What Is Contemporary Art?

Contemporary art can be tricky to define. It most often refers to the art of the times we live in, but at the same time, it is also confused with modern art. If you are wondering what is contemporary art, or what are the differences between contemporary and modern art, then you’ve come to the right place. 


What Year Did Contemporary Art Begin?

The age of contemporary art is believed to have begun after the Pop Art period of the 1960s. 

There are some who say the phrase “contemporary art” was coined in Berlin in the late 80s, but then others say it was in the 70s. In short, there is no one specific period of time when contemporary art began. Rather this phrase has become synonymous with describing art that is current. 

The debate has been raging for years. This could, however, be a result of the confusion surrounding the precise definition of contemporary art.

If you research how art was categorized over the past decades, you’ll notice that contemporary art is a term that was first used after the 1960s. Before then, it was all about modern art. Today, the two terms are used interchangeably, despite there being a distinct difference between them.

While modern art was considered a break from tradition and a development of a new one, contemporary art is more of a reflection of the current state of the world, with the occasional tributes and reimaginings of previously traditional art styles or categories. 

Because modern art was associated with the ideas of progressivism or even distorted perspective, it was less appealing to artists following WWII. This could have contributed to the rise in popularity of contemporary art following the 1940s and 1950s.

Allegedly, 1945 is the year that is highlighted as the start of the contemporary art era in Germany and most of Europe. In the United States, Americans favor sometime around the 1960s. 

It is safe to say that pinpointing the exact year that contemporary art started is not possible.

Today, contemporary art comes in all shapes, sizes, and mediums. It includes video, paintings, sculptures, shadow boxes, and more.



What Kind of Art Is Contemporary Art?

There are several definitions of contemporary art that all connect to each other. Art is something that is incredibly diverse, especially nowadays. Because there are so many mediums, techniques, and styles, as well as artistic themes or subject matter, it is tricky to pinpoint just one definition.

To put it in the simplest terms possible, there are three points by which to define contemporary art:

  1. Contemporary art refers specifically to the art of today. It is produced by artists who live in our current times. Contemporary artworks are defined by the time period in which they were created. This is regardless of the style, medium (sculpture, painting, photography, drawing, or printing), or artistic movement they belong to.
  2. Contemporary art provides opportunities to reflect on society. It often reflects issues or values that are important or talked about in the world at this time. It is part of an ongoing conversation that touches on topics such as identity, community, nationality, spirituality, politics, and more.
  3. Contemporary art relates to practices and aesthetic designs that convey ideas or concepts (such as conceptual art). It transcends boundaries between art and what traditionally is not considered art (performance art). It goes beyond the borders of art as it is understood within the modern and classical art periods.


What Are the Characteristics of Contemporary Art?

As we have already touched on, contemporary art’s most memorable characteristic is, ironically, the fact that it has no single characteristic. It is defined by the artist’s ability to innovate and bring out a modern masterpiece that is relevant to the current times. However, there are a few technical characteristics to look for in contemporary art: 

Innovation in Art

Contemporary artists are known for introducing the world to new forms of art. While different art mediums are melded together and diverse ideas expanded on or combined, new types of art are simultaneously created. 

New Mediums

Another characteristic that was a catalyst for modern art was the employment of different objects and materials. These were ordinary materials but repurposed or reimagined into unique works of art. For instance, painters used pieces of newspapers as a backdrop to their canvases. Years ago, utilizing something like this would have been unheard of. An example of a contemporary artist using newspaper in this manner is Alec Monopoly, who has incorporated newspaper and comic strips as backdrops to his graffiti paintings. Similarly, common items like cars, chairs, boxes have been used masterfully to create assemblages.

Use of Color

Traditionally, color was used as a means to bring depth and life to paintings. However, contemporary artists experimented with colors and used them unconventionally to make new textures and themes and used them in their own artwork. David Kracov has applied this technique in several of his pieces, in particular, his collection of papercuts is known for its vibrant mixture of colors.

