Explaining Contemporary Art With Emojis

By Google Arts & Culture

Installation view: Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting Hayward Gallery (2010) Photo: Marcus J Leith by Hayward GalleryHayward Gallery

😍 or 🙄? You decide

What actually is contemporary art? It’s often perceived as a joke or a scam — a way of tricking rich people into spending millions of dollars on a pile of bricks.

The internet is full of stories of embarrassing situation in which, like the Emperor's New Clothes, people have either mistaken contemporary art for something else, or thought that some random rubbish was a priceless masterpiece.

But contemporary art is much more nuanced than these stories let on. So what actually is contemporary art? Let’s turn to the simplest form of communication... emojis.

Waltraut Cooper, A Digital Signature: Blue Lines, 2008. Installation view at Palazzo Mora, 2016. by Photo: GAA FoundationTime Space Existence - Biennale Architettura 2016

🕑 ➡️ 🕗 ➡️ 🕒

Contemporary art, first and foremost, is a time period. It means art that is made in the present day, and art by artists alive today 📅 . However, despite its title, contemporary art actually has a fairly long history, with most art historians dating it back as far as the 1960s/1970s 👨‍🎨 . This is the time period that defined a shift in art practice to the kind of artwork that is made today.

Influences (2013) by Phoebe DaviesLive Art Development Agency (LADA)

👨🏽‍🎨 👩🏿‍🎨 👩🏻‍🎨 👨🏼‍🎨

Art from this period was markedly different to art that went before it, in that there was more artwork by people from different backgrounds than ever before. Women, people of color, and people of different genders and sexual identities began to be recognized for their contributions to different art fields: feminist art is often seen to be its own art movement 🚺 ; art by LGBT+ people made a huge impact on the art world 🏳️‍🌈 ; and, while new artworks by black, Hispanic, South Asian and East Asian began to enter traditional art galleries and the canon 🏛️ , there was also a reappraisal of art history that appreciates the centuries of artwork by these groups.

On the whole, contemporary art is a lot more socially conscious than previous periods. While many historical movements have used their artworks to explore their own economic, social, and political contexts, contemporary artists take this a step further and often use their work for social good, and as a form of political commentary or resistance ✌️.

Untitled ("My brother...") (1967/1990) by Richard PrinceMoMA The Museum of Modern Art

💩 🍆 🎈

Humor and a lack of seriousness also often characterizes this kind of art. There is a silliness to lots of contemporary art—which is why people often mock contemporary artworks in comparison to, say, a great fresco by Michelangelo, or a Renoir portrait. But there is a serious center to this soft exterior. Often, these artists use humor and silliness 😉 to speak to serious issues and complex ideas 😑 . For example, the American painter and photographer Richard Prince often uses humor in his work, but with a dark and sarcastic edge, that speaks to existentialist themes: “That’s art", he says, "so funny you could cry.” 🎭

I’m Dead (2010) by David ShrigleyHayward Gallery

But, sometimes, contemporary artists also do it for silliness’ sake too; sometimes the stuffy art world can just do with lightening up a bit 😜 .

2005 Washing Machines and Home Furniture Visual Receptors. Audio video installation (2005) by Maria Veronica Leon VeintemillaEcuador - Biennale Arte 2015

🎨 ➡️ 📀 🕴️ 🤸 💭🎥 ✒️ 💊 🚬💬 🎵

Contemporary artists also use different methods and means to make art 🖼️ . From installations to performance, art made today is often radically different to traditional paint on canvas 🎨, or sculpture 🗿. Video art, performance art, sound art, pop art, land art, and conceptual art are all widely used, often with multiple different forms and mediums making up one artwork.

Ratio, USA (2010/2010) by Andrew RogersRhythms of Life

🎟️ 🏛️ ➡️ 🏔️ 🏚️ 🏜️ 🚆 🏞️

Alcatraz prison

Çifte Kavrulmuş / Double Roasted (2014/2014) by Hale TengerThe Moving Museum

👀 💭

When you enter a gallery of a museum, often we feel like we have to look at the important painting on the wall and, with serious expressions on our faces 🤔 , try to really ‘understand’ it. We think of snobby people chiding us for ‘not really getting it’ 🙄 . We pretend to ‘get it’ when we don't. But the fun thing about contemporary art is that, with many artworks, it is what you make of it. Lots of artists now center their work on the experience of their viewer or audience—even making us part of the artwork ourselves 👊 .

2005 Washing Machines and Home Furniture Visual Receptors. Audio video installation (2005) by Maria Veronica Leon VeintemillaEcuador - Biennale Arte 2015

Contemporary art: ❤️ or 🗑️ ? You decide...

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