Defining Contemporary Art

What is contemporary art?

Contemporary art is a hot debate regarding what defines the term and what it is not. The term contemporary art means "art of today", which the movement feel current, yet, it dates back and encompasses several major movements that make up the history of arts. As different individuals' interpretations of the timeline of "today" vary, the genre's starting point is still debated to this day. In essence, to identify contemporary work as different to what art came before, many historians consider the late 1960's / early 1970's to be the end of modern art or modernism. The diversity in the global definition of contemporary art makes it difficult to determine what is considered contemporary art because of no single definition or timeframe defining the artwork.

To grasp the timelines in classifying art – the shift from modernism into contemporary is not the only debate. The transcendence from academic art into modern art is also not yet set in concrete terms. The modern era superseded renaissance inspired academic art. The period is estimated to date from 1870 – 1970. Yet, the Tate Modern in London and the Musee National d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre in Paris take 1900 as the starting point for "Modern Art". Also, neither they nor the Museum of Modern Art in New York makes any distinction between "modernist" and "postmodernist" works. Instead, they see both as phases of "Modern Art".

In the last section of this article, I provided a reference list of the summary movements included in contemporary art for you to peruse a little later if interested.


Feature artwork: In Nature We Trust I, detail, montage limited edition print, 2021

Today's Art

What does contemporary art defined as 'today's art' mean? - artwork produced in the later 20th century and the 21st century. Furthermore, as found in my work, contemporary artists are influenced by a global community and work in a culturally diverse realm. Technological advances often become a part of their practice. I frequently comment on how this realm influences the human experience, which is conceptually why the media lends itself to the cause within my work. Thus, the contemporary art world is interconnected and tricky to put in one box of particular defining categories. Of course, defining African Contemporary Art is another kettle of fish altogether, which we will lightly cover.

The term contemporary is complex and still being more clearly defined. It is, in essence, history currently in the making. One can argue that contemporary artwork is recent artistic production of interdisciplinary media that challenges the viewer through the media as the vehicle for the concept. Contemporary art is often seen as a dynamic combination of methods, concepts, materials and subjects that challenge boundaries already well underway in the 20th century. Contemporary art is diverse and can be distinguished by lacking a uniform, organising principle, ideology, or "ism". Instead, contemporary art is part of a cultural dialogue that concerns broader contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity (especially in SA), community, family, religion and nationality.

To understand the current, we need to understand the backdrop of its making - let's unpack a bit of art history.

The beginning of Modern African Art came about before the end of colonialism. Africa has been undergoing a revolution in its visual arts. The birth of modern African art began in the 1950s when Western artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse visited Africa for inspiration. When they went back to Europe and America, they created works that are now considered some of the most renowned artworks of the 20th century.

I will elaborate on how African art has evolved from traditional to modern to provide a backdrop context to the definition of contemporary arts in Africa. Modern African Art is a multi-dimensional experience. It is an expression of culture and history that changes and evolves and transcends time and place. African art began with traditional works that are filled with symbolism. There were masks, figures, statues and other ritualistic objects created in this genre of art to convey messages from gods or ancestors to humans or for use in religious ceremonies. The Modern African arts have a more diverse approach towards materials, techniques, subjects and purposes than its predecessor; they represent the mixture of Western cultures with indigenous ones as well as a rejection of Western conventions for artistic practices.

Contemporary African Art is a diverse and eclectic field of work. Artists interpret their surroundings, perspectives, and cultures in many different ways, including the mediums they choose to work in. Consequently, many artists that are labelled as contemporary Africans work in more than one medium or style. These artists include the likes of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Lala Rugova, David LaChapelle, and Julie Mehretu are such artists which the art world has recognised.

Why is Contemporary Art Important?

Artists are the windows to the soul within society. In persevering a career in the arts, you take on a pledge to initiate broader conversations, understanding and bringing awareness towards pivotal conversations within society for the greater good of all. Art serves many facets of the human experience, and artists deal with an array of work that numerous art admirers, collectors and audiences appreciate in different ways. At the core of contemporary art, I find that art should make you think and engage with notions sparked through the artist's creation. For me, the understanding and appreciation of contemporary art often come into effect through that moment where one reflects on a piece that triggers an emotive response based on a conceptual framework or - in following an artist's journey and understanding what their practice is about.

