Contemporary art takes its influence from the pivotal modern art movements

Contemporary art takes its influence from the pivotal modern art movements, from Realism to Cubism, seeking to challenge the discourse of traditional art.

Art has never been as widely accessible as it is today. Of course, the internet has made it easy to gather information about artists and their work. Many galleries have virtual exhibits, especially since the COVID pandemic has transformed the way we interact. There are more art museums and galleries throughout the world than ever before. In general, art galleries are more accessible to the masses. Inexpensive prints of famous works are available in stores and markets worldwide. Tea towels, notebooks, t-shirts, and even tissue boxes are adorned with classic, modern, and contemporary art.

So, when and how did modern art evolve into contemporary art? Since modern and contemporary are technically synonyms in the English language, it can be easy to confuse these art periods. The defining difference is time. Modern art was the gradual movement away from traditional painting techniques from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Contemporary Art is the art of our current time, that of artists who are living and working today. Of course, interpretations of “today” can be wildly different. As the artist, James Terral, put it, “All art is contemporary art because it had to be made when it was now.” Some early avant-garde artists from the 1960s are no longer with us but are often considered the first contemporary artists, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, for example. 

Contemporary art takes its influence from the pivotal modern art movements, from Realism to Cubism, seeking to challenge the discourse of traditional art. Some contemporary artists began focusing on the process of creating art rather than only the finished product. Jackson Pollack would move around his canvas, dripping paint, cigarette in mouth, and the act of painting was almost as important as the painting itself. His paintings did not have a ‘subject’ as such. The paint itself was the subject. Artists challenged the idea that art should ‘mean’ something and produced ‘art for art’s sake.’ 

While modern art focused on individuality and experimentation, contemporary artists are allowed much more freedom and tend to be a reflection on society rather than the individual. 

Contemporary artists also have more freedom to experiment with new mediums, and what is considered art has broadened infinitely since the 1960s. 

You never know when contemporary art is going to insinuate itself into a normally art-free zone.” (Roberta Smith, American Critic)

Of course, contemporary art actually includes a variety of different art movements. Contemporary art exhibits a progression of technological advancements that embraces such mediums as video, audio-visual installations, performance, dance, architecture, and fashion, as well as developing the more traditional practices of painting, sculpture, and photography. What they have in common is the thread of commentary and often critique on our present-day lives. 

Experimental artists of the 1960s were at the forefront of what would become contemporary art. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among many others, would establish the new genre of Pop Art. Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup cans, Coca-Cola bottles, and Brillo Boxes were the beginnings of consumer products as art. He drew inspiration from advertising, comic books, and Hollywood. He also produced photography, films, and record cover art which saw the beginnings of more mixed media in the visual arts. Many art historians argue that it was Pop Art that bridged the gap between modern and contemporary art. 

In the 1980s and 90s, Young British Artists, or YBAs as they were collectively named, produced some of the most striking and often scandalous art of their time. Tracy Emin attracted huge media attention for her provocative pieces, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 - 1995, and her life sculpture My Bed. The talented and successful Damian Hurst produced some of the most recognizable images of the 80s and 90s, with spots, skulls, butterflies, and sharks. Gary Hume is well known for his vibrantly colored abstract paintings with subtle but edgy detail. Gavin Turk worked with print and sculpture to give meaning to the worthless. He questioned the value given to fine art by handing out free stickers to visitors at the Frieze Art Fair. Together, the YBAs produced daring work the would shape the progress of conceptual art. 

Pop Art didn’t end in the 60s. Jeff Koons is an American Contemporary Pop Artist. His personal life has become part of his art. He wears polka-dotted shirts and bright bow ties. His art includes ordinary objects such as balloon animals, a vacuum cleaner, and basketballs. Everyday objects, yet his work is highly sought after at auction. Roy Lichtenstein began with art inspired by comic books, but he has since used his platform to parody American life. Contemporary artists use art to reflect our lives and our society back at us. 

In conceptual and minimalist art, the idea or concept is more important than the artwork itself. Damian Hirst and Ai Wei Wei are examples of conceptual artists. As with much contemporary art, minimalist art’s simple form challenges the meaning of art. The viewer’s response to what they see takes precedence over what the artist intended it to mean. That is if they intended it to mean anything. Sometimes that is precisely the point. Something as ‘meaningless’ as a distorted wooden box or a spot on a canvas can invoke an emotion, a thought, or a ‘meaning’ in the viewer. And so, it becomes art. 

