What actually is contemporary art? It’s often perceived as a joke or a scam—a way of tricking rich idiots 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.
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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.
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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 ✌️.
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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.” 🎭
But, sometimes, contemporary artists also do it for silliness’ sake too; sometimes the stuffy art world can just do with lightening up a bit 😜 .
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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.
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Art moved outside of the gallery space, and into shops, houses, community spaces, the street—now anyone, anywhere could experience art. This is also linked to something known as ‘institutional critique’. Institutional critique is the idea that traditional spaces for art and thought have too many political and economic hang-ups 🏛️. Rather than neutral spaces, where art could just be presented on bare walls and where the focus could all be on the art, as they seemed to be, these spaces have their own complex histories and political meanings, which also often exclude people from certain backgrounds. Art began to leave these spaces and enter the world outside 🏞️, with ‘site-specific’ artworks taking place anywhere from the Chyulu Hills in Kenya, to Alcatraz prison.
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 👊 .