What is Contemporary Art?

Discover what characterizes contemporary art, and how it differs from modern art

Given that there is no approach or style that makes a work of contemporary art easily identifiable, contemporary art is perhaps best defined by how difficult it is to define. Often conflated or confused with "modern art", the term “contemporary art” is sometimes misused.

In this post, we explain the difference between modern and contemporary art and look back on the evolution of the latter up until the present day.

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Damien Hirst

Modern Art vs. Contemporary Art

Given that the words “modern” and “contemporary” are synonyms, meaning current, recent, or present-day, it’s not surprising that modern and contemporary art often get confused. Ironically, modern art is actually quite old, having begun during the industrial revolution (around the 1860s). During the 19th century, artists’ commitment to “mimesis”–the imitation and representation of reality–began to falter. With the emergence of new technology such as photography, it no longer seemed worthwhile to copy reality. Instead, artists wanted to begin painting more freely and experiment with abstraction, breaking away from the art that had been produced over hundreds of years, and which had focused on narrative.

Modern art embraces lots of –isms: impressionism, symbolism, cubism, fauvism, expressionism, and futurism. As 20th-century artists began to explore art's own identity, they asked themselves, “What is art, and what should it do?” Postmodernism saw art become self-conscious and the lines between fine art and everyday life being blurred. Fluxus was an anti-art movement that put emphasis on the process over the finished product; artists often produced large quantities of identical artworks to decrease the value of each individual object.

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Banksy's "Dismaland," a pop-up art exhibition in the form of an apocalyptic theme park

Pop art, pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, reproduced mass culture and reimagined commercial objects as artworks. In 1964, art critic Arthur Danto visited an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York. The sculptures, virtually indistinguishable from real-life Brillo boxes, prompted Danto to reflect on what made one of the boxes an artwork and the other an ordinary object in his essay titled “The Artworld”:

"What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is. [Warhol’s Brillo boxes] could not have been art fifty years ago. The world has to be ready for certain things, the art world no less than the real one. It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the art world, and art, possible".

Contemporary Art’s Lack Of Uniformity

Contemporary art evolved out of postmodernism and movements such as pop art (which would later be reborn thanks to Neo-pop artists like Jeff Koons) and Fluxus. According to art historians, the term “contemporary art” refers to art being produced today, or within our lifetime (although this definition gets confusing given that we all have our own interpretation of when this would be). It is generally accepted that the late 60s and early 70s–the end of modern art–mark the beginning of contemporary art.

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Marina Abramović performing “Rhythm 0” (1974)

Contemporary art experiments with new mediums such as performance art, video art, Earth art, installation art, virtual art, and many more. Contemporary art lacks uniformity and therefore defies definition, being an umbrella for a plethora of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects. Perhaps its most uniforming factor is that it constantly questions the present and searches for meaning, reflecting on heated issues of contemporary society and challenging people to think. It arose following the great social, cultural, technological, and political change of the 60s, which is reflected in the early pieces.

Audience Participation and Involvement

Marcel Duchamp once wrote: “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” With interactive and participatory art, the spectator’s role in the creation of a piece was taken to a whole new level: their actions became part of the artwork.

In “Rhythm 0” (1974), performance artist Marina Abramović invited audience members to do whatever they wanted to her using any of the 72 items she provided, including a pen, scissors, chains, an ax, a loaded pistol, and others. The performance ended when audience members became too aggressive.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), produced in 1991, comprises a pile of candy weighing 175Ibs (more or less the weight of a male body). Spectators are invited to take pieces, causing the sculpture to diminish over time.

The piece is meant to be an allegorical portrait of the life of Torres' partner Ross Laycock, whose body changed drastically leading up to his death caused by AIDS.

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"Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Antony Gormley's 2009 “ONE & OTHER” Fourth Plinth commission invited 2400 members of the public to volunteer to occupy the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London for one hour each over 100 consecutive days, 24 hours a day.

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Antony Gormley's 2009 “ONE & OTHER” Fourth Plinth commission
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Antony Gormley's 2009 “ONE & OTHER” Fourth Plinth commission

Contemporary Art Movements and Artists

Concept art rejects the idea of art as a commodity, with the concept taking precedence over aesthetics. Major conceptual artists include Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei, and Jenny Holzer.

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Ai Weiwei

Performance art is a form of art that is the result of actions carried out by the artist or participants. Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono have presented some of the most famous performances in art history.

Like performance art, installation art is an immersive experience, altering the viewers' perceptions of space. Yayoi Kusama and Olafur Eliasson have created well-known installation art pieces.

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Yayoi Kusama

Earth art is a form of installation art, where the artist transforms natural landscapes into site-specific artworks, structures, and sculptures. Robert Smithson, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Andy Goldsworthy are known for their earth installations.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Street art is often rooted in social activism and emerged on the heels of the graffiti art movements of the 80s. Keith Haring and Banksy are among the most celebrated street artists.

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Keith Haring
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