What is Contemporary Art?

Discover the world of Contemporary Art from Basquiat to Beeple, starting with a general understanding of what, exactly, is Contemporary Art.

Meow Wolf Meow Wolf

Defining Contemporary Art - the Problem

You might think that defining Contemporary Art would be easy. Surely you can just look up a definition, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to Contemporary Art, understanding what counts and what doesn’t is not always straightforward nor agreed upon.

Some art critics define Contemporary Art as work that is created by artists living today. This definition works because it keeps the identity moving forward, staying truly contemporary. But what happens when an artist dies? Does their work suddenly stop being contemporary?

Other critics, using the designation of ‘contemporary’ as synonymous with ‘post-modern,’ consider Contemporary Art to be any art created since the 1960s. This certainly brings in a wider range of artists and does away with the ‘living artist’ problem, but it also means that the definition continues to broaden and become less truly contemporary as time moves forward.

Defining Contemporary Art - a Solution

Some artists and critics have chosen to take the middle road when defining Contemporary Art, concluding that the field includes any art created since 1980. Although much of the art of the 80s and 90s was heavily influenced by ideas and works of the 60s and 70s, these movements often saw their height at the end of the 20th century.

Of course, this designation will not work forever, and already, the influences of digital art have created a large gap between the art styles and movements of the 80s and 90s compared to today. For now, however, considering any art created since 1980 as contemporary offers a good working definition for discussing the art of today and its major influences.

Defining Contemporary Art - What It’s Not

Although defining what Contemporary Art is can be difficult, it is easier to discuss what it is not. Notably, the classification of ‘contemporary’ deals purely with the time in which a piece of art was created.

There are many different subgenres, movements, and themes to Contemporary Art. Because much of the art from these decades is influenced by the past, and because artists sometimes work in collaborative schools or groups, large portions of Contemporary Art can hold certain similarities. However, those similarities are not required for a piece to be considered contemporary.

For example, many people think of Contemporary Art as being abstract – but this isn’t the case. Photographic realism, portraiture, Neoclassicism, and many other genres are far from abstract, and even more movements blend elements of abstraction, expressionism and figurative art into their finished pieces.

Although defining what Contemporary Art is can be difficult, it is easier to discuss what it is not. Notably, the classification of ‘contemporary’ deals purely with the time in which a piece of art was created.

Contemporary Artworks are also not connected by any through-line of ideology or school of thought.

Contemporary Art & Postmodernism

Sometimes the label ‘Contemporary Art’ is used interchangeably with ‘Postmodern Art,’ which can lead to confusion. The transition between Modern and Postmodern art occurred largely in the 1960s, a time of social and political upheaval. Though most Postmodern Art is Contemporary (depending on one’s definition), not all Contemporary Art should be considered Postmodern.

Postmodern Art has specific touchstones, particularly in terms of theme and purpose. The prefix ‘post’ in postmodern does not just mean after modern. Instead, it identifies art that is created as a response to Modern Art movements. The making of Postmodern Art generally includes an intentional pushback against Modern Art. In particular, Postmodern Art often focuses on the process of art and the artists’ intentions, and it is less concerned with longevity.

Additionally, some confuse Modern Art with Contemporary. Modern Art museums often include Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary Art, leading to this misunderstanding.

Influences on Contemporary Art

Although there are no requisite themes, ideals, or styles that define Contemporary Art, pieces made in the last 50 years do tend to have some thematic similarities. Art is often created as a response to styles that came before or to current events, or they can be a desire to return to previous artistic movements.

For example, much of the Contemporary Art created in the 1980s and 90s was born out of a rejection of 60s and 70s art, which was in turn created in response to its predecessors.

Each movement also responds to issues of the time; for the 60s, it was revolutions in culture, post-WWII reconstruction, and the Vietnam war, to name a few. Early Contemporary Artists of the 80s were creating art in the context of the AIDs epidemic, the Berlin Wall, urbanization, and the rise of new musical styles, including Punk and HipHop.

