April 19, 2023

"Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as >art<. There are only artists. Once upon a time, there were people who took colored clay and painted the rough outline of a buffalo on a cave wall. Today they buy their paints and design posters for meat extract; in between they did many other things." So begins E.H. Gombrich's famous The Story of Art. In what has become a standard work, Gombrich tells the story of art from its beginnings to the present - his present. The book was first published in 1950, and subsequent editions continued into the 1990s. But as you can tell from the first 4 sentences, Gombrich was no fan of contemporary art.

Nevertheless, his introduction reminds us that art has always been a part of human life and has changed over time. New currents and trends emerge, old conventions are broken, and provocative works challenge the imagination. Gombrich argued that only from a distance can we see what is fashionable and what will have a lasting influence on the art of the future. Nevertheless, I think it is worth taking a look at the art of our time. In this blog post, I embark on a journey of discovery. I will ask what role contemporary art plays in our society. Join me and let's discover it together.

Contemporary Art: A Definition

Contemporary Art

Atlantic Civilisation | André Fougeron | Tate Modern, London

There is no clear definition of contemporary art. So let's approach it slowly. First of all, contemporary art simply means art of the present. Whereby, the present covers a period of about 50 years.

Usually the term refers to works created after the 1960s/1970s. However, it is not possible to define the time limit exactly. But it is only one of the criteria that define contemporary art.

What is more important is that it deals with current social, political and cultural issues. It is a critical reflection of society and its values. Contemporary artists address issues such as globalization, consumer culture, social inequality, and identity politics, and challenge established norms and conventions.

An interdisciplinary approach in which artists collaborate with scientists, sociologists, or philosophers is not uncommon. In general, contemporary art is diverse and open. While more traditional art movements are often limited to certain materials and techniques, contemporary art is free in its choice of means, including the use of digital technologies, performance, and installation.

Overall, contemporary art is a diverse and dynamic art movement that is constantly evolving and taking on new forms. It challenges us to look critically at the world around us and to stretch our imaginations.

Beyond Borders: How Contemporary Art Differs from Classical Modernism and Postmodernism

Galaxies Forming along Filaments, like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web | Tomás Saracenos | 53. Biennale Arte Venedig 2009

Although the terms "contemporary art" and "modern art" are often used interchangeably, they are distinct art periods. Classical modernism developed between the 1860s and the 1970s. It includes many very different art movements, such as Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Futurism, and many others. What they had in common was a search for innovation and new forms of expression. The artists within this movement wanted to leave tradition behind and find new ways to express their visions.

Modernism is often characterized by a focus on form, line, and color, often attributed to an abstraction or reduction of nature. Many of the most important artists of classical modernism, such as Monet, Picasso, and Kandinsky, are now an integral part of art history.

Beginning in the 1960s, a counter-movement to modernism developed. The goal of postmodernism was to distance itself from modernism and its belief in innovation. It is characterized by a rejection of universal claims to truth and an emphasis on the relativity of knowledge and values. Postmodernism questions art itself and shifts its boundaries.

While classical modernism sought a universal aesthetic ideal and contemporary art addresses current social issues, postmodernism is characterized by a critical questioning of conventions and an emphasis on diversity and pluralism. Postmodern artworks challenge the viewer to question and rethink conventional perceptions of art.

Contemporary art is an evolution characterized by a greater exploration of social and political issues and a greater openness to techniques and materials. Although there are differences between these art movements, there are also transitions and bridges between them, demonstrating the dynamic nature of art. Some of the most important contemporary artists are also rooted in postmodernism, using techniques and materials that are equally relevant to classical modernism and postmodernism.

Contemporary art is part of a dynamic evolution from classical modernism to postmodernism. These art movements influence each other and are closely connected, even if they are different in some aspects. The diversity and openness of contemporary art reflects this connection.

Shifting Perspectives: How Contemporary Art Can Change Our Perceptions

Contemporary art helps to promote dialog about art and culture, to create new impulses, to build bridges between different cultures and societies, and thus to contribute to better understanding and greater tolerance. It is also an important economic factor, creating jobs and stimulating the creative sector.

The importance and relevance of contemporary art is often underestimated or even ignored. Yet, it has the potential to change our perception and understanding of the world around us. It inspires and challenges us to engage with current issues and to rethink our own perspectives. In a time of increasing social change and challenge, contemporary art is an important part of public discourse.

Contemporary art is about pushing boundaries and breaking new ground. It allows us to discover and reflect on new perspectives and ways of seeing the world around us. Through its diversity and experimentation, it nurtures our creativity and cultural awareness.

