Contemporary Art – Concept, characteristics and styles

We explain what contemporary art is, its characteristics and what its styles are like. Also, its relationship with modern art.

contemporary art sculpture
Contemporary art encompasses the most recent artistic manifestations.

what is the contemporary art?

Contemporary art embraces the art forms of our age, produced and interpreted as a reflection of today’s society, that is, originated from the 20th century. However, it is important to understand that it is a difficult concept to define and whose limits vary enormously depending on who is consulted, to the point that for many there is not really a distinction between modern art and contemporary art.

This difficulty in defining contemporary art has to do with the very word “contemporary”, which refers to a present that is very difficult to fix on the timeline of history, and is also due to the fact that in the field of arts uses its own periodization, which does not always coincide with that used by historians.

Thus, for some, the modern is typical of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, leaving the contemporary for the late twentieth and early twenty-first. But there is no consensus in this regard, because basically they are aesthetic and not chronological delimitations.

Contemporary art, then, would have to be defined on the basis of certain aesthetic features and certain philosophical concerns, many of which, however, were already present in modern art, or at least in the period of the mid and late nineteenth century. That is why some even prefer to use the term “postmodern” to refer to what is strictly contemporary.

In any case, contemporary art is a broad and complicated category that encompasses the most recent artistic manifestations and artistic styles of humanity, and is typical of industrial and post-industrial society (or digital).

Both the society to which it reflects and this art have presented great changes with respect to the previous historical stages, which point to a continuous and sustained exploration of certain fundamental questions, such as what is art?

Characteristics of contemporary art

contemporary art
Contemporary art crosses the boundaries between artistic disciplines.

Broadly speaking, we could attribute the following characteristics to contemporary art:

  • According to some classifications, covers artistic trends from the early 20th century to today. Others, on the other hand, consider as contemporary only those after 1960.
  • Experimentation and the new are a value in itself, especially with regard to new techniques and new materials, which includes towards the end of the 20th century the appearance of digital art and the use of new technologies.
  • Many of the central elements of the artistic tradition are resignified, often ironically.
  • The figurative is abandoned and abstraction, geometric figure, line and chaos are embraced as possible expressive methods.
  • Reflection on the nature of art and of the artist is constant, and that also includes legitimation spaces such as museums, institutions, etc.
  • Gender boundaries are crossed, pointing to a hybrid, mestizo, indeterminate art.

Contemporary art styles

contemporary art andy warhol
Pop Art resorted to the representation and use of everyday consumer objects.

Partly due to its problematic conceptual delimitation, it is not easy to know which school or style is or is not contemporary art or modern art, and the list can vary significantly from book to book. However, some of the best known contemporary styles are:

