Contemporary Art in Context


Jenny Holzer. "Truisms," 1977–79. Spectacolor electronic sign. Times Square, New York, 1986. Text: "Survival" (1983-85), Photo: John Marchael, © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What is 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 challenge traditional boundaries and defy 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 identities, values, and beliefs.

Audiences play an active role in the process of constructing meaning about works of art. Some artists say that the viewer contributes to or even completes the artwork by offering his or her personal reflections, experiences, opinions, and interpretations. One of the cornerstones of ART21’s philosophy is to allow artists to present their work in their own words and to encourage viewers to consider, react, and respond to visual art.

Curiosity, openness, and dialogue are the most important tools for engaging with works of art. Instead of questioning whether an artwork is good or bad, the study of contemporary art requires an open-ended methodology and an inquiry-based approach. Asking questions that ignite discussion and stimulate debate is an important first step toward appreciating and interpreting works of art that can defy expectation, may provoke strong responses, or contradict personal beliefs or societal values.

  • Bringing contemporary art into schools and communities enables educators to promote curiosity, encourage dialogue, and initiate debate about the world and the issues that affect our lives.
  • ART21 artists serve as creative role models, who can inspire people of all ages to consider how ideas are developed, articulated, and realized in the contemporary world, offering educators opportunities to support diverse learning styles.
  • Contemporary artists address both current events and historical ideas. These references help educators and students make connections across their curriculum and support interdisciplinary thinking.
  • As artists continue to explore and employ new technologies and media, the work they create encourages media literacy in an increasingly media-saturated society.
  • ART21 enables students to understand that contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger frameworks, such as ideas about beauty, personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality.

 

Films to get you started: