Since I became involved with the subject of art a few years ago, I’ve read quite a few articles from a variety of sources on the topics of both traditional and contemporary art. Whilst it is obvious that most people who write on this topic have done little or no research on the ethos or philosophy behind the 2 divisions of art, ultimately, it may very well be that the classification, like the beauty of a work of art, lies in the eyes of the beholder.
After all, such categories as "beautiful" and "disgusting" are completely individual, and in some cases even imposed. That is, the "canon" as such is not a permanent but a variable factor that depends on the era, gender position and various changes and shifts in society. In general, there is a difference between "classical" (or "academic", "traditional") and "modern" art. For example, in traditional art there may be no idea or message, what is enriched by modern art, you can read about it in elite writings.
London in particular is driven by an obession with contemporary art – much of which is, unfortunately, quite overrated. I’m not saying that there is no good contemporary art (and we’re not referring to graphic design when I say contemporary art), but the English taste of appreciating the craft and skill of an artist is, I think, quite bland (like the food, perhaps?). I won’t name any artists or any art dealers who buy or create this art. That said, read what I am writing here with a grain of salt and note that not all contemporary art makes you contemporary or cool. Contemporary, like much of the rest of a city like London, is simply a word that represents a certain notion of facade that we have come to associate a little too much importance with. It is best to judge a piece of art by what went into it, what it says and what it communicates. Although appearance may start one’s relationship with a piece of art, the relationship will only become lasting if there is more behind the superficial appearance of any piece of work.
Getting on with our discussion, then. I have seen writers trace the roots of traditional art to the 12th century. Some attribute the origins of traditional art to renaissance – yet, others think that traditional art refers to the traditional forms of art, i.e. painting, drawing, pottery, etc. Truth is, and truth from my point of view, that all of the above definitions are based on people promoting their own agendas. Pro European writers like the sound of the word tradition and give credit for it to their roots. Craftsmen try to take hostage the essence of the word traditional for their benefit, but nobody ever discusses what it is that really defines traditional art.
If we take a step back in time, the Greeks were responsible for some traditional art. The Romans were responsible for some traditional Art. But with what little knowledge I have and research I have undertaken, the formal creation of traditional art was probably undertaken by Muslims. It was this effort that primarily defined the traditional arts on a larger scale – I’m sure there was and has been a major Jewish and Christian application too, but my knowledge on the subject is even more restricted there, so I will use Islamic examples to define traditional art. You see, traditional art, as it was back in the day, is also today known as sacred art by some. Ultimately, the goal of traditional art was to create ultimate beauty and harmony, that could only be attributed to God, through the heart, mind, hands and materials of a human being. Don’t mistake this for religious art – if you apply this principle to a mosque, perhaps the application become religious, but if you apply the same to your palace or to your home or to your painting, it becomes traditional art.
What this means, then, is that traditional art is built with a different purpose. The goal of a traditional piece of art is not to promote the artist or his ego (although this has to be done in the 21st centiry because everyone has to make a living) but to set aside an ego and build something of excellence – this can be anything – it’s just the intention and goal with which it is built that determines the classification. However, because traditional artists generally have to isolate the human ego, traditional art generally ends up being abstract and communicates a deeper meaning or a story. You’ll see this same common theme, whether you see a piece with a geometric pattern, calligraphy or the depiction of a scene. The focus is never one a particular person, the focus is on great detail in depicting something from God’s perfect creation. This is one of the reasons you won’t see a whole lot of portraits as part of the truly traditional art. You may very well see people in a variety of Indian and Persian miniature paintings, but they depict a scene in great detail and depth – they never focus on one person.
Contemporary Art, on the other hand, has quite a different purpose. It’s all about the artist and what he feels, thinks and wants. Contemporary art is a depiction of the artist unlike traditional art. This is why as part of many contemporary paintings you will see portraits – portraits of people that the artist admires or the artist painting portraits of those who want to be admired. Contemporary art today also includes a wide array of abstract paintings, from monstrosities to some that actually depict the state of mind, feeling or thought of an artist quite well.
Now I’m not here to say a piece of art has to be either contemporary or traditional – you also see fusion pieces where artists try to incorporate both the essence of traditional and contemporary art. Truth is, different art speaks different things to different people. Therefore, I think it is perhaps better to classify it at source – hence the definition as I see it above. Of course, the topic is always open to discussion for some and while it’s certainly open here, this is for now the way I see it.