What Is Contemporary Art - Caroline Ashwood

July 23, 2021

Generating a definition for contemporary art is typically tricky due to the highly-contested meaning of the adjective "contemporary” in this context. However, in its most fundamental sense, contemporary art refers to all painting, installation, video, and performance art produced today. Although perspectives on "today" vary greatly, many historians consider the late 1960s or early '70s as this genre's likely starting point. 

The world had witnessed major changes in art

If one considers each movement in art in a purely chronological or historic context, they all have 'contemporary qualities' in their own time. and for their time, many were afforded movement names. Between the 1800s and the end of World War Two, the world had witnessed major changes in art from how it was previously regarded only decades before. Many movements were established and defined by specific names.Each retaining and promoting differing raison detre and manifestos. 
By the 50s, the last of the 'named' movements were taking shape, in New York Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were blossoming from an earlier influx of European refugees escaping persecution from Russia and Nazi Germany. Mark Rothko, De Kooning, Max Erst, to name but three.
Eventually, with so much change in lifestyle as manufacturing industries exploded in a plastics and consumer revolution; TV, transport, home wear, electronics, art began to reflect the events and attitudes of this tectonic paradigm shift. And it all began to happen under one broad umbrella they called 'contemporary'. Lines became blurred and techniques began to reflect the technology now available to artists. It was no longer obvious to say someone was a painter or a sculptor. Mixed works popped up. Performance and 'events' were being regarded as bona fide art. In the psychedelic 60s, some of these staged art events were described as 'Happenings'. Of course, such things happened before post WW2. The Dada movement was notable for its avant garde events. 

A brief history of contemporary art 

Contemporary art's roots run deeper into history than you expect, which slightly contradicts the widespread "art of today" understanding of the genre. Some of the most common contemporary art movements in history include:

Pop Art 

Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are considered the pioneers of pop art. This art movement lasted from the 1950s to the early '70s  portraying the mass culture and reimagining commercial products as accessible art.



This art genre started in the late 1960s and early '70s. It encompassed drawing, painting, and other graphic media, in which artists studied photographs and then attempted to reproduce landscapes, portraits and other images.


Conceptualism started as a formal movement in the 1960s when notable conceptual artists like Jenny Holzer didn't buy the idea of art as a commodity. Instead, she chose to give precedence to the concept behind a work of art than the finished art itself.


Minimalism came into being in the 1960s and prioritises simple, abstract art that encourages viewers to respond to only what’s in front of them instead of making associations with outside reality.

Performance Art

Performance art began in the 1960s as a drama-centred approach to art that conveys its message as much as it entertains.

Installation Art

This contemporary art form came into prominence in the 1970s and involved using three-dimensional constructions to alter viewers' perception of space.

installation art

Earth Art

The 1960s and 70s saw the rise of earth art, which entailed artists turning natural landscapes into works of art.

Street Art

Street art is undoubtedly the most "contemporary" art form on this list, gaining popularity in the 1980s with graffiti's rise. This art’s most defining features include murals, stickers, and stencilled images bearing social activism undertones. AS the name implies, they’re usually displayed in public spaces. On the street.
Many of these so-called genre are as much define by technique or environment as they are by emotional or intellectual response from the viewer or observer. 
street art


Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.