defining contemporary art?

7 August 2011 § Leave a comment

Since I purport to comment on contemporary art I thought it might be useful to post some sort of definition. In an attempt to find any sort of consensus I stumbled across an excellent blog called ART CANON whose tag line is art genres, groups, movements and styles, art critics, historians, philosophers and theorists (Not sure who Jacques Ranciere is, or want a definition Neo Geo? Then this is the site for you!) Here is their entry which takes from Tate and Wiki:

Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. [Tate]

Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II. The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since World War II. [wikipedia]

Not clear, so perhaps the biggest contemporary art gallery in London – Saatchi – has a good definition? Nope – they don’t even bother. The Tate is the next and it calls itself ‘Modern’ (as many contemporary art galleries do), and if you want to get more confused try the auction houses. Sothebys Contemporary department includes work from ‘the early abstract expressionists to the present day’. Since the term had also been sometimes used in the 1920’s one assumes they refer to the American movement of the mid 1940’s. Christies Contemporary Art is ‘dedicated to art created after 1970…  focusing on the various artistic movements of this time, from Minimalism and Conceptualism…Bonhams do not have a definition and nowadays tend to hold ‘Modern and Contemporary’ sales. None of them help clarify matters by chucking in occasional pre-war works, by Picasso for example, in to their Contemporary sales.

Contemporary art is most normally taken as starting after the end of the modernist period (in which I’d include the abstract expressionists) so I thought a look at writings on post-modernism might help. Post-modernism is also hard to pin down but usually is considered as a movement including most, but all, Contemporary art – and, as the name suggests, succeeding modernism. In Wikipedia’s definition it contradicts its previous entry (quoted by ART CANON above) by now placing the start of Contemporary art as 1950. To confuse matters further some thinkers and philosophers feel that modernism has not ended, or that post-modernism is actually just a part of modernism – but I won’t go in to that!

Mark Tansey - Modern Postmodern

It is generally accepted however that by 1960, amongst many other influences, the Assemblage art of Robert Rauschenberg, the Fluxus movement and the Pop art of, for example, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton had at least laid the foundations of what we would now call contemporary art. It is in the end probably impossible to define exactly where modernism ‘died’ – so let’s just settle for somewhere between 1950 and 1980. 

In general the main problem lies with using social science to define art history – can the start and end of ‘modernism’ ever be defined? Can anything ever come after post-modernism (or contemporary art)? Would we not be better off just sticking to the ‘isms’ and movements like cubism and Pop art, which have clear styles, aims, practitioners and so on? And so for a definition of contemporary art, I will leave that as a trap for others!

So, does that help? I thought not, but it is nevertheless good to see that – as is often the case in the art world – there is no definitive answer. The moral perhaps is if you want to hold an opinion, or like a work that is ‘unpopular’ – then why the h*ll not!

Homework for tonight:

Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 344 pp. ISBN: 13-978-0-226-76431-3.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Phaidon, 1960 386 pp, ISBN: 0-7148-1756-2
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, 125 pp. ISBN-10: 2840660601
Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984, 210 pp. ISBN: 0-674-63126-9

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