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What is Contemporary Art?

by Peta Tranquille

Hours of reading and searching the internet revealed many definitions of Contemporary Art. However, the most logical way to explain or describe something is to break it down to its simplest form, and this can be done by looking at the two words separately.

Let's start with the word contemporary, defined as something existing, belonging to or happening in the present. While that seems to be straightforward, it concludes that it is defined as "right now". If this is the case, does this mean that contemporary excludes everything leading up to now, in the present moment? If contemporary is the present, then does anything existing now cease to be contemporary tomorrow, next week or next month? For how long does the present cover?

With the word, contemporary defined in a somewhat slightly unresolved way; we should move on to the definition of art itself. You might be thinking this one is so much easier to define, but is it? The Oxford Dictionary defines art in the following way.


  • 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 various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

With the word art defined, but very broadly, we will have to return to the unresolved definition of contemporary. Assuming that the present is not a single moment or even a day, we might have to decide precisely how long the present lasts. For curiosity, let's say the present is about 20 years. In conclusion, this would then mean that any art created before the year 2000 is not considered contemporary; however, that doesn't seem to feel right. Perhaps then we should look at the definition from another perspective, and instead of referring to the art in the present, maybe it is more about the artists that exist in the present. In other words, the living artists that are presently creating art. This certainly makes more sense and means that a living artist is producing Contemporary Art regardless of how long they have been creating art.

Therefore, Contemporary Art can be defined as the following,

"A visual artwork produced by a living artist for aesthetics or emotional response".

Whilst it is a straightforward definition, it does help to comprehend and explain precisely what we are talking about when we refer to Contemporary Art.

With contemporary art defined now, we should look at the context in which to respond to it. The following quote raises a few questions about how we look, react and digest art.

"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing." Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan, 1954, pigmented hide glue and oil on canvas, Gift of Enid A. Haupt, 1977.47.13

Rothko is pointing out that a painting can be good, but without context, it has no meaning. So, is this saying that a painting or artwork without meaning is of no value? A great way to explore this notion is to think about your favourite artwork. Are you attracted to it simply for its aesthetics or how well it is painted? Perhaps you are drawn more to what inspired the artwork or its story? Let's look at one example of why this quote is so important.

Several years ago, there was an informal meeting of artists at a local gallery meetup, and we were each asked to bring along a painting or artwork that we had created. We placed our artwork around the room at the gallery and received a token to vote for their favourite piece. Of course, ignoring the fact that some artists would have voted for themselves, the activity arrived at a top three.

Each of the paintings was well painted, and the skills of the artists were evident. The top three paintings were very different in medium, size, and subject matter, but without knowing the context, I had already chosen my favourite of the three. The organisers then asked the top three artists to talk about themselves and the inspiration behind their work. While listening to each artist, I had an incredible experience that I will never forget. Before the talks, I noted that one of the artworks was my third choice, based on the subject alone. However, something profound occurred that I still find difficult to understand. Upon listening to each of the artists explaining their artwork and the stories or inspiration behind them, I realised that the painting I preferred, out of the three, was the one I had initially dismissed. Until I heard the story attached to the painting, I was not interested in it. But the story was so good, and every time I looked at the painting, it made me feel something. This was the first time that I felt the substance of an artwork and when I realised the importance of context for the viewer.

As an artist and lover of art, I urge you to think about why you like artworks and decide if the context is essential to you. If you are an artist, do your creations have context, and if not, could they be more interesting?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic and love you to leave a comment.


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