  • Fauvism or Fovism. It was a pictorial movement that originated in France between 1904 and 1908, whose name responds to the French voice fauve, “Fierce”. This alluded to the provocative color palette of its painters, which broke with the custom and dared to venture into tones that were not very faithful to reality. Henri Matisse (1869-1954), André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) are considered its most important founders and authors.
  • Cubism. Cubism emerged in Europe between 1907 and 1924, and is considered a founding trend, of vital importance for the emergence of the avant-garde of the twentieth century. It consisted of a true break with traditional painting, which dared to break with the realistic perspective, inaugurating instead a personal, subjective perspective of things. The fathers of Cubism were Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), but they were joined by other great European painters of the time, as well as the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) .
  • Dadaism. Arisen in 1916 at the Voltaire cabaret in Zurich, it was an artistic movement of a burlesque and rebellious nature, which opposed the bourgeois art and the positivism prevailing at the time. The work of the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) and the German poet Hugo Ball (1886-1927), it took its name from the infantile babbling (Dadaist) because he valued the sequences of sounds without apparent meaning, as a way of breaking with the obligation to “say something”. That attitude was later inherited in other genres by the followers of the movement, such as sculpture and painting.
  • Surrealism. One of the great cultural movements of 20th century Europe, whose fundamental precept was to move away from reason and objectivity to approach the world of the Freudian unconscious: dreams, hallucinations and fantasies. The surrealist movement formally began when the French poet André Bretón (1896-1966) published in 1924 the Surrealist manifesto in Paris, a city that was the axis of the movement in its expansion throughout the world, venturing into painting, sculpture, literature and even cinema. The movement had a large number of followers of different nationalities, among which were Breton himself, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), René Magritte (1898-1967), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Jean Arp (1887-1966), Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), among many others.
  • Expressionism. Another of the great artistic movements of the 20th century, born at the beginning of the century in Germany, at the same time as French Fauvism. His initial field was painting, but later he spread to other arts such as literature, sculpture, music, dance, theater and cinema, always under the premise of opposing impressionism and its rational, objective conception of art. . Expressionism valued the interiority of the artist above all else, and deformed reality in the work to adapt it to the expression of that subjectivity, often through dreamlike, desolate and somewhat bitter scenarios typical of the pre-war period of Germany. It was not, however, a homogeneous movement, so its stylistic features mutated a lot over time, although its philosophical premise was preserved. Some of its typical exponents were the painters Evard Munch (1863-1944), Vasili Kandinski (1866-1944), Paul Klee (1879-1940), Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985), along with writers like Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Bertoldt Brecht (1898-1956), or musicians like Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), to name just a few.
  • Abstract expressionism. A pictorial movement born in the United States in the 1940s, the result of the migration of many European surrealist artists to the new continent. Abandoning figurativeism in favor of abstraction, this movement employed primary colors and a minimalist approach, as well as violent lines. Its beginnings were very marked by its European heritage, led by its pioneer, the Armenian Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), exiled in New York, but it soon became the first properly American movement within abstract painting, whose greatest exponents They are the famous Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) or Mark Rothko (1903-1970).
  • Pop art. “Pop art” was born as a reaction to abstract expressionism and a non-ironic and less destructive continuation of the Dada movement. Its beginnings took place in 1950 in the United Kingdom and at the beginning of 1960 in the United States, and its essential postulate was the reunification of art and life, through the cooling of emotions. To do this, he resorted to the apparent superficiality of mass culture, and the repeated designs, with a well-defined line, as well as the representation and use of everyday consumer objects, such as the famous Campbell soup cans by Andy Warhol (1928- 1987), perhaps its best known exponent. It was a movement close to publicity and to a certain extent euphoric, which is considered today typical of the rise of capitalism in the West during the Cold War. Other big names were Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997).
  • Kinetic art. As its name implies, kinetic art tries to incorporate movement into the work of art, as in paintings and especially sculptures. This movement can be real (mechanical, electrical, magnetic, wind, etc.) or figurative, and it may or may not have the participation of the viewer, through the operation of a switch or penetrating the work itself. Most of his works, in fact, were three-dimensional, and were produced between the 1960s and 1970s, with Paris and the United States as the epicenter. There were important Latin American representatives in this artistic aspect, such as the Argentine Julio Leparc (1928-) or the Venezuelans Jesús Soto (1923-2005) and Carlos Cruz Diez (1923-2019).
  • Conceptual art. Conceptual art should be understood as an artistic proposal in which the idea or concept is much more important than the work itself, at least as a physical or material object. Thus, art is reduced to the expression of the mental indifferent to technique, without the need for a durable physical support, beyond text and photography. It emerged in the 1960s in the United States and the United Kingdom, but had important European representatives, such as the German group FLUXUS, or the Japanese Yoko Ono (1933-). This movement includes everything from performances and forms of ephemeral art, to installations, sculptures and audiovisual recordings.

Modern Art

As we have said before, the distinction between modern art and contemporary art is always problematic, to the point that for some authors it does not even exist.

The two terms are often used interchangeably, or sometimes establishing more or less arbitrary divisions from the middle of the twentieth century, leaving the modern as that which ranges from the end of the fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, or also from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. There is no single criterion on the matter.

In any case, modern art is seen as a major break from the tradition inherited from the western Middle Ages, moving away from the imitation of nature and figurativeism to undertake more abstract and challenging paths, reinventing perspective and point of view, as well as incorporating new techniques and new materials that the Industrial Revolution brought with it.