“Well, what is it?”: Defining Contemporary Art and Understanding Its Importance

By Anna Burns, Contributor


The world is an ecosystem. Political tensions and alliances, imports and exports, the Internet and mass media - our lives are increasingly intertwined. With each passing day, we become more aware of each other and our stories. These expanding worldviews create a series of contradictions: Certain experiences are universal, but our perspectives are unique. Some of us are privileged while others are marginalized. We’re independent, but we need each other to live and thrive. These are the types of ideas that influence contemporary art, for it reflects the issues and experiences that characterize our environment. When we understand these works, we understand our world.


Contemporary art is hard to define—it offers no clear starting point. Roughly speaking, contemporary art began in the second half of the 20th century, and for this reason, it’s often confused with Modernism and Postmodernism. While art historians struggle to reach a consensus on the matter, the politically and socially-charged events of the 1970s and 1980s provide us with a safe point of origin. Primarily, contemporary art concerns “the now,” meaning current events and those of the recent past. It is art produced in our lifetimes, shaped by the same moments that have shaped all of us.


In addition to modern relevance, a defining feature of contemporary art is eclecticism. In her book Making Contemporary Art: How Today’s Artists Think and Work, the American writer and curator Linda Weintraub describes contemporary art as a discipline in which, “No topic, no medium, no process, no intention, no professional protocols, and no aesthetic principles are exempt.” As a result, there are no definite styles or concepts that it must reflect. And in terms of medium, contemporary art ranges from photography to painting to performance. In other words, it’s as diverse as the people who create it.


Yet contemporary art is also eclectic in terms of theme. It does not limit itself to one issue or concern. Today’s artists are responsible for documenting every aspect of the contemporary experience, meaning works can have social, political, economic, or even ideological implications. For instance, the African-American artist Renee Cox employs photography to examine a multitude of social issues, often using her own body as the subject. Her 2008 series The Discreet Charm of the Bougie follows the journey of a modern, upper-class woman. By examining these images, viewers witness the personal transformation that takes place in Cox’s alter-ego Missy. The series begins as a case study of alienation and depression, but by its resolution, Missy has found self-actualization and enlightenment. The Discreet Charm of the Bougie also combats racist imagery. By placing Missy in a position of wealth, Cox emphasizes how African-American women are capable of achieving financial success, contradicting the stereotypes perpetuated by American media that would suggest otherwise.


With respect to political issues, contemporary art offers no shortage of examples. A particularly charged work is Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes, created by the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra in 2000. This piece reflects the hardships endured by migrant workers in Germany, who cannot be paid due to their status as refugees or asylum-seekers. In an attempt to highlight the ways that Germany demeans immigrants, participants are paid to sit in ragged, homemade cardboard, concealing the upper halves of their bodies. This performative sculpture pushes the limits of what is socially acceptable by exploring how globalization and politics dehumanize migrant workers.


Contemporary art allows us to engage with our world and makes us more cognizant of those around us. By offering relevance, eclecticism, and social analysis, it emphasizes diversity and creativity while examining the current state of our societies. Because of this, contemporary art is a means of fostering human compassion. It helps us understand each other by expanding our social awareness, yielding both sympathy and solidarity. So, if the world is an ecosystem, then contemporary art is a means of comprehending and protecting it.