‘Contemporary art’ is one of those terms that is simultaneously simple, but also very complicated. It’s rather obvious definition as “art produced today” leaves many of us feeling unsatisfied as we struggle to mentally categorise and segment the vast array of paintings, sculpture, photography, installation, performance and video art all produced today.
However, in truth Contemporary Art IS a hugely diverse collection of art characterised by nothing other than the fact that it has no organising principle, no definitive materials, techniques, styles or subject matters.
Contemporary art is a completely open book whose sole purpose or function is to generate new spaces for thinking, talking, negotiating, feeling and expressing. It’s focused on the new, the now, and negotiating the current and future landscapes.
It’s playing field includes discussions concerning anything and everything, like politics, sociology, technology, and the economy. In some senses, Contemporary Art is purely a way of thinking and discussing innovative notions while using as its tools art - the visual field (similar to how philosophers use words, scientists use chemicals, and engineers use buildings materials and mathematics). Contemporary Art thus challenges established boundaries and definitions in order to reconsider current affairs and ideas, and to rethink what we feel is familiar.
The exact start date of Contemporary Art is not definitive. The term derives from contemporary, meaning current. What is confusing is that in the everyday English language, modern and contemporary mean the same thing. In art, however, Modern Art and Contemporary Art are two different artistic movements, with Modern preceding Contemporary.
While some people consider the Contemporary Art movement as beginning after WW1, others believe it began in the 1970s with postmodernism. Alternatively, some people deem Contemporary art as art produced by living artists, in our lifetime.
Similarly to Modern Art, Contemporary Art challenges established traditions. Yet, it differs from it by the fact that Modern Art shook up conventions of representation, developing new techniques and styles, and using new materials, and most certainly subject matters. Instead, Contemporary Art is not limited to challenging art in and of itself, but is rather grounded in a larger social and cultural context and aims to reflect contemporary life.
As such, it is often influenced by new and evolving socio-political, economic and philosophical topics. Importantly, Artists are highly influenced by globalisation, and discussions that have emerged due to this changing landscape. The movement is thus not organised, but focused around popular topics such as: identity politics, the body, migration, globalisation, technology, time, memory, political critique, institutional critique. Postmodern, post-structuralist, feminist and gender, Marxist and de-colonialisation theories are often referenced, criticised or explored.
Because Contemporary art typically functions as a platform for discussing uncomfortable, unfamiliar or unknown changes in society (or things that need to be changed), the role of the audience has become paramount. How you see, perceive, interact and understand a work of Contemporary art is important in fostering this discussion. Indeed your reception of the work and how you interact with others as a result, is part of the aim of the work.
For example, you may experience a work and tell your friend: ‘I don’t understand this’ or ‘this makes me angry’ or ‘this makes me think of the bad living conditions some people find themselves in’ or ‘this makes me feel extremely lucky to be alive’ or ‘this should not be considered art’. Your reaction causes a discussion with others who may agree or disagree on your point of view, and through the ensuing debate, people may see new perspectives, change opinions and mindsets.
In order to create platforms or spaces to discuss, institutions have played a large role in the Contemporary Art movement. They create engaging exhibitions, conferences, panel discussions, which bring together artists, gallerists, curators, collectors, as well as corporate and public sponsors, who all contribute in different ways to shifting and building the Contemporary Art movement - be it through discussion, art production, market growth and public engagement.
There are too many artists and micro-movements under the big Contemporary Art umbrella to tell you about them all, but a sample of those most well-known would likely include Feminist Art, new media art, post internet art, virtual art, the YBAs (Young British Artists), Conceptual Art, Boyd Art, Hyperrealism, Body Art, Performance Art, Graffiti and Street Art, Land Art, Kinetic Art, Sound Art, and Arte Povera.
These span a wide range of materials and techniques, such as photography, installation art, painting, drawing, digital art, performance art, sculptural art, and more. Some well-known names you might have heard of are:
Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Doig, Yayoi Kunama, Wolfgang Tillmans, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, Iza Genzken, Yoko Ono, Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeois, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Barbara Kruger, David Hockney, Shirin Neshat and Jenny Holzer. However, with the emphasis being on currency (not the monetary kind), emerging artists are pivotal to the movement, and bring in new and interesting ideas.
Damien Hirst (b. 1965) -Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything, 1996
Steel, glass, cows and formaldehyde solution (12 tanks)
Each tank: 200 x 90 x 30 cm 78¾ x 35½ x 11¾"
Ai Wiewei (b. 1957) - Law of the Journey, 2017
Mixed Media - 60m Long
‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement’,
21st Sydney Biennale Sydney/AU
Cindy Sherman - Untitled Film Still #21 - printed in 1995
Gelatin-silver print - 19.1 x 24.1cm; 7 ½ x 9 ½ in.
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York NY
Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel
© Cindy Sherman
Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) - All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins, 2016
Installation at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Wood, mirror, plastic, black glass, LED
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore and Victoria Miro, London
© Yayoi Kusama Photo: Cathy Carver
Tracey Emin (b. 1963), The Kiss Was Beautiful, 2013
Neon - 115.8 x 126.2 cm
© Tracey Emin
Anish Kapoor (b. 1954) - Cloud Gate, 2006
Stainless steel - 1000 x 1300 x 200 cm (396 x 504 x 792 ft)
Millennium Park, Chicago IL
Iza Genzken - Film Set, 2015
Arrangement of Mannequins
172.7 x 604.5 x 274.3 cm; 68 x 238 x 108 inches
David Zwirner Gallery.
Louise Bourgeois - Maman, 1999, cast 2003
Bronze, stainless steel, and marble - 927 x 891 x 1024 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa/CAD - Purchased 2004
© The Easton Foundation
Barbara Kruger - Don’t Be a Jerk, 1996
Screenprint - 44.5 x 127 cm; 17 ½ x 50 in. Edition of 45
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York NY
Gift of Triumph Productions
© 2018 Barbara Kruger
David Hockney (b. 1937) - A Bigger Splash, 1967
Acrylic on canvas - 242.5 x 243.9 x 3.0 cm
Tate, London/UK - Purchased 1981
© David Hockney
Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) - Unveiling (from the ‘Women of Allah’ series), 1993. Signed, titled, dated and numbered 'Shirin Neshat "Unveiling" 1993 AP' (on the reverse)
Ink on gelatin silver print - 152 x 101cm; 59 7/8 x 39 ¼ in.
Jenny Holzer - Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise, 1982
Installation - Times Square, New York NY
Photo: John Marchael
© Jenny Holzer, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York