About Contemporary Art

Andy Warhol at his studio in 1983. Photo: Brownie Harris, Getty Images
Andy Warhol at his studio in 1983. Photo: Brownie Harris, Getty Images

What do we mean when we talk about “contemporary art”? In simplistic terms, contemporary art is it the art that is made today, or while the artist producing the art is still alive? However, like all things in the art world, all is not what it seems, nothing is as clear-cut as one would hope.

In its most basic sense, the term contemporary art refers to painting, sculpture, photography, and installation art produced relatively recently, from 1960 onwards; cited to have arrived after modernism. Given that we are premising that contemporary art was born in the 20th century you may be surprised to hear that contemporary art has a long history. In order to trace this and understand its evolution, we must look back into the history of art and comment have given to leading artists at that time.

The birth of contemporary art

The obvious choice is Andy Warhol, who had an interest in portraying a mass culture and political comment by reimaging commercial products. Roy Lichtenstein, born in New York in 1923, was also a pioneer. He became famous for his bright and bold paintings of comic strip cartoons as well as his paintings of everyday objects. He was one of a group of artists making art in the 1960s who were called pop artists because they made art about ‘popular’ things such as TV, celebrities, fast food, pop music, and cartoons.

Shipboard Girl, 1965. Offset lithograph on white wove paper. Photo: Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Just like the pioneers of pop art, today’s artists work in, and respond to, an ever-changing global environment that is culturally diverse, technologically advanced, and multifaceted. Working with a wide range of media, contemporary artists often reflect and comment on modern-day society, politics, and satire.

Contemporary artists are more likely to be accused of appropriation. Like many artists that preceded them, they may acknowledge and find inspiration in art works from previous time periods in both subject matter and formal elements. Let’s look at Banksy. Banksy is an anonymous England-based street artist; a vandal, political activist, and film director, active since the 1990s who uses what he sees to portray his version of world events. It is often commented upon that Banksy appropriated the work of Blek le Rat, a French graffiti artist. Le Rat was one of the first graffiti artists in Paris. Prolific in the 1980s he has been described as the “Father of stencil graffiti” – and so it goes on through history.

Banksy, Girl with Balloon. Photo: Dominic Robinson via Flickr

In turn, commercialism has appropriated the work of contemporary artists for its own gain. For example, Banksy’s image of the shredded work “Framed Fries”, a social comment about McDonald’s, has been memed and is now serving as fodder for Golden Arches’ marketing. Thus turning appropriation on its head.

Contemporary art and accessibility

The real difference, the defining factor of the most recent contemporary art, is the touch, feel, and join-in concept. While traditional works of art are in galleries with signs that say “Do not touch,” the contemporary artist invites you to physically participate. In this way, the viewer becomes part of the work of art. This is never more apparent than on social media, Instagram particularly. With artists such as Matty Monahan, a Los Angeles-based contemporary artist, and marketing entrepreneur, best known for creating the conceptual art group, “The Most Famous Artist.” Through this platform, Monahan makes social media-themed installations, performance art, and exhibitions to challenge viewers to examine how technology and the Internet impact on  society with his art,  “#selfiewall” given the dubious award of “The Most Instagrammable Wall in L.A.”

Questions such as “What is art?” and “What is the function of art?” are relatively new. Creating art that defies viewers’ expectations and artistic conventions is not a modern concept, and questioning the value and validity of art will continue to grow and develop as artists themselves are developing. Contemporary artists are in a position to express themselves and respond to social issues in a way that artists of the past were not able to. 

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