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Confusing Art Terms Explained!

Have you ever spent time reading about art, just to be more confused with all the lingo involved?

Fine art is a field filled with jargon, and getting caught up in the terminology can detract from the work itself sometimes. Although art doesn’t need to be discussed to be appreciated—simply enjoying a piece of art is enough—it can still be nice to understand some of the literature around it.

In this article, we will decipher some of the most commonly used art terms and some of the most commonly misused art terms. Let’s dive into it.

Classical Art

Classicism, or Classical Art, generally means art referring to Ancient Greek or Roman styles. Classical art, as a term, came about in the 17th century to describe the arts of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the art of the time that mimicked it.

Characteristics of classical art are:

● Feelings of harmony and restraint

● Adherence to recognized standards of form

● Idealized forms are depicted in an often emotionally neutral way

Classism accounts for a lot of Renaissance art and art for many centuries later. It wasn’t until early Modern art—which we’ll explore below—that it began to wane.

Modern Art

This is near the top of our list for a good reason. Modern Art, or Modernism, is written everywhere—so much so that it can be easy to forget what it really means.

To be fair, it has a bit of a vague definition, making it easy to throw around. Let’s look at Tate’s definition of Modernism to begin:

“Modernism refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life.”

Oftentimes, Modern Art is used to talk about today’s artwork—this is more or less misuse of the term. Modern Art really started back as far as the late 19th-century. In fact, Impressionism is considered one of the first modernist movements) and ended around the 1960s.

These are common elements of Modern Art:

● Rejection of conservative values, such as realistic depictions of subjects

● The tendency towards abstraction (we’ll get to that below!)

● Emphasis on techniques, materials, and processes

● Relationship to social or political agendas

Contemporary Art

Let’s move on to contemporary art. Generally speaking, contemporary art refers to art made in the present day. Many people interpret this as art made by living artists.

However, there are more caveats here, which can lead to some confusion. Within the art world, contemporary art is often delineated as art made after the post-Pop era during the 1960s (meaning that contemporary art begins after the end of modern art). So, this vague timing means that some “contemporary artists” have passed away. It’s an interesting term and one that will probably keep evolving over time.

Abstract Art

Formally, abstract art refers to “art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colors, forms, and gestural marks to achieve its effect,” according to Tate.

In the 1950s and 1960s, artists like Jackson Pollock had ventured completely past abstraction into non-objectivity (meaning the lines didn’t form any semblance to reality). This era is considered around the end of modern art. Since then, abstract art has been a crucial part of the international art market—compare this to 150+ years ago, when many artists were still referencing the idealized and neutral forms of classic art, and any type of abstraction would lead artists to be ostracized.

Abstract art is everywhere nowadays, but it was an undeniably radical approach to fine art for a long time. It’s an important pillar of modern art and contemporary art—you’ll see a lot of it on our website!


In formal art education curricula, critique plays a central role in the development of young artists. It can often replace tests or exams, particularly in studio courses such as drawing or painting.

Critique refers to the conversation, analysis, and evaluation of an artwork. Critique can include more formal aspects, such as control of the medium and color theory, and conceptual ones.

The practice of critiquing is essential to the development of any artist, as it gives them valuable outside feedback. For many art students, critiques are a day of stress and learning, as their artwork is on display for uncensored conversation. However, critique is supposed to be helpful and informative—it is not a short insult of work without expansion or reasoning. Critique can go on throughout an artist’s life.

Of course, it’s up to the artist to take heed of comments made in critique or not!

Mixed Media vs. Multimedia

Lastly, let’s talk about more technical ideas: “mixed media” art vs. “multimedia” art. These are closely related and are also used interchangeably sometimes—but there is a difference!

Mixed media art refers to visual art which incorporates many different media in the same work. For example, a canvas work that uses paint, collage, and ink is considered a mixed media art. Mixed media is limited, generally, to visual art.

Multimedia art, on the other hand, encompasses a broader spectrum. Most often, multimedia art refers to installations that include visuals and audio, and sometimes even interactive elements. Multimedia extends beyond strictly visual arts—elements such as literature, dance, and drama can come into play in a multimedia piece.

What’s the Point of All This?

While it might seem excessive to decipher these terms, understanding them is important, particularly when reading about art history and news articles. They are often thrown around nowadays, but knowing the origin of terms like “classicism” and “contemporary art” makes more sense when learning about artworks and art movements.

Additionally, if you’re an artist, grasping these terms is incredibly helpful when writing about your own work!

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