Artists have increasingly moved away from the canvas into a broader range of mediums. Everyday objects and even people have become art. Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, was also instrumental in the evolution of contemporary art. She was one of the first artists to experiment with performance art and to include herself and her audience as part of her art. Her controversial Narcissist Garden, provocative performance art, and famous infinity mirror rooms can be seen as a commentary on modern society’s obsession with the self. 

“The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind.” (Marina Abramovic, Serbian Artist)

Marina Abramovic is known for her cutting-edge performance art in which her body is the subject. She explores sensations and deep emotions and often invites her viewers to participate and become part of the art. In 1974, she performed a terrifying experiment in which she laid out items on a table, including a feather, olive oil, a knife, and even a loaded gun. She invited her audience to use the items on her however they wished. She came out dripping in sweat, blood, and tears but alive. In 1910, she held a powerful performance; The Artist is Present. She sat in a chair for eight hours a day for three months. She sat participants and gazed into each person’s eyes. Some wept, some laughed, but all were emotional. When her ex-lover sat across from her, the raw emotion on her face was intense. Performance art is much more than entertainment. It intends to convey a message about humanity, society, or culture.  

“One can tell as much about a culture by the paintings it produces as by the dresses and articles of clothing it uses for individual and collective expression.” (Georges Berges, Art Advisor)

In the last few decades, fashion design has increasingly been included in the definition of art. Fashion icon and vogue editor Anna Wintour helped integrate costume design as part of the permanent art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, helping to legitimize fashion as fine art. Artists often collaborate with fashion designers. In 2017, Michael de Feo collaborated with J.Crew on a series of printed t-shirts. For $40-$50, the t-shirts are much more affordable than an original piece of art.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Banksy)

With the rise of graffiti in the 1980s, street art became one of the most recent genres of art. Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring led the way for the infamous Banksy. Banksy, the renowned British street artist, has merged graffiti and performance art. While previous artists often longed for fame, Banksy’s identity is still not known for sure. Despite remaining anonymous, Banksy must be one of the most significant phenomena in recent art history. He’s as well known on social media as in the art scene. Starting with stencil art on the walls of his hometown, Bristol, Banksy’s work is now worldwide. Sticking with contemporary art’s central message of questioning culture, society, humanity, and art itself, Banksy’s work tends to carry an anti-war, anti-consumerist, anti-establishment message. He stunned viewers as his artwork self-destructed immediately after it sold at auction for 1 million pounds. If that is not a critique of the art world, what is? The irony is that the half-shredded print is now worth more than before when it was intact. 

“Climate is increasingly becoming a vital subject for artists as they hold their mirrors up to society.” (Gavin Turk)

As art becomes more of a reflection and commentary of our society, art has increasingly become entwined with activism.  Gavin Turk has often used the concept of waste in his work and questions our society’s impact on the environment. But, along with many artists, his activism goes beyond the art exhibition. He was arrested for joining a protest to advocate for climate change awareness. Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, creates work from the perspective of plants and animals to question our human-centric view of the world. Mary Mattingly made waves with her public art installation, Swathe. She created a vigilante garden on a barge in New York City where participants could grow and harvest their own food. Since the garden was floating on the water, she snuck through a loophole in New York’s law that makes it illegal to grow food in public places. The list of artists who have used their art for activism is endless, and climate change activism is only one example. Earth art is a unique form of installation art. Artists transform the actual natural landscape into a work of art and is often used as a form of environmental activism. 

“We want people to experience art and think about it. The art reflects our time, it is about our culture.” (David Elliot, British Artist)

Contemporary art aims to be thought-provoking and oftentimes controversial. It tackles world issues of politics, diversity, capitalism, globalism, and technology. Contemporary art isn’t about the artist’s genius, the perfection of the brushstrokes, or the smoothness of the marble. It’s about the impact on and the experience of the viewer. The audience is often even invited to take part in producing the art. 

The overarching question that many contemporaries want to pose is ‘What actually is art?’ Many people will complain that “My preschooler could have done that!” or “That’s just a pile of bricks.” But perhaps that’s precisely the point. It’s about pushing boundaries and asking questions about what makes something art.