Contemporary art

Contemporary refers to the now, the present moment, so at any point in history, the making of new art is always contemporary. The term ‘contemporary art’, however, has a variety of meanings.

It may refer to what has been made within the last six months or a year. For some curators and critics, it could stretch over possibly two to ten years. For art historians and cultural commentators with a longer view, it often begins after World War II with the rise of abstract expressionism or with the shock of pop art in the 1960s. For many who associate it with the rise of postmodernism, it refers to art made after 1970. For others, it is not a question of when but how the ideas expressed in the work resonate with the art of our time. Contemporary art then, as the term itself suggests, is an ever-shifting field of activity.

Though pushing boundaries is characteristic of contemporary art, it does not mean that what is past ceases to be of interest. On the contrary, it lives on as a vital touchstone. One very tangible example of this relationship can be found in appropriation art, which is a contemporary art form that involves the reproduction and use of existing objects or artworks.

The term avant-garde was introduced in the mid 1800s to describe artists who were exploring new ideas and forms, and today it is strongly associated with modern art movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as futurism, cubism and surrealism. This idea of artistic innovation and originality, with its roots in the avant-garde, remains an important one in contemporary art.

Among the key issues that have shaped the character of contemporary art since the mid 20th century is the way artists began to respond to new technologies. Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006), for example, helped redefine television and video as an art medium. Other important markers include the beginnings of installation art and conceptual art, the use of new materials, the impact of indigenous art, and the rethinking of the found object in art or what was coined a readymade by the influential French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968).

With the availability of the internet, high speed communications, faster travel and increased mobility, contemporary artists have access to an enormous range of human culture. As a result, relationships to place, people, ideas and geography have been radically revised. This continues to be evident and explored in contemporary art.

Adapted from Encounters with contemporary art: an education kit for the contemporary collection