dictionary > Contemporary (the word)

In the context of art history and criticism the periodization label “contemporary art” is often used in close proximity with the label “modern art”. The two stand in a very peculiar relation. In the departments of art history students are taught that contemporary art comes after modern art, or after World War Two. The relation between the two paradigms is discussed in more detail here. This entry of the dictionary is dedicated to the history and to some grammatical features of the words “contemporary” and “modern.”


Date chart and etymology of the words “modern” and “contemporary” (OED)

As seen in these diagrams from the Oxford English Dictionary  “contemporary” entered English language almost two centuries later than the word “modern.” Like in art historical periodization “contemporary” is younger than its counterpart. It is not only the time when these two terms came into use. Unlike “modern,” “contemporary” is grammatically less flexible. The word “modern” may take many lexical or grammatical forms. For instance, in the second half of the last century historians were discussing the three-fold frame of reference, “modernity,” ”modernization” and “modernism,” referring to three important aspects of the modern age: history, technology, and culture. This also means that grammatically the term “modern,” is susceptible to many suffixes; it may also take the form of a noun, of a verb or even of an adverb (e.g. modernism, modernize, modernly, and so forth). The word “contemporary,” on the other hand, does not allow for such a flexibility. Such words as “contemporaneity,” “contemporaneous,” “contemporaneously,” “contemporaneousness,” “contemporariness” are listed in the dictionaries as adjectival derivatives. It is also worth noting that the term “contemporary” rejects such suffixes as: “-ize,” “-ism,” and “-ation” – suffixes that denote action and movement: meanings that has often been regarded as the essence of modernity with its course set to progress. (In the 17th century writers used the word contemporianism, to denote coexistence but today the term seems to be obsolete). The syntactic function of the adjective “contemporary” is most of the time secondary; as an adjective it modifies and assists other, more significant parts of speech, for instance when it comes to escort such nouns as: art, history, music, culture, and so forth. The montage of excerpts below aim at offering various interpretations on the meanings invested in the word “contemporary.”

To be contemporary means that in a relation between two or more things time is the main mediator, or that being in the same time is that what relates one thing to another (as in the phrase “they are contemporary”). Unlike the adjective “modern,” which is more categorical in stressing a “being at this time,” contemporary in its main adjectival form is more ambiguous implying in various contexts coexistence and concurrence, simultaneity and synchronism. Before asserting its firm position in the English language, contemporary had to struggle and to win over its cousin “co-temporary” that was used to convey “unitedly,” “conjointly,” or “equally temporarily.”[1]

In art history and criticism neither contemporary nor modern are simply temporal terms. They grew and collected meanings that pertain to various  issues: from a certain style of producing art to its mode of display and reception, and from a certain aesthetic ideology associated with each term to political and civic positions. The following montage of excerpts from books offers meanings that various authors found in the phrases "contemporary" and "modern art" or in the word “contemporary.”







To be continued.

[1] (OED, English Dictionary Oxford (Oxford University Press 2007 [cited June 22 2007]); available from http://dictionary.oed.com/).