Art as Activism: Famous Works of Contemporary Art

Kara Walker | A Subtlety

Kara Walker is one of the best-known African-American artists in the United States. Her work is a major contribution to the contemporary art scene. In "A Subtlety," the artist explores the history of the sugar industry and its exploitation of slaves.

In the installation, Walker created a giant sphinx out of sugar, symbolizing both the female body and the labor of slaves. The work was on view at an old sugar refinery in Brooklyn, where it impressed visitors with its size and detail.

"A Subtlety is a powerful statement against the oppression of people and the exploitation of labor, it addresses racism and the position of women in society. Nevertheless, Kara Walker's work has been both celebrated and controversial by critics. While some emphasized the artistic value of the installation, others criticized the use of sugar as a material and Walker's exploitation of workers in the sugar industry.

Banksy | Kissing Coppers

Kissing Coppers | Banksy

Banksy is one of the most famous and mysterious contemporary artists. No one knows who is behind the pseudonym, yet he has caused a worldwide sensation with his political artworks. The message of his art is directed against consumerism, war and violence. His works are critical and yet often full of humor.

Banksy's works often have a subversive character and spark social discussions. They question the status quo and challenge us to think about our values and beliefs. But his works are also an appeal to work for a better world and to stand up for social justice and tolerance.

Kissing Coppers was originally created in 2004 on the wall of the Prince Albert Pub in Brighton, England. The image depicts two police officers in full riot gear kissing intimacy. The depiction of same-sex intimacy is a tribute to the LGBTQ+ community and a statement against homophobia and discrimination.

Despite the growing awareness of the LGBTQ+ community and the increasing visibility of homosexuality in society, there was still a significant amount of homophobia in the mid-2000s and early 2010s (when the painting was in Brighton). Banksy's artwork was often vandalized during this time and was damaged several times. Eventually, the pub's landlord decided to remove the painting and replace it with a replica. The mural was later auctioned off.

Ai Weiwei | Laundromat

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is known for being a passionate advocate of human rights and democracy. With his art, he exercises sharp cultural criticism and denounces the global imbalance of power. His works are a challenge to existing structures and a call to action. His installation "Laundromat" consists of 2046 seemingly clean and new pieces of clothing neatly displayed on clothes rails, for example.

In reality, however, they are clothes from the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. In 2016, 14,000 people lived in inhumane conditions in this camp. When it was evacuated in May 2016, the artist collected the belongings left behind, such as clothes and shoes, and had them cleaned and repaired in his Berlin studio.

The refugees' clothing is a symbol of their identity and history. By collecting these clothes and presenting them in an installation, Ai Weiwei wanted to draw attention to the refugee crisis and the suffering of the people who were forced to leave their homes. The installation, however, is a critique of politics and the often half-hearted and inadequate decisions of European states.

Ai Weiwei knows how to put political issues into an aesthetically pleasing form and thus reach a broad public.

Maurizio Cattelan | America

Maurizio Cattelan is one of Italy's most celebrated contemporary artists, known for his provocative work. At the height of his career, he announced his retirement from the art world in 2012. However, he could not stay away for long. In 2016, he returned with his work America.

It is a functioning toilet made of 18-carat gold that was made available to visitors. The golden toilet breaks with the convention of artworks that cannot be touched or used. Here, the artwork is made to interact with the audience by literally allowing it to be used.

The toilet symbolizes the pursuit of wealth and status, often at the expense of social justice. While the artist himself refuses to interpret his work, he does say this: Whether it's a $200 meal or a $2 sausage, from the toilet's point of view, it doesn't matter.

From 2016 to 2017, America was on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In a press release, the museum linked the installation to the career of Donald Trump, who was campaigning at the time. The statement reads, "The aesthetic of this 'throne' evokes nothing less than the gilded excesses of Trump's real estate projects and private residences." The museum alludes to gold's status as a symbol of power and wealth, linking the artwork to social and economic inequality in the United States.

The work is a powerful symbol of the overemphasis on material possessions in today's society, while also encouraging discussion about the role of art in society and how it can help address social and political issues.
In 2018, after Trump won the presidential election, he requested a Van Gogh on loan from the Guggenheim Museum for his private quarters in the White House. The museum refused, but offered him America. As far as anyone knows, Trump never responded to this "offer."

In 2019, the artwork was on display at the Blenheim Palace in the United Kingdom. In the early morning of September 14, the installation, which was built into a historic toilet next to Winston Churchill's birthplace, was broken into and stolen. It has been missing ever since.

Jenny Saville | Propped

Jenny Saville | Propped

British artist Jenny Saville is known for her large-scale portraits of women's bodies that defy conventional beauty ideals and are perceived as unconventional and unretouched.

