Definitions of “Contemporary Art” seem to differ, depending on who is asked. Many museums and galleries maintain that the term describes all art produced since World War II, while many art historians maintain that 1970 (the beginning of Post-Modernism) was the point of inception. Some believe it coincides with only certain aesthetic styles, while others believe it is a generalization of all recent art. But regardless of any such attempt to define Contemporary Art, one thing is certain—it is, simply put, the art that is being made now.
Contemporary Art is more than a mere embrace of the present. It’s an aesthetic that reflects the current era. Rather than adhering to one distinct culture or standard, this style has its own set of rules and values, constantly challenging the status quo and all preconceived notions.
A good example of Contemporary Art is found in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. Established in 1997, the monumental building has been celebrated as the cathedral of Contemporary Art. From its design, to its architecture, to the meaning of every detail, this museum has become the example of what Contemporary Art should strive to be. In this setting, the very idea can be understood as a general term for today’s art.
Of course, the most recognizable form echoes sentiments of mainstream modernism. Artists such as Richard Serra and Gerhard Richter, as well as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami, with their retro-sensationalism of figures, have embraced this particular means of expression. Yet there are various other modes, each of which is driven by a characteristic outlook, drawn to specific types of content.
Some contemporary artists seek to convey the ways in which neoliberal economics, globalizing capital, and neoconservative politics play a role in the world today. To do so, they often implement repetitions of avant-garde shock tactics—disturbing images, sounds or scents to create a desired effect. Damien Hirst once used a dead tiger shark preserved in a glass and steel tank of formaldehyde in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Andres Serrano created a photograph of a crucifix submerged in his own urine in a piece entitled Piss Christ. Gottfried Helnwein painted his own version of the Adoration of the Magi, replacing Baby Jesus with Adolph Hitler. Essentially, these artists intend for the shock to act as commentary on the subject they are describing, yet many have criticized the power of shock, believing it to be unnecessary or offensive. Some critics have even stated that shock tactics do not qualify as “real art.” Still, many artists maintain that shock can serve as a preliminary to the actual object of discussion, which should always center around the state of Contemporary Art.
There has also been an onslaught of art shaped by local, national, independent, and anti-globalization values. Many contemporary artists believe their work serves as the ideal medium to convey messages of diversity and identity. Such artists create practices that rely on widespread public involvement, and lengthy presentations. They believe they could display global movements and trends throughout the world, and show how individuals are directly affected and influenced. This is commonly referred to as “interactive art,” and is generally an installation-based art that involves the spectator. Interactive artists believe that by involving the spectator, they can not only inform, but inspire new ways of thinking about the subject they present. Artists such as Carsten Höller, Minerva Cuevas, and Rafael Lozano-Hemme have found interactive art to be the ideal opportunity for innovation and ingenuity, often employing cutting-edge technologies and digital resources to create their ambitious participatory projects.
Lastly, some contemporary artists seek to capture the immediate fleeting moments, and to communicate the changing nature of time through their work. As the world continues to evolve, these artists believe it is their duty to find sustainable flows of survival, cooperation and growth. There is a deeper level of understanding that comes with the pictorial embodiment of the world’s turnings and life frictions, making this mode much more than an aesthetic achievement.
Contemporary Art is much more socially aware and involved than any previous aesthetic has been. Feminism, globalization, bio-engineering, multiculturalism—all have become primary subject matter that artists base their work around. In this respect, Contemporary Art is just as much an ideology as it is an aesthetic. Taking no definite form, with no absolutes in technique or style, it is open to interpretation. It is the art of today—bold, intense, powerful—with its own distinct culture and its own contextual discourse.