What is “Contemporary” about Contemporary Art?

The Art Genome Project
Jul 6, 2013 1:00AM

Have you ever heard someone say “contemporary art history?” This sounds like a paradox – if “contemporary” merely refers to the present moment, how can there be a history of now?

Before we launch in to a theoretical discussion of the contemporary, first, some basic facts: According to Clare McAndrew’s 2012 report on the art market, the number of contemporary works sold globally at auction has tripled over the past decade, to 41,000 in 2011. While total revenue on such works equaled only $87.7 million in 2001, this number skyrocketed to $1.26 billion in 2011. On the academic side of things, more and more students of art history are turning to contemporary art – 80% of undergraduate students styding art history focus on contemporary art, and 22% of art history P.h.D. students write dissertations on contemporary art.

Annual Rings, 1968
Dennis Oppenheim studio
Clock Tower, Brooklyn, XLIV: June 22-23, 2009
Alfonso Artiaco

So what is contemporary art? Semantically speaking, contemporary tends to refer to the present time; it was not always, however, the preferred term for discussing art of one’s time. In 1941, MoMA Director Alfred Barr urged more students to study the art of their time, stating “The field of modern art is wide open and crying for scholarly research.” But the 1960s changed all that – people started talking about “postmodernism,” calling into question whether we were still in a phase that could be called modernism. “Contemporary” thus became the preferred term to talk about the present moment. Today, we generally use the term “Modern Art” to refer to art made between the late 19th century and the 1950s, while “Contemporary Art” is often used to refer to art after the 1970s, although it sometimes describes art post 1990s. For disambiguation, some will use “Post-War” to refer to art made from 1945 until about 1970. But these terms are not set in stone, and no doubt many will take issue with the delineations made here.

Scholars and critics love to debate the ways we divvy up time. October magazine, an important academic journal, recently devoted an entire issue to a “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’.” Some respondents discussed this as a “crisis” or used the term “perpetual contemporary.”Julia Bryan-Wilson called professors of contemporary art “futurologists” since they have to predict what art will be deemed important by future historians.

Azusa Drive-In, Azusa, 1993
Pace/MacGill Gallery

Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to define “contemporary” is that the concept of being contemporary has changed. “There have been moments in art history when contemporary art has seemed a specific response to a specific moment,” Michelle Kuo writes. Think of Pop art, for example, which infused everyday imagery into art and so palpably evokes the 1960s.

Artists today arguably really do have a different relationship to time. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of cinemas, for example, use long exposure to capture an entire film in one take, compressing a few hours into an instantaneous, single image. The art historian Katy Siegel has identified one through line of art since 1945 (Since '45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art, Reaktion Books, 2011) to be a sort of equation of the space age and the stone age. Increasing the span ever further, artists now describe their work in terms of both “deep time” (geological time dating back to the Earth’s formation 4.5+ billion years ago) and “post-internet.” If art of the 1960s responded to the here-and-now (or, rather, the there-and-then), many artists today see themselves in relation to the distant past and the distant future. I’m certainly no futurologist, but I anticipate that, with time, these explorations will only get more interesting and continue to expand our notion of “contemporary.”  


Julia Bryan-Wilson, "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary'", October, No. 130, Fall 2009, pp. 4-5.

Michelle Kuo, "Questionnaire on 'The Contemporary'", October, No. 130, Fall 2009, pp. 28-29.

The Art Genome Project