Throughout her work, Saville explores the fragility, renewal, and decay of the human body. Her impasto brushstrokes give her nudes and portraits an almost grotesque quality, accentuated by dramatic lighting. Every wrinkle, scar, and blemish is revealed. In her art, Jenny Saville questions the rigid rules of our society's ideal of feminine beauty.

The large-scale self-portrait Propped shows the artist sitting naked on a high stool, her gaze fixed on the viewer. Painted in subtle shades of blue, yellow, and pink, her painting style emphasizes the supposed "imperfections" of her body. But there is more to this than a confrontation with preconceived ideals of beauty.

The woman in the painting tucks in her flesh and sits on an uncomfortable and unsuitable chair to reflect and question her position and role in patriarchal society.

A quote from French feminist Luce Irigaray is written in mirrored letters facing the artist: "If we continue to speak as men have done for centuries, we will disappoint ourselves. Words will again enter our bodies, pass over our heads - they will disappear, they will make us disappear...".

With this quote, Saville makes a strong statement against the oppression of women and calls for the overcoming of existing patriarchal structures. Her painting is not just a representation of the female body, but serves as a powerful manifesto for the liberation of women and their emancipation from social conventions.

Tracing Art: The Best Places to Experience Contemporary Art

Museum Of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Art museums have different approaches to defining contemporary art. This also contributes to the lack of agreement. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, for example, includes works from 1947 onward, while the New Museum in New York has chosen 1977 as the beginning of contemporary art. The Tate Modern in London defines contemporary art as art created within the last 10 years.

Other important venues for contemporary art include the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the art museums in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. In addition to the established museums, there are many independent galleries and exhibition spaces that present contemporary art.

Notable examples include the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Lelong & Co. in New York and Paris, Hauser & Wirth Galleries in London, Zurich and Los Angeles, and David Zwirner Galleries in New York, London and Hong Kong.
David Zwirner Galleries in New York, London and Hong Kong. Examples of important and influential contemporary art exhibitions and fairs include the Venice Biennale, Art Basel in Basel, Miami Beach and Hong Kong, and the Frieze Art Fairs in London and New York. 

Documenta in Kassel, Germany, is one of the oldest and most important contemporary art exhibitions. Held every five years, it attracts thousands of visitors from around the world. Considered one of the most influential art exhibitions, Documenta showcases works by internationally renowned artists as well as emerging talents. In 2022, Documenta was the site of an international scandal. Works with anti-Semitic motifs caused worldwide outrage. The way in which those responsible handled the scandal was also disturbing. Documenta's reputation suffered enormously. Just how much will become clear when it opens its doors for the next time in 2027.

The importance of online exhibitions and virtual galleries has also grown in recent years, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic. Many museums and galleries have developed digital platforms to make their exhibitions accessible online. Overall, digitization has revolutionized the way art and artists are presented. The Internet provides a platform for artists and galleries to make their work available to a global audience without the need to be physically present.

In social media, artists showcase their work on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, making it easily accessible to a wide audience. There are also online galleries and art auction houses such as Artsy, Singulart and Saatchi Art that allow buyers to view and purchase artwork online. These platforms have democratized the art market, allowing a wider audience to discover and purchase artwork they would never have seen otherwise.

When Art Heats Up the Minds: Controversies in Contemporary Art

Many works of contemporary art provoke and challenge the viewer, which can lead to heated debates. For example, is a work of art too political, too critical, too provocative - or not political, critical, and provocative enough? Will religious or other feelings be hurt? How far does artistic freedom extend? Is an image offensive or inappropriate?

There is also criticism of the commercialization of contemporary art. The art world is often about prestige and high prices for artwork. Some artists are pushed into the background, and it is more about the hype around the artwork than the art itself. Critics accuse the art world of focusing too much on the market and neglecting artistic values.

Another point of criticism concerns the role of art in society. Some people see contemporary art as aloof and far removed from people's everyday lives. They criticize the fact that works of art are often created for an elite audience and are not accessible to the masses. There is criticism that the art world focuses too much on its own discourses and loses touch with society. But while some find art alienating and inaccessible, others find it liberating and inspiring.

Between Criticism and Inspiration: The Challenges and Opportunities of Contemporary Art

Contemporary artists use a variety of media and techniques to express their messages and ideas. Digitization has increased the visibility of art and artists, but it has also raised new challenges and questions. Despite - or perhaps because of - the controversy and debate that contemporary art often provokes, it remains an important part of our cultural landscape. There is no "right" or "wrong" understanding of art; it is important to appreciate and respect the diversity and complexity of contemporary art.

What do you think about contemporary art? Do you think it plays an important role in our society or do you think it is often too controversial and challenging? I'd love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments.

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About the Author Lea Finke

Lea Finke is an artist with all her soul. In her blog, she talks about inspiration, passion, and encounters with art.

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