Contemporary art is the art of today, produced in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century.
Contemporary artists work in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. Their art is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that continue the challenging of boundaries that was already well underway in the 20th century.
Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art as a whole is distinguished by the very lack of a uniform, organising principle, ideology, or “-ism”.
Contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community, and nationality. In vernacular English, modern and contemporary are synonyms, resulting in some conflation and confusion of the terms modern art and contemporary art by non-specialists.
Some define contemporary art as art produced within “our lifetime,” recognising that lifetimes and life spans vary. However, there is a recognition that this generic definition is subject to specialized limitations.
The classification of “contemporary art” as a special type of art, rather than a general adjectival phrase, goes back to the beginnings of Modernism in the English-speaking world. In London, the Contemporary Art Society was founded in 1910 by the critic Roger Fry and others, as a private society for buying works of art to place in public museums. A number of other institutions using the term were founded in the 1930s, such as in 1938 the Contemporary Art Society of Adelaide, Australia, and an increasing number after 1945. Many, like the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston changed their names from ones using “Modern art” in this period, as Modernism became defined as a historical art movement, and much “modern” art ceased to be “contemporary”. The definition of what is contemporary is naturally always on the move, anchored in the present with a start date that moves forward, and the works the Contemporary Art Society bought in 1910 could no longer be described as contemporary.
Intended as a reaction to preceding modern art movements, contemporary art is thought to have begun on the heels of Pop Art. In post-war Britain and America, Pop Art was pioneered by artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. It is defined by an interest in portraying mass culture and reimagining commercial products as accessible art. While the movement lasted roughly from the 1950s through the early 1970s, it was reborn as Neo-Pop Art in the 1980s thanks to artists like Jeff Koons.
In the 1960s, artists began to turn to the medium of video to redefine fine art. Through video art, many artists have challenged preconceived notions of art as high priced, high-brow, and only decipherable by elite members of society. Video art is not necessarily a type of art that individuals would want to own, but rather an experience. Continuing the trend of redefining
earlier ideas and ideals about art, some contemporary video artists are seeking to do away with the notion of art as a commodity.
As one of the most recent contemporary art movements, street art is a genre that gained prominence with the rise of graffiti in the 1980s. Often rooted in social activism, street art includes murals, installations, stenciled images, and stickers erected in public spaces. Key street artists include figures from the 1980s, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as practicing artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey.
Contemporary art can sometimes seem at odds with a public that does not feel that art and its institutions share its values. In Britain, in the 1990s, contemporary art became a part of popular culture, with artists becoming stars, but this did not lead to a hoped-for “cultural utopia”.
Contemporary art is continuously evolving and more artists are taking advantage of new technology to further their creativity. This includes code-generated art, which can produce everything from abstract pieces to futuristic vector portraits. As advances in artificial intelligence continue, some artists are using the technology to create hyperrealistic portraits that test the boundary between reality and imagination.
In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term ‘contemporary art’ varies.
The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. In the 1980s, Tate planned a Museum of Contemporary Art in which contemporary art was defined as art of the past ten years on a rolling basis.