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How Should We Define Contemporary Art?

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by Meli Biró, 2019

A question which often pops up asks what the difference is between Modern and Contemporary Art. Our next question might be how we should define the latter? But let's take one question at a time, and address the first question before we enter into definitions.


Strictly speaking, art which is contemporary is produced by artists living today. Most critics, connoisseurs and experts would agree though that the two movements are separated by a period in time. At a certain point in art history, Contemporary Art replaced Modern Art as the preferred innovatory style.


The Modern Art movement began around the 1860s with the birth of such movements as Impressionism and Symbolism. When it ended is moot, but most experts would say around the early 1970s when the Pop Art movement, as personified by Andy Warhol, began to fade. From this point onwards, the Contemporary Art movement took over.


Contemporary Art splintered into many separate art movements, including the born-again Neo Pop Art of the 1980s. Other avant-garde movements which sprang up in parallel included Minimalism, Conceptualism and Photorealism. These disparate genres only illustrated how hard it was to pin down the Contemporary Art movement. There was a new pluralism underlying it. Everything associated with the new style was up for evaluation as conventions shattered. Materials, styles, mediums, techniques diversified through constant experimentation and increasing complexity. Even the reasons for this new art genre were continually questioned and re-evaluated. Why should art always please? Why couldn't rejection be as viable a reaction? The merit of a piece of Contemporary Art became irrelevant. Far more important was how it challenged the establishment, how persuasively it rejected the mainstream.


From this collective soul-searching emerged whole new mediums to play with. The Contemporary Art movement gave us video art, performance art and conceptual art. It also gave us installations like Damien Hirst's infamous tiger shark pickled in formaldehyde. For the first time the audience had become an integral part of the art, questioning, criticizing, hating, loving, what did it matter? The reaction became as important as the art itself.


The new artistic media reduced the proportion of paintings and sculptures exhibited in art museums. As installations and street art spilled over into public spaces, these institutions became less relevant.


The Modern Art movement had a clear objective narrative, referencing the past. With Contemporary Art the perspective veers towards the abstract and an ever shifting world. In short the perspective is much vaguer, even contradictory. Contemporary Art embraces new freedoms, throwing off the shackles of convention as it reinvents itself over and over. It’s self-expressive, sometimes even referencing its own materials and imagery. The themes are diverse, often addressing socio-political issues of the day. Globalisation, migration, artificial intelligence, women's rights, there’s no political stone left unturned. With Contemporary Art there’s no one single point of view, no ultimate clarity. Instead the perspective is hazy, reflecting an ever-changing world and its values.


All Contemporary Art can do is focus on what lies before the observer in the here and now. In effect anything can be Contemporary Art, say the purists. So long as it rejects the mainstream.

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