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What is Contemporary Art and How Can We Define it Today?

  • what is contemporary art
March 30, 2016
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

Contemporary art is, in most cases, defined as art that has been and continues to be created during our lifetime. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, if this was the case, how can we explain that no other artistic definition, no other artistic category of -isms is as confusing, and at the same time straightforward as Contemporary Art? The term demands respect from the beginning and its first word, contemporary, it almost seems to suggest that you must know what it is without having to ask. God forbid you did, because maybe then you will not be considered as someone who’s in touch with what is going on. Well, Widewalls is not afraid to ask, what is Contemporary Art and how can we define it today?

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Lutz Bacher – Shadow Horse 2. Image via

The Difference Between the Modern and Contemporary Art

In the English language, ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ are synonyms. Unfortunately, in the art world, these two terms describe two different times of creation and two different approaches to art making and the functionality of art, and more often than not they create the biggest confusion. For the understanding of the Contemporary Art category, we must first understand the difference between the two.

The term Modern Art is usually associated with art made during the period extending roughly between the 1860s and 1970s. The art made during this period celebrated experimentation and placed traditions of the past aside. Experimenting with different materials and ways of seeing art, the functionality of art developed with the move away from the narrative, characteristic of the traditional arts, towards abstraction. This newfound freedom and revolutionary way of relying on the inner visions and expression of such visions marks the biggest influence of Modern Art. This reflected not only the move towards non-figuration but also influenced the approach to real life, social issues and images of modern life.

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Jeff Koons – Lady Gaga, Gazing Ball. Image via

The Cut-Off

For many, the cut-off period, or the end of Modern Art is marked in the year of 1970’s and with the birth of the term Postmodern. Towards the end of the 20th century, with the development of technology, we see the rise of the Video Art and Performance Art, alongside the experimentation and appropriation from multiple disciplines and sources. At the same time, we also see the rise of the theory and philosophy research into the term Postmodern and the dominance of the present, where the focus is on what we have in front of us, and that’s what demands the knowledge into the latest trends. Now, this is the time when everything starts to build up and form this eclectic and diverse Contemporary art.

View and explore contemporary art on Widewalls Marketplace!

Influenced by the postmodern ideas that everything is fragmented and at the same time an entity on its own accord, questioning every definition, creates the governing spirit behind the Contemporary Art category. With its diversity and the challenging nature, Contemporary Art offers works with a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts and subjects that challenge the traditional and defy easy definition. Artists explore ideas, concepts, questions and practices of the past with the aim to understand the present and envision the future. It is due to the diversity of these approaches that Contemporary Art is often viewed as lacking a uniform organized principle, ideology or label and at times so straight forward that the public is left wondering if they are missing something.

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Banksy – Apeman. Image via

What is a Contemporary Art Subject?

Long gone is the idea that the Artist is the sole author of the work. With the development of Contemporary Art, the audience became an integral piece in the creation of the meaning and reflections of the created works. The process becomes important and the variety of different approaches helps create different categories within a category. This escape away from the dominant definition only strengthens the postmodern spirit. In comparison to one of the dominant and influential movements of Modern Art, Abstract Expressionism, Contemporary Art seems to lack that shared idea and expression, since the time that the Contemporary art is created is the time of constant questions, re-evaluations, and experimentation. This experimentation is leaving nothing sacred. Everything is up for grabs and everything can be Art. Due to all of this, the subjects of the contemporary works, followed by the trend of the moment, create the trend of the moment themselves and always attempt to expand the ideas of what is considered to be Art in the first place. Topics of such works, more often than not, reflect the heated issues of the contemporary society with the aim to re-define the world and accepted values.

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Yayoi Kusama – I pray with all of my love for tulips, installation view at National Museum of Art, Osaka. Image via wikipedia

In The End

What are we to do now? If there is a certain feeling that the dominant definition is missing, and the variety of approaches to Art is endless, how are we to understand the difference between Contemporary and Modern Art? What seems to be one of the biggest differences between the two categories is in this – Modern Art referenced the past and with this reference and appropriation, it attempted to understand the present time. Contemporary art also aims to understand the present, but the present itself is now more fragmented and shape-shifting. In this setting, the works produced can only reference the vastness of the variety on offer and since the category demands one be aware of the world around them, the issues questioned are just like the wind. They are there and they influence how we see and relate to the world but the next minute, something new comes up and the focus shifts.

Editors’ Tip: After Modern Art 1945 – 2000

With this book, David Hopkins, discusses and tries to provide a concise interpretation to the baffling and at the same time beautiful nature of Contemporary Art. Focusing on looking at this art category as a whole, the book concentrates on the correlation between American and European Art from the end of Second World War to the beginning of the new millennium. Focusing along a concise time line, the book highlights the key movements as well as the key figures that are the fuel for the art of this period.

Featured image in slider: Future Returns: Contemporary Art from China, installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2014. Image via Images used for illustrative purposes only.