What Defines Contemporary Art?


When we speak of "contemporary" we refer to what happens in our time, what coexists, what is current, what is new, what is today. However, once established in the reflection on art, the contemporary becomes a category that increases its descriptive capacity and the set of manifestations that it comprises. The contemporary as a malleable space where reflection updates its tools and rehearses conceptual constructions that account for the incessant experimentation that the field of art enhances. A first meaning of contemporary art is one that places it as a phenomenon that began in the mid-nineteenth century

The critic Leonel Estrada defines it as follows "Movement that from the mid-nineteenth century appears as an artistic revolution that begins and tries to progressively move away from traditional Western art. Generically, Contemporary Art is a disagreement that is not limited to formal, technical or aesthetic problems, but is something that affects its social use, creating perplexity in people. Beauty is no longer the canon of measure; nor is it perspective, nor proportion, nor is it harmony and symmetry that this art illustrates. Hence, the viewer frequently asks in this contemporary art, what does this mean?"

In this sense, contemporary art is characterized by having multiple interpretations, "opened-ended" which implies that the understanding of art does not always occur and audiences are often confused or disillusioned. They expect a unique and true definition of what art is and the frustration appears when they are confronted with the multiple ways of conceptualizing it. The search for understanding the meaning inscribed in the works becomes both a goal and an obstacle in the relationship that contemporary art establishes with its audiences.

The contemporary in art has also been associated with the emergence of the historical avant-gardes. Peter Bürger argues that the goal of the historical avant-gardes (Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, Expressionism) was the reconciliation of art with the praxis of life. In its attempt to eliminate the gap between art and life, the avant-garde had to destroy the institution of art and transform its isolation into a productive force for social change. Through the avant-garde, according to Bürger, the artistic subsystem reaches a stage of self-criticism, both against the artistic distribution apparatus and against the status of art in modern society. 

In third place appears the generalized position that attributes the specifically contemporary to the neo-avant-garde that emerged in the 1960s. This transformation not only compromises the artist and his practice, but also from Dada to pop art, passing through the happening, performances, arte povera, conceptual art, among others, a transformation has been taking place in the role of the public. The various artistic avant-gardes have sought to distort the dividing lines between art, work and the public, carrying out a complete review of the borders between art/life, creation, perception, production/ reception, authority/reality, trying to break the hierarchical and pyramidal dynamics modeled by the spectator passivity.

Three curators. Three definitions.

According to Helguera, since the 1990s it is possible to notice a “ pedagogical turn ” in contemporary art, introducing some notions and basic principles of education in the process of its artistic work to deepen the link between audiences and critical reflection. 

In relation to the purpose and efficacy of art, Itala states that contemporary art has been the key to deconstructing numerous dominant and controlling thoughts of society: It has been strategic to have a critical angle, to be able to develop a certain irony and humor. In all societies there have always been spear points and contemporary art is one of them, it is not the spectacle for the masses. It is this spearhead that allows thinking, language in motion, and paradigms and control mechanisms to be on the alert. If we think about the efficacy of contemporary art, I believe that it is very important and substantive, but it is not an efficacy that reaches large masses or that makes immediate changes, it is an art that is always on the side of transgression, of the critical, the rebellious, what breaks."

Finally, Carmen Cebreros Urzaiz, curator of the Bancomer-MACG Arte Actual Program, argues that the contemporary artist is someone in constant transformation of their subjectivity and it is in these transformative processes that works are built. In this sense, the idea of ​​creative genius that reveals the truths and enigmas of life is abandoned and the artist becomes someone who is in a position to start from scratch each time to produce this knowledge through artistic work. "Art is not necessarily pedagogical or explanatory of reality, what it does is think that the world can work in another way and that can be disorienting or reorienting. I do not think that it is the duty of art to train anyone and if the art indoctrinates that is not art but something else very dangerous. " 

On the role and mechanisms of artists, Cebreros proposes:" The artist is someone who tests their own systems of knowledge and that questioning, that doubt and that need to think about the world in other possible ways, not as revelation or as truth, but as possibilities to relocate yourself and, from that disorientation, think about how the world could work. ”
Currently, once again the definition of contemporary art acquires new meanings. We are going through a historical moment marked by the multiplication of cultural offerings and the proliferation of cultural objects: "trapped in a chaotic mass of objects, the creative individual recycