Modern v contemporary
Frank Pierce
We were debating at dinner the use of the word "modern" as used in such catch phrases as "post-modern" and "modern" art and "modern" architecture.

I was speculating that the word "contemporary" is a better word to describe what's happening currently. Modern almost seems to have dated itself to a period of perhaps fifty to seventy years ago and has no real place in today's vocabulary. It's also logical to assume that the term "post-modern" is an oxymoron and can't exist with any rational meaning. And that contemporary architecture is certainly not the same as what was commonly called "modern architecture."


There is the danger of equivocation here. In the vernacular, "modern" is an indexical and without a specific context given, always refers the very moment it occurs. "Contemporary" bears a greater degree of context so as to permit, for exmaple, two historical figures being said to be "contemporary with each other."

...but, the use in art-culture is a technical one, outside, though clearly derived from, the vernacular. Whether "modern art" or "contemporary art," the phrases cease to have the temporal sense used elsewhere in language. Once coined, the the technical use of the words become fixed to their subject (the styles, movement, etc.). The etymology is clear enough, as it was coined to refer to works which were in temporal equity with the critics, who had already such terms as "classical" and even "neo-classical" and "revival" in there technical vocabulary and used it to contrast. An irony, of course, develops as the works and movement/style/whatnot become dated but still have that reference for them. This does have the ever more interesting epicycle as terms like "post-modern" are contrived, but no true paradox exists since these are no longer the same descriptive words used in the dominant language.

By analogy, there are phases refered to in the development of philosophy, that include, along with "classical" and "mideaval," "early modern" and "late modern." "Modern philosophy" would not, and is not meant to, refer to whatever the extant schools at the particular time being discussed were. It is an unfortunate name for the phase, since its a matter of some subtlety to distinguish the sense and for consistently naming later movements ("really late modern," "late, late modern," "ultra-modern").

Frank Pierce
Thanks for your input, AdSumADS. And you are right about the use of contemporary. Any two figures from history may well be contemporary. I was suggesting the use of the word in the sense of current, to describe any happening in the present context.

It's a shame that Bauhaus and cubism were labeled "modern" when other words would have served more accurately (don't tempt me, please!). Classical, as a descriptive adjective, is much better because it describes a style of workmanship rather than a chronological period. Art Deco comes to mind as a proper descriptive term. While Art Nuveau misses it just a little bit. Nothing "new" about this beautiful and decorative older form of graphic and artistic design.

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