What is Contemporary Art?

At times, the words we use to define and describe art can be confusing, none more so than contemporary art. The word contemporary is strictly definable; it’s current, it’s modern, it is of the present. However, don’t let the name and definition fool you; Contemporary art and Modern art are two separate things altogether, each referring to their own set of artists and styles, as well as encompassing two drastically different eras, each with their own forms of interpretation, and relying on different cultural touchstones. So what is Contemporary art?

Contemporary Art – A Definition and History

To define contemporary art, it’s important to start with what it isn’t. Contemporary art is not modern art, though it is of this modern era. Modern art refers to the periods between the 1860s and the 1970s, encompassing Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism, with much more of introspective focus, in part using the past to make sense of the present. While Contemporary art can certainly be Impressionist, Cubist or Surrealist in style and execution, these styles and movements firmly belong to the era of Modern Arts. At the end of the 1960s, phrases such as ‘Post-Modernism’ began entering the cultural lexicon when talking about the arts, carrying with it the notion that the Modernist movement was over, and something new and exciting had formed in its stead (more on that later!).

With that distinction made, we can now begin to examine what Contemporary art is. Contemporary art can be defined as practically any piece of art made between the 1970s and the here and now, with Pop Art, popularised by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, considered by many to be the loose beginning of the Contemporary era. With Pop Art being a cultural launch point for Contemporary art, we see vibrant colours being employed far often than before this time, though, vibrancy isn’t always necessary. Contemporary art covers every medium and style employed by artists, from paintings to sculptures, performance art to installations, and even photographs and video art, Contemporary art is eclectic and diverse in execution.

Further defining Contemporary art is the optics of it. While Modern chose to focus on the past to explain the present and took a more inward look at the artist’s intentions, Contemporary art employs a different approach. Contemporary art tends to be more abstract in nature, relying on the viewer to infer their own meaning from the piece, and while there are pieces that are created as statements and reactions, even these pieces allow for diversity in examination.

Contemporary art tends to have a much greater focus on the world around it, drawing from contemporary situations and ideas to form a piece seeped in social and political commentary. Since its inception, Contemporary art has been employed the world over to challenge the viewers preconceived notions of the world around it, by channelling the subjects it sprung from to form a coherent piece. Covering subjects such as Feminism, Globalisation, and Militarism to name but a few, Contemporary art is not just a product of the present, it is a reaction and a reflection of the world it has sprung from.


light before the storm by Clare Riddington Jones

Light Before The Storm by Clare Riddington Jones


Light before the storm is an acrylic piece presenting a stretch of the Australian East Coast, either just moments or hours before an impending storm. Given the nature of contemporary art, there are several ways one can look at this piece. First and foremost, it can be enjoyed simply for its beauty and quality, but furthermore, as is the way with Contemporary art, it begs the viewer to begin asking questions about our place in the world.
The vibrancy of the colours and the varied use of techniques from various style, coming together to sculpt this view, cement its place as a contemporary piece.


Midnight Muse by Sandra Michele Knight

Midnight Muse by Sandra Michele Knight

This oil piece utilises abstraction to help accentuate the focused subject, The Muse. The background is vague and indistinct, using colour to imply where light would fall, in an almost Impressionist style, but without the strong distinct brush strokes. The small runs of paint in the top corners give a sense of the world melting away, while The Muse captivates the viewer, drawing their attention back to the foreground and subject.


Out Of The Blue by David Clare

Out Of The Blue by David Clare

Out of the blue is another piece that uses abstraction to create a sense of the contemporary, portraying a mountain range that, as the name implies, is seemingly appearing out the blue. The variety of techniques used to develop this oil piece draws upon influences of the past, to support this calming vision, such as the textured layering of paint helping to inform the impression of stones and crags forming from the mountain, and the range and depth of shapes define the landscape, from the lighter shades forming the sky to darker shades above implying the formation of clouds, or below, to show the fall of the range into the valley below.

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