Top Experts Answer the Big Questions About Contemporary Art

From the Director of the Hayward Gallery to artist Mat Collishaw

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris

Rose (2007) by Ann Veronica JanssensHayward Gallery

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These are just a few of the most-searched-for questions on Google relating to contemporary art. Contemporary art takes so many different forms, and is so wide-reaching in content, style and intent, that it can often be hard to define; no wonder people are turning to Google search. We asked 5 experts in the art world to help shine some light on the deceptively simple question: what is contemporary art?

Rose, 2007, Ann Veronica Janssens (From the collection of theHayward Gallery)

What is contemporary art?

Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward Gallery
Contemporary art is the art of our time – which means it explores the experiences, as well as the ways of seeing and thinking, that define this moment. For me, contemporary art is also an alternative way of learning about the world and processing information that, unlike much of our education and our mass media, encourages us to think for ourselves.

Mat Collishaw, British artist and key figure in the YBAs
It's a discipline with its own set of rules which no-one agrees on, thus guaranteeing its enduring appeal...

Sarah Munro, Director of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Art has been around since the dawn of time. It's the stories we tell, its how we make sense of our world, and how we imagine new possibilities. Contemporary art is a part of that story, that journey.

TARATANTARA (1999/1999) by Anish KapoorBALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

TARATANTARA, 1999, Anish Kapoor (From the collection of BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art)

Ben Vickers, writer and Curator of Digital at Serpentine Galleries
'Contemporary art' is a stand in term for all the art we see being made in the present. Frozen in time, it signals the inability to move beyond the current moment and imagine new horizons for art making - given that it continues to describe artworks made decades ago. To me, it signals stagnation but in it I see the possibility of renewal, transformation and the birth of something else which will only become clear in the decades ahead. With it will come new language and terms that will allow us to travel beyond the 'contemporary'.

Aaron Cezar, Director of the Delfina Foundation
Contemporary art expresses an idea or concept that’s related to current thinking and concerns. It might reference history, aesthetics, politics, romance, or a range of subjects, either in abstract or concrete terms, and through diverse mediums, from painting to performance. Each artwork can mean different things to different people.

Untitled (2016/2016) by Cecilia BengoleaArt Night

Untitled, 2016, Cecilia Bengolea (From the collection of Art Night)

Is it art?

Aaron Cezar
Yes! Contemporary art is produced through expertise, skill and knowledge, just like a Renaissance 'masterpiece'.

Raph Rugoff
"Is it art?" is one of my favorite questions, because it often means that a work of art is doing an exemplary job. Most truly thoughtful artists are interested in raising questions about our pre-existing assumptions – including our definitions of art.

Mat Collishaw
This question is no longer as important as 'how can we come up with something so offensive to common sensibilities that it qualifies as art by not being palatable to the general public?'.

Ben Vickers
Art is whatever the artist designates as art. An artist is anyone that chooses to self identity as an artist. Anyone can make art. Despite this, increasingly I believe the most interesting works of art are in fact the ones that do not declare themselves to be art. For me, art is anything which has the ability to suspend or change everyday lived experience, in a flash or over time, and in doing so altering your perception of reality. Anything capable of this quality of experience does not need to answer the question why; it just is.

Susan Silton: Inside Out (2007) by Susan SiltonPasadena Museum of California Art

Inside Out, 2007, Susan Silton (From the collection of Pasadena Museum of California Art)

How do you respond to people who say, “a four-year-old could do that”?

Aaron Cezar
Could a child come up with the idea, explain the artwork, and contextualise it in relation to yesterday and today? Contemporary art is driven by concepts – an artwork is not simply how it is executed, but how it is conceived and by whom. Some contemporary artists don't physically produce or perform their works in any case...

Mat Collishaw
A four-year-old could also demonstrate gravity by falling off a cliff but they probably wouldn't understand the implications of the physics.

Ralph Rugoff
Four-year-olds do some pretty amazing things, so I never consider that comment to be derisory. But unlike most four-year-olds, artists are trying to make objects that can trigger complex chains of associations and ideas, that can lead us to connect things we'd never thought of connecting before. So if a good artist's work looks like a four-year-old could do it, it's probably because that gives it a way of opening up new lines of connection.

Ben Vickers
You must know some very talented and wealthy four year olds, please share my contact details with them.

The First Part of the Return from Parnassus (1961) by Cy Twombly (American, 1928–2011)The Art Institute of Chicago

The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961, Cy Twombly (From the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago)

What’s your favorite contemporary artwork and why?

Sarah Munro
I usually resist picking favourites however there is one work that had a significant impact on me and I often return to. Richard Hamilton's diptych painting The Citizen, 1981-1983. It is an incredibly powerful painting depicting a 'Blanketman', a prisoner in the H-Block Maze prison at the time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The men were protesting their status with the British Government who refused to consider them as political prisoners. Dressed in blankets and surrounded by excrement smeared walls, they had been made visible in a TV documentary film the year before. Hamilton captured perfectly their dignity and humanity. I saw the work in 1988 and it had a profound impact on me about the possibilities of art to understand the complexity of this world we have created.

Mat Collishaw
Fischli and Weiss' Mr. and Mrs. Einstein Shortly After Conception of The Son, the Genius Albert. A lovely combination of the profound and the mundane.

Ben Vickers
To me, Google is by far the most comprehensive gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art") of our time. Why? Being the first truly global-scale artwork, attributable to no single author, contingent on a collective will and capable of altering our perception of reality on a daily basis – whilst convincingly being read and understood exclusively as a company, instead of planetary scale piece of performance art.

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Ralph Rugoff
I'm not much of a list-maker by nature, and my opinions change from month to month. But one of my long-time favorite artworks was included in the first exhibition that I ever curated – it's a piece by the American artist David Hammons called Air Jordan, 1988, which features a hopelessly flattened inner tube pinned to the wall. In its functional life, the inner tube belongs to the technology of mobility, but in this work it serves as an emblem of deflated hopes and the certainty of going nowhere fast. The title, meanwhile, frames up a specific reference to the illusory allure of professional basketball as a way out of urban poverty. What's magical about this work for me is how the artist manages, with the most minimal means and material, to create something that is poignant, socially charged and unexpectedly elegant.

Aaron Cezar
It’s hard to choose one but for the sake of argument, I would say Frequencies by Oscar Murillo, which is a collection of works produced by children. The project issues canvases to schools around the world that is fixed to desktops, and students are free to draw or write on. Frequencies represents a collective stream of consciousness that takes the pulse of a generation.

Frequencies (an archive, yet possibilities) (2013/2015) by Oscar Murillola Biennale di Venezia - Biennale Arte 2015

Frequencies (an archive, yet possibilities), 2013/2015, Oscar Murillo (From the collection ofl a Biennale di Venezia - Biennale Arte 2015)

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