Art is influential because it provides a lens into the period of history and aids in shaping the future. It is a means of self-expression and can either be seen as honest or fake. Artwork that stirs emotion is sincere and created with a purpose. Contemporary artists play essential roles within society because they are aware of new ideas and ideologies. They opt for a road less travelled and don't conform to the norm. It takes bravery to put work out for the world to see. It can be said that contemporary art is a term that differentiates from other forms of art in the same way people differentiate between classical music from an alternative genre. I find the visual identification of mark-making or sculptural work as contemporary when the aesthetic is abstract often confuses the definition of the term. Abstract is a style of art and not a classification of an art period. Contemporary art leans more towards conceptual intent. Contemporary artists are always looking for new ideas and what best enables their work, making them crucial to the development of society and progress as an entire culture at large.

In conclusion

To understand what is deemed contemporary, we need to grasp the foundations and build-up of period classifications that contemporary art superseded. The differences between modern and postmodern art concern the downgrading of the "finished product". The aim of nearly all modern artists was to create unique and enduring artwork such as paintings, drawings, sculptural work or other types of objects. By contrast, postmodernist artists are less interested in this kind of product and more interested in the meaning behind the 'artefact/artwork' ideas. This helps to explain the formations of new types of art-making media, which further enable conceptual framework. Trending media currently include installation art (including sound and video installations), conceptualism (a broad category of 'ideas art'), happenings/experiences (type of performance art), video installations, projection mapping, and outdoor earthworks (environmental constructions). There are no tangible artworks created as the main purpose of the exhibition/event in the artistic production in those mentioned above. In some practices, it is transient and recorded only as an 'event'.

We reside in a world which is has become merged with an online experience alongside a physical life. The access to information, visuals, connections, worldviews, influences and technology has altered the human experience. In this day and age, artists are equipped with media that pushes boundaries and enables the conceptual framework of their practice to be heightened. The "art of this day" is blurred. In years to come, movements in history will become more clearly defined as time passes and patterns, debates and timeframes are settled. For now, I identify as a South African contemporary artist as I produce interdisciplinary artwork with a conceptual framework as a born and bred South African artist where the socio-political landscape has most certainly influenced and shaped my worldview. I know no other life. Many white South African artists do not identify as African. They are wary of the term in not wanting to offend in stating that they are African as they are not black. Understanding the purpose of an artists practice and the media in which they practice aids in defining where their work resides in the art world. Although I steer clear of the politics, I need to know how my work is a part of this time capsule in the history of art in the making.

There is a wonderful platform called answer the public. Here are a few local thoughts on the matter on questions currently being asked on contemporary arts in South Africa. For me, an art practice encompasses much research and awareness of the history of arts and the language of visual communication. It’s a healthy part of the creative process and an important part of engaging with those who are interested. Although I am weary of boxes and saddened by the cultural appropriation and the complexities history present us with, I define myself as a contemporary South African artist as I reside in SA and produce engaging work in media in the twenty-first century. Therefore, I felt the topic was an important facet of my practice to discuss and further share the arts' understanding.

Contemporary Art Movements

Chronological list of Postmodernist styles and artforms

(source: Art Encyclopaedia)

Pop Art (1960s onwards) / Word Art (1960s onwards) / Conceptualism (1960s onwards) / Performance (Early 1960s onwards) / Fluxus Movement (1960s) / Installation (1960s onwards) / Video Installations (1960s onwards) / Minimalism (1960s onwards) / Photo-Realist Art (Hyperrealism) (1960s, 1970s) / Earthworks (Land or Environmental Art) (1960s, 1970s) / Contemporary Photography (1960s onwards) / Arte Povera (1966-71) / Supports-Surfaces (1966-72) / Contemporary Realism / Post-Minimalism (1971 onwards) / Feminist Art (1970s) / New Subjectivity (1970s) / London School (1970s) / Graffiti Art (1970s onwards) / Neo-Expressionist Art (1980 onwards) / Transavanguardia (Trans-avant-garde) / Britart: Young British Artists (1980s) / Deconstructivist Design (1985-2010) / Body Art (1990s) / Chinese Cynical Realism (1990s) / Neo-Pop (late 1980s onwards) / Stuckism (1999 onwards) / New Leipzig School (2000 onwards) / Projection Art (21st Century) / Computer Art (21st Century)

Reference to links provided