What is Contemporary Art?


Contemporary Art is understood by some as all art produced post World War II, whilst others define it as art produced “within our lifetime”, and then there is the tiny fact that Roger Fry and his contemporaries founded and established The Contemporary Art Society, London in 1910.  So, trying to define Contemporary-Art within a set time-line, to me, seems an extremely fallible methodology.

So, how does one go about defining Contemporary-Art?

I cannot remember any conversation pertaining to the art-world where this question has not come up. It has always amazed me,  whether the discussion is with high-school students, artists, critics, or academics, when confronted by these two words together – “Contemporary” and “Art” we all conveniently forget the meaning of the words individually within the English language.

‘Contemporary’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary is defined as

“Living or occurring at the same time”.

The logical prompt here would be – the same time as what? Or whom? So, when we add “Art”, which is defined by the same Dictionary as

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”

The resulting combination definition we arrive at is

Contemporary Art = Art occurring (being created) at the same time, and this is where our brains get stuck, and a “Computer does not compute!” Error occurs.

Art created in the same time as what? Or whom, one asks.

To complicate matters further there are a vast variety of movements housed within this title, and the ever increasing number of styles, mediums, expressions and forms of art represented are part of an ever increasing list. So, what is the answer?

For me the revelation and answer, or AHA! Moment was when I realized that Contemporary Art is a useful academic tool, utilized to break the Postmodern from the Modern.

It is at its essence, artwork that is being produced by artists in the present time. But, if all time is present at one point or another, why do we not categorize Baroque, Renaissance, or then Cave paintings as Contemporary Art? Because we as the observers of that Art are very important in the definition of contemporary art. Whose lifetime – ours! This feeds into the understanding that the title of Contemporary-Art has been placed as a barrier – for Time as well as movements within the Arts. It is a presumptive place-holder that due to no definitive-time-bound definition can stretch into infinity, as neither people (i.e. the observer) nor the present-time of a said observer will ever cease to exist. It is on an endless loop.  Hence, Contemporary Art is not time-bound, but time-less.

It’s a term that can be shuffled into the past or the future, without any uproar as long as a justifiable suffix or prefix set of terms are added to it. For example, if we say the contemporary artists of the Renaissance. No one is confused anymore, or we say Contemporary Graffiti in New York – again, no confusion.

The title “contemporary” when joined with “art” becomes this entity that is mysterious and fascinating, even to the most logical of individuals.  No more! As is much of the case within any art form and/or art-practice the “other” is extremely important. For Contemporary Art, the other can be another time, place, or individual.

My wide eyed expectation for a precise definition for “Contemporary Art” has been cured. In its place is the philosopher who wants to see what happens when this vulnerable place-holder is removed, the modern pouring into the Post-modern and the contemporary rushing back into the past?