary era begins, any more than there is a precise answer to the question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But the temptation to find that date seems to be all but irresistible for art historians: By the time they get around to figuring out what the contemporary era is, it will be contemporary no longer. A quote by a great novelist (who may or may not be contemporary) comes to mind: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

Location: KunstHistoriche Museum Vienna, Austria