Sorry, but the title is just a gimmick – I don’t pretend to follow all the myriad permutations of contemporary art at this point. It’s too big a tree to observe every branch and leaf in a brief column, but I’ll just dance around the edges and see what flies out.
Problems defining “Contemporary” art begin with the term itself. All art is “contemporary” at the time of its creation, but in Artspeak this generally refers to “post-modern” times or approximately 1970 to now. Some use the term to indicate art made since 2000, a logical millennial break – or they may label such works “Post-contemporary.”
Contemporary art is always being argued and redefined because of vague rules and a vast range of possible style, medium and motive. Definitive movements and manifestoes of past eras are conspicuously missing, as tiny art collectives or individual artists create mini-movements of their own, complex closed-systems, replete with their own style, terminology and technology at times.
“Funism,” for example, is one of these limited art movements and is harder to describe than it should be. This is due to its simultaneous, non-related inception by two distinctly different and currently feuding artists.
Sal Marino promoted the idea around 2002 as “any and all art that is dedicated to and rooted in absolute fun” and rejected the confines of “over-intellectualized art.” Norm Magnusson sinks the counterclaim that he is indeed the 1991 founder of “Funism,” although few have heard of the movement.
I suspect most of their animus stems from clashing political views, which are apparent in their work. Marino’s art consists of bright, simplistic painted characters sporting fangs and an obvious distaste of pretension, left or right. Magnusson gravitated toward creating “allegorical animal paintings with pointed social commentaries” and has unapologetically served the political left as his main subject.
If contemporary art has any distinctive characteristic it is the elevation of political and social issues over aesthetics. Blaringly evident in the terminology and subject of exhibits over the last 30 years, key words are: “feminist, diversity, awareness, resistance, globalization, exclusion, transformative, social construction (or deconstruction)” and so on. Ubiquitous are “issues of race, sexuality, gender and power,” which seem endlessly fascinating to thousands of artists.
Art that doesn’t fall into overtly political or social camps may qualify as a “conceptual” intervention, performance or installation. Sol LeWitt, the “father” of Minimalism and conceptual art claimed before his death in 2007 that “all of the significant art of today stems from conceptual art. This includes the art of installation, political, feminist and socially directed art.”
These demand work from viewers and some sort of dialectic or base philosophy to understand. Concept art analyzes and questions the purpose and value of the art itself, a process many have found wanting.
Tom Wolfe noted, “These days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”
Personally I feel the art scene has come to this through its inbreeding with academia, which won’t go away without a messy art-world revolution.
Art critics have (with fear and trembling) complained that conceptual installations tend to be pretentious, cold, self-indulgent or “just plain boring.” Several lost their jobs after exercising self-expression on the matter. Art theorist Michael Paraskos writes that current conceptual art is almost “devoid of ideas” and suggests “deconceptualism” (or conceptual art less concepts) as a better term.
Not every artist, however, waxes verbose or analytical in presenting their art to the public, and traditional belief held that art should speak for itself.
Here’s Picasso on the subject: “What is the use of giving explanations when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”
Another grand shift in contemporary art is graffiti and street art, which often include internal text and began as explicit messaging. Street art and its refined gallery cousins have changed the face of popular culture from sneaker designs to film making.
New media such as smart phones, robotics, digital art and sound and lasers further demolish traditional ideas about art in the 21st millennium. People persistently find ways to make art even with bio-engineering and hacking.
“Contemporary” art isn’t made only in America and Europe, and many art trends arise in the East. According to a 2008 survey of the world’s top 20 best-selling “postmodern” artists, 11 are from China.
I’ve come up with a list of some types and classifications of contemporary art, which stretch to kingdom come. Some are very new and others continuations from decades ago but still commonly used. Many artists have transitioned over the years through more than one of them:
Pop Art – (1960-70s) on to Neo-Pop (1980s-current)
Performance art (as opposed to “performing arts,” 1960s-current)
Conceptualism (1960s onwards)
Art Photography (1960s onwards)
Installation (1960s onwards)
Video Art (1960s onwards)
Minimalism (1960s onwards)
Post-Minimalism-Process Art (1971 onwards)
Photo-Realism, Super-Realism, Hyper-Realism (1960s-some current)
Environmental Earthworks (Land Art) (mid-1960s)
Contemporary Realism (late 1960s –current)
New Subjectivity (1970s)
Propaganda – eternal
Aerosol Art; Tagging; Street Art; Grafitti (1970s-current)
Found art – Readymade
Mail art (also Postal art)
Computer Art (Digital – Byte Art-Web Art)
Transavanguardia (Trans-avant-garde) (1979 onwards)
Autobiographical art (re: Confessional art and Victim art)
New Image Painter
“Appropriated” Art (stolen or plagiarized)
Sculptural simulacra art
Corpse art (Gunther von Hagens, etc)
Sound art ( Audio art, Sonic art, sound collage, sound painting)
Sanitation art (also Garbage art)
Computer generated sculpture
Neon Art and Light Sculpture
Sniff art -Olfactory Art ( Scent installation, Scent sculpture)
Radiology art (see example in this column)
Telematic art or Transmedia
Art collectives and groups (not comprehensive)
Britart: Young British Artists (1980s-current)
Arte Povera (c.1966-71) scraps and debris
Neo-Expressionism 1980s (Ugly Realists” – Neue Wilden)
New Leipzig School (c.2000 onwards)
London School (1970s)
Ugly Realism – 1970s
Feminist Art – 1970s-Present
Yunnan School – late 1970s-Present
Bad Painting – late 1970s-early 1980s
Demoscene – late 1970s-Present
New Image Painting – late 1970s-Present
Nuovi Nuovi – late 1970s-Present
Kitchen Sink artists
Pittura Colta (Anacronismo)
Mühlheimer Liberty – 1979-1984
Transavantgarde – 1979-Present
Neue Wilde – early 1980s-Present
Neo-Geo – mid-1980s
Bitterism – 1998-Present
Massurrealists – early 1990s-Present
Artefactoria – 1990/91-Present
Relational Aesthetics (1990s –on)
Lowbrow artists ca. 1994-Present
Equipo Cronica 1964-1981
Tiki Art – 1996-Present
Stuckism – 1999-Present
Thinkism – September 12, 2001-Present
Funism – ca. 2002-Present
Saint-Soleil School (Haitian)
Yet artists are still making traditional works, such as oil paintings and marble sculptures. Even the world’s biggest promoter of Conceptual Art, Charles Saatchi, cautioned in 2005 that “painting is the most relevant and vital way that artists choose to communicate.”
I think painting is going to last as long as we do, it’s just too good a thing to toss out in the face of new technologies. At the end contemporary art is the point of experiment: It doesn’t have to be good or likeable, just novel. Time will tell how much of it makes the distance.
Thanks to Jason Brockett & Louis Torres & Michelle Marder Kamhi (“What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand” ) and Julian Spalding (“The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today”).