is Contemporary Art?
Woman Taking Off Man's Shirt
in Two Stages (2003)
By Julian Opie (b.1958), graduate of
Goldsmith's College, member of the
New British Sculpture movement, and
one of the more creative of Britain's
VISUAL ARTS CATEGORIES
No one seems to agree about the exact meaning of contemporary art. Critics, curators and historians define it in varying ways. One of the reasons for the confusion is that "Contemporary Art" is preceded by "Modern Art", and there is no precise agreement on when "Modern Art" ended.
To make things even more complicated, a third term "Postmodernist art" is sometimes used as a synonym for "Contemporary Art." This buzzword denotes the main style-trend after Modernism or Modern Art, but it applies to dozens of other disciplines including architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, design, fashion, and technology, all of which have differing timelines, so it's hard to get a fix on exactly when postmodernism begins. Also, it's not synonymous with contemporary art. The latter refers to an era (a time period) while postmodernism is more of an attitude and style within this period. In due course, postmodernism will be superceded by a newer "-ism" but both will be forms of Contemporary art.
What is a Simple Definition of Contemporary Art?
Skipping the theoretical stuff, there are three main meanings or usages of the terms "Contemporary Art."
Art produced after 1945.
Art produced in our era or lifetimes.
Dream Like Love (2005) by Li Wei.
Contemporary Chinese artist
who combines performance art
and photography. Two important
forms of avant-garde art.
CONTEMPORARY IRISH ARTISTS
Art produced since the 1960s.
How We Define Contemporary Art
In this article, we take the early 1960s as marking the change-over from Modern to Contemporary, although it's true to say that the decade included both types. After all, artists around the world didn't just get up one day and become Post-Modernists!
The answer to this question requires an entire book. We only have a paragraph, so here goes. First, some background. The Italian Renaissance established the basis for Western art after the Classical Antiquity and Medieval eras. Renaissance ideas and rules were disseminated across Europe through various Academies of Fine Arts, such as the Academy of Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno: founded 1562), the Academy of Rome (Accademia di San Luca: founded 1583), the French Academy (Académie des Beaux-Arts) the Royal Academy in London (founded 1768) and the later Royal Hibernian Academy and the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, in Ireland. These academies taught art according to an unvarying set of canons, which artists had to follow in order to earn a living. By the early 19th century, this academic approach had ceased to be relevant.
Enter Edouard Manet in 1860 along with the French Impressionists, whose revolutionary subjective style of painting ushered in the era of Modern Art. This period witnessed a succession of schools, styles and movements - including Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Op-Art, to name but a tiny few. Nearly all of these styles reflected the political and social trends of the period, such as World War I, the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, World War II, and its post-colonial aftermath. But despite recognizing the increasing fragmentation and lack of meaning within society during this period, "modern artists" (except Dada) still believed that works of art could provide the answer - art could do what other human institutions couldn't do - and provide the coherence and meaning which had been lost. During the 1960s, however, this optimism among artists began to fade, and it is this loss of optimism which marks the beginning of Postmodernism and the emergence of Contemporary Art.
Post-modernists reject the idea that art can provide meaning. If life is meaningless, they say, fine - let's not pretend that art can do better. Let's just accept that it's nonsense, like everything else, and get on with it. This new Post-Modernist philosophy thus triggered a whole new set of priorities, which were greatly facilitated by the coincident arrival of new technologies, like television, video, and computers. Contemporary art movements focused on "how" art was created and disseminated, rather that "what" was produced. They emphasized ideas and concepts rather than precious objects and the skills needed to make them. In their attempt to popularize and broaden access to visual art, they introduced (or refined) a series of new art forms, such as Conceptualism, Performance, Happenings, Installation, Earthworks, and in the process took full advantage of new media like video, computers and digital technology. It's all a far cry from Claude Monet and his lifelong quest to capture the differing effects of sunlight.
Here is a short list of selected schools/styles of contemporary art, arranged in rough chronological order. Dates listed are approximate.
(1960s onwards) see also Conceptual Art.