New Techniques

Contemporary art is not only about playing and experimenting with colors and objects, rather it has also given birth to newer techniques that form the basis for the genre today. When looking for examples of contemporary art, one of the best things to take into consideration is whether or not the piece utilizes new techniques for the current time period. Surreal artist Angelo Accardi in particular is known, not just for his paintings, but for the amalgamation of old and new traditional art tributes, presented as papercuts. The result is something utterly unique.


What Are the 7 Contemporary Art Forms?

While contemporary art stands out as the art of today, it can be broken down into several different forms.

These contemporary art forms are as follows:

  1. Painting
  2. Sculpture
  3. Literature
  4. Architecture
  5. Cinema
  6. Music
  7. Theater


Types of Contemporary Art

  1. Fauvism: A reaction to impressionism. Its main distinction was color, flat and extensive stains.
  2. Cubism: Created by Picasso and Braques. They used neutral tones to create a fourth dimension.
  3. Expressionism: Originated in Germany as a means of expressing human anguish. The paintings were full of drama, expression, and caricatures.
  4. Dadaism: Arose as a protest against WWI.  Mocked technology and progress. Its main objective was to scandalize the bourgeoisie of the time.
  5. Surrealism: Painters used resources such as the animation of the inanimate world, the isolation of anatomy, fantastic machines that evoked chaos.
  6. Abstract art: Also encompassed kinetic art or pop art. The concept was simply that anything that was drawn or created outside of the traditional perspective of reality held value either as an optical illusion or representative of something else not immediately assumed.


What Makes Contemporary Art Unique?

As for what makes contemporary art unique, there are several ways to think about this. Classifying art as unique usually insinuates that it is rare. What occasionally defines contemporary art, or any type of art, as unique is something that exists in the eye of the beholder or the critic.

Contemporary art is more about experimentation and freedom while focusing on society and social impact. This brings us to our next commonly asked question in the conversation surrounding contemporary art: How is contemporary art different from modern art?


What Is the Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Art?

Modern art vs. contemporary art is an ongoing debate both in society and in the art world.

First of all, modern art can be defined largely by the period in which it began. The modern art period includes work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from 1880 through the 1960s. In contrast, contemporary art references work created after the 1960s by artists who are still living.

Modern and contemporary art have both been thought of as revolutionary with regard to their style and medium. However modern art is more so an expression of individuality, while contemporary art focuses, as we said, on society.

Another distinction is the fact that much of modern art was created on canvas. Contemporary art exists across a spectrum of different mediums which include, but are not limited to:

  • Object/furniture design
  • Tech-enabled artwork
  • Graphic Design
  • Performance art


Top Contemporary Artists You Should Know

While there are many significant contemporary artists working today, they are too numerous to list here. In no particular order, here is a list of some of today’s most prominent contemporary artists 

Jeff Koons

Currently the world’s most expensive living artist, Jeff Koons is both a popular and controversial figure in contemporary art. His work consists of sculptures that depict everyday objects, the most widely recognized being balloon animals created from stainless steel. 

David Kracov

Artist David Kracov is a former animator who is perpetually inspired by the muse of pop culture. His work is distinctive, using vibrant colors and wordplay to bring his designs to life. His collection consists of a variety of paintings, papercuts, and sculptures. 


Banksy is an anonymous British graffiti artist known as an important figure in contemporary art. He combined graffiti art with performance and installation, but his identity remains unknown. His art is generally informed by and reflective of terrorism, global issues, capitalism, and political authority. In creating original motifs in his public murals, Banksy remixed mediums and artistic elements, creating something that is entirely his own.

Marina Abramovi

Referring to herself as “the grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramovic has been creating and performing art for the past 50 years. Originally from Serbia, her work has been featured in public and in gallery spaces all over the world. Her art explores body art, endurance art, and feminist art, the relationship between the performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

Yayoi Kusama

Perhaps one of the most celebrated living artists today, Yayoi Kusama’s work is notorious for its repeated use of polka dots, arresting patterns, and bright colors. Creating art across a variety of mediums, Kusama’s most well-known projects, known as “infinity rooms” have been installed in several art galleries worldwide. Although she works primarily in sculpture and installation, Kusama is also active in painting, performance, film, fashion, poetry, fiction, and other arts.


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