Berlin Wall Berlin Wall

Influential Artists

In addition to contemporary artists creating their work in conversation with previous movements and current and past events, there are particular artists that were notably influential on the generations that followed.

Andy Warhol inspired Pop and Neo-Pop artists alike, and he continued to play an integral role in the art world – bringing new artists into the spotlight – until his death in 1987.

The French-American artist Marcel Duchamp helped move both painting and sculpture forward, and his readymade pieces in the early 1900s had a clear impact on later artists.

Pablo Picasso and other Cubists helped give contemporary artists a new way to express their feelings of fractured reality and paved the way for the acceptance of increasingly abstract art. 

These artists and many others helped to create the artistic conversation into which Contemporary Art was born, and the products of Contemporary Art contain clear echoes of these influential creators.

Andy Warhol 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' Andy Warhol 'Campbell’s Soup Cans'

Contemporary Art Mediums

Contemporary Art is often equated with experimentation, and for good reason. In the past 50 years, the number of mediums used to create art has grown exponentially. Long gone are the days of canvas and marble. Now art can be created using almost any materials one can imagine – or none at all.

While painting and sculpture still hold an important place in the art world, installations, performance art, land art, digital art, and even light projections have come to hold important places in the art world.

This massive expansion of artistic tools and mediums makes Contemporary Art difficult to discuss in broad terms or to cover without overlooking interesting and important experimental elements. Ultimately, perhaps Contemporary Art can be defined not by what the art has in common but by its variety.

Contemporary Fine Art

When discussing Contemporary Art, you can’t go far without discovering the tension between artists and the world of fine art. Originally, Fine Art is defined as art that is created purely for its aesthetic value and not for any functional purpose.

Since the 1900s, however, this distinction has blurred. Today, Fine Art has no clear definition. In some sense, Fine Art is defined from other works as something you might see in a museum or gallery. These decisions are made by members of the art world, such as museum and gallery curators, art critics, and auction houses.

Sometimes the quality of a piece of art speaks for itself. Sometimes the line between art and capital-A Art is less clear. Professional, amateur, folk, trained, avant-garde, classical: these are all descriptors that help us to understand what Fine Art is, yet there are also always exceptions to the rule.

Christie’s Auction House Christie’s Auction House

Experiencing Contemporary Art

When it comes to art, sometimes you have to see it for yourself. In particular, performance and installation are meant to be experienced. There are many ways to come into contact with Contemporary Art.

Many Modern Art museums have Contemporary wings, show traveling exhibits from contemporary artists, and host installations and performances. MoMa, the Tate Modern, LAMOCA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Centre Pompidou are all world-renowned for their collections of Contemporary Art.

There are also many global Contemporary Art events and biennials, the most famous of which is Art Basel.

For immersive experiences, one might attend an event such as Burning Man or visit a permanent or traveling art production such as Meow Wolf or Infinity Mirrors.

Finally, contemporary art can be seen out in the real world, particularly in urban centers. From statues to street art, works by timeless artists may be right around the corner.

Meow Wolf Meow Wolf
You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download the Kinnu app

to remember this forever

You might also like

NFTs and Beyond: 21st-Century Digital Art;

Learn about the growing world of digital art and what the changing face of Contemporary Art may look like in the future.

Seen in Public: Street Art and Graffiti;

Although street art comes in many different styles and forms, it all (usually) has one thing in common: it is created in public locations and for public visibility.

The Message, not the Medium: Feminist, Postcolonial, and LGBTQ+ Art;

Explore a variety of artistic styles brought together by a drive for social awareness.

Neo-Expressionism: Once More with Feeling;

Learn key elements of 1980s Neo-Expression and its origins as a revolt against Minimalism and the rise of Neo-Expressionism.

Painting People: Figurative Art and Stuckism;

Discover the role of the human form in Contemporary Art and uncover the full range of representational art from abstract to portraiture.

The Changing Focus of Contemporary Photography;

Explore the expanding world of Contemporary Photography, and see how changes in the 60s and 70s continue to affect photography today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Copyright (c) 2022 Kinnu Ltd.