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Contemporary Art  
 
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From one perspective, contemporary art is the art of the immediate present. However, in the institutional settings of the museum, the art market, and academia, contemporary art designates new currents in art since 1970. Its history is identified with postmodernism, a later phase of modern art. During this period, an art addressing gay and lesbian identity emerged.

Modernism versus Postmodernism

Literary and art criticism has set postmodernism in theoretical opposition to twentieth-century modernism, a tradition dominated by white and heterosexual men. For modernism, oil painting was the preferred medium in the fine arts. It carried the history of modern art. Writers framed modernist art theory in terms of formalism, a critical approach that prized the visual or formal elements of style over content. They conceptualized art history as linear and progressive and, by mid-century, declared abstraction to be modernism's consummate form.

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Political protest and the call for social reforms in the United States and France in the 1960s had a tremendous impact on western culture, including notions of what art should be. The challenges to authority in America made by the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements, and in Paris by the 1968 May riots, contributed to a climate of opinion in which modernism in the arts could no longer survive. Modernism, as the standard for twentieth-century art, was discredited by new voices.

Although the term postmodernism did not become current until the early 1980s, it is descriptive of the course contemporary art has taken from the early 1970s to the present. Although postmodern critics acknowledged the achievements of modernist artists, they undermined the exclusivist nature of modernism by recognizing and championing a plurality of interests.

In postmodern art, women, non-white, and homosexual artists gained fresh authority. Race, ethnicity, and gender were seen as legitimate foundations for art. Figurative and narrative art, which best served these concerns, became viable alternatives to abstraction. The hegemony of oil painting gave way to equal respect for photography, sculpture, installation art, video, and electronic-based media. All of these developments were the crucible in which a gay and lesbian art took its distinctive forms.

The inclusiveness of contemporary art enabled art to become a significant forum for artists who wished to speak to gay and lesbian identity. Following the formation of the feminist and gay liberation movements, the latter in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the doors opened for the creation and institutionalization of gay and lesbian art. Although frequently controversial with the general public, gay and lesbian art ultimately entered the mainstream of high culture.

The 1970s

Modernist critics saw the history of modern art as a sequence of exclusive art movements. They marginalized all other directions, notably realism, social activism, and untutored art. This exclusivity changed during the 1970s, primarily in the United States. The decade was dense with the preoccupations of a younger generation of artists who investigated a wide variety of subjects with traditional and innovative media.

The pluralism of the period included new formats (conceptualism, performance art, and installation art); realist styles (photorealism); expressionist styles (traditional figuration, Pattern and Decoration, New Image); and new media (earthworks and video art).

Lesbian Artists

In this environment of change, American lesbian artists began to assert themselves in a rich history of exhibitions and public manifestations: for example, the Feminist Lesbian Art Collective (FLAC), a support group and exhibiting society for lesbians living on the lower east side of New York that was active in the early 1970s; the "Great American Lesbian Art Show"--a series of exhibitions that appeared nation-wide (Los Angeles, 1980); "A Lesbian Show," organized by Harmony Hammond for the Green Street Workshop in New York (1978); and, in literary form, a special issue of Heresies, a leading American feminist journal, that was devoted to lesbian art and artists (New York, 1980).

Lesbian art of the 1970s was inseparable from the women's movement and was allied in expression to the work of non-lesbian women artists who pursued feminist agendas. The most important cities for the advancement of lesbian art were New York and Los Angeles. The inseparability of lesbianism and feminism in the 1970s may be illustrated in the dual career of Kate Millett. As a literary critic, she wrote one of the most important feminist studies, Sexual Politics (1970); as a lesbian artist, she expressed herself in sculpture and mixed media installations.

Harmony Hammond, a prominent feminist writer, was also an abstract sculptor. (In 2000, she published Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History, the first survey of the subject ever written.)

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