Other Artist Groups
Other minor or splinter contemporary art groups, or styles, listed in rough chronological order, include:
The period from the mid-1960s to the present day has witnessed a number of extraordinary and talented contemporary artists. Here is a short selection of the most celebrated individuals in various categories of visual arts. Some, like Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol - today's most valuable artists - could be classified as modernists, but are included here due to their essentially "post-modernist" approach.
Measured by auction sales prices, the world's most valuable contemporary work of art is: Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which sold at auction at Christie's New York in 2013, for $142.4 million. In second place is Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963), painted by Andy Warhol, which sold at auction (Sotheby's New York) in 2013, for $105.4 million. In third place is Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), by Mark Rothko, which sold for $86.9 million Christie's New York 2012. In fourth place is Triptych (1976), painted by Francis Bacon, which sold in 2008 for $86.3 million at Sotheby's New York. One of the highest-priced pieces of contemporary "sculpture" is For the Love of God, by Damien Hirst. A human skull recreated in platinum and studded with 8,061 diamonds, it sold to a consortium which included the artist and The White Cube Gallery for £50,000,000.
According to auction results (July 2007-June 2008), the top-selling contemporary painters and sculptors were as follows:
Note: the above rankings do not take into account Hirst's September 2008 Sotheby's auction, which raised over £111 million.
There are numerous awards given by foundations, museums and government arts bodies for outstanding works of contemporary art, in a wide variety of categories. Here is a short selection. See also: Art News Headlines.
Artes Mundi Prize
Carnegie Art Award
Deutsche Borse Photography Prize
Hugo Boss Prize
John Moores Painting Prize
Larry Aldrich Award
Marcel Duchamp Prize (Prix Marcel
Preis der Nationalgalerie fur Junge
Roswitha Haftmann Prize
Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award for
Contemporary Art in Europe
Wolfgang Hahn Prize
The two principal exhibitions of modern art are: The Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia), an international showcase of works by contemporary artists around the world, which is held every two years, together with the Venice Film Festival; and the Whitney Biennial in New York, which showcases works of contemporary American art, usually by emerging artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, USA. The show is seen as a major trend-setting event in the contemporary art calendar. For more postmodernist shows, see: Best Contemporary Art Festivals.
Private galleries typically react faster to avant-garde works of art than city or state museums. Moreover, official public collections typically tend to be hampered by more conservative or outdated premises. Here is a short selection of the Best Galleries of Contemporary Art. For the finest traditional venues, please see: Best Art Museums.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Is it Art?
Few countries have witnessed more controversy over the value of post-modernist artworks than Britain, where the Turner Prize continues to arouse huge debate between the avant-garde and the rest. Its prize winning exhibits have included a dead sheep in formaldehyde (by Damian Hirst), a portrait of the Virgin Mary "painted" with elephant dung (by Chris Ofili), and a white room with a single light bulb that blinked on and off (by Martin Creed). Another strange entry (installation) which made it to the finals, was "My Bed" - an unmade bed soiled with condoms and tampons (by Tracy Emin). In 2002, when it was awarded to Keith Tyson for his creation of a large black monolithic block filled with discarded computers, not a single painter (reportedly) had been considered as a possible recipient of the prize. Instead, the jury preferred entries by Fiona Banner, (billboard filled with pornographic text), and Liam Gillick (ceiling constructed of multicolored plastic), to name but two somewhat outlandish works.
One can justifiably question the wisdom of the British arts establishment, when such things are held up as outstanding examples of art. Which was precisely what Kim Howells, the British Culture Minister, did in 2002 when he said (of the Turner Prize finalists' exhibits):
The key question remains: "what is art?" That is to say, what exactly distinguishes contemporary conceptualist art from theatre, demonstration or entertainment? More bluntly, is postmodernism in danger of duplicating the fable of The Emperor's New Clothes?
See also: Contemporary British Painting.
What Makes a Talented Post-Modernist Artist?
What artistic skills is postmodernist art hoping to encourage? In earlier days, one could distinguish a master-artist - in painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, video, and numerous other art forms - by his theoretical and practical skills. However, in today's post-modernist era, which remains largely dominated by sensationalist conceptual artists, sorting the good from the bad has become far less easy. This lack of clarity continues to undermine the efforts of art colleges who struggle to teach basic fundamentals which no longer appear relevant to the attainment of artistic success.
For more contemporary artists, see: Homepage.