What do we mean when we say contemporary art?
ART21 defines contemporary art as the work of artists who are living in the twenty-first century. Contemporary art mirrors contemporary culture and society, offering teachers, students, and general audiences a rich resource through which to consider current ideas and rethink the familiar. The work of contemporary artists is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenges traditional boundaries and defies easy definition. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or -ism. In a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world, contemporary artists give voice to the varied and changing cultural landscape of identity, values, and beliefs.
Contemporary audiences play an active role in the process of constructing meaning about works of art. Some artists often say that the viewer contributes to or even completes the artwork by contributing his or her personal reflections, experiences, opinions, and interpretations. One of the cornerstones of the ART21 philosophy is to allow artists to present their work in their own words and to encourage viewers to access their own abilities to consider, react, and respond to visual art.
Contemporary art reflects a wide range of materials, media, and technologies, as well as opportunities to consider what art is and how it is defined. Artists today explore ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past, describe the present, and imagine the future. In light of such diversity, there is no simple or singular way to define contemporary art. Often recognized for the absence of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or label, contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Perhaps the most helpful defining characteristic is the most obvious: contemporary art is the art of today.
Through the Lens of Art History
When we look at works of art, we inevitably think about things that we have seen, heard, or experienced before. Art is rarely created in a vacuum. Artists constantly reference the past—building on timeless themes, critiquing outmoded models, researching forgotten histories, or borrowing traditional methods and techniques to realize new ideas.
Understanding historical precedent is an important part of providing context and informing our experiences with art being made today. Since images were first painted in caves, artists have challenged our notions of what art is and how it can be made.
Consider the following statements and how the work of artists living today relates to historical notions of art. In what ways are contemporary artists maintaining or diverging from traditional notions or assumptions about art?
A work of art can be produced using many different working methods and processes. It can be created in isolation or in collaboration with assistants, specialists, fabricators, or audiences.
Art can serve as a form of critique—reframing, redefining, or disrupting traditional ideas and expectations about art and/or society, such as beauty, originality, representation, and authority.
Art often references or appropriates elements from multiple disciplines and sources: popular culture (film, television, music), mass media (advertising, news, communications, graphic design, digital media), humanities (literature, history, intellectual history, natural history) and art history (fine art, architecture, craft).
Art often integrates new technologies (digital media, computers, the Internet) or unconventional materials (found objects, nature, the body).
Art often blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life. Often an artwork will purposefully intersect with an environment, such as home, work, school, politics, and entertainment.
Art can exist outside of traditional exhibition forums—including public spaces, site-specific locations, non-art sites—and is often presented in innovative ways—as an installation, an event, a performance, online, or as documentation of an impermanent work.
Art can unfold over time. It can be process-based (performative, collaborative, spontaneous), experiential, or interactive (video, Web-based, multimedia, socially engaged), or it can respond to its environment (public art, street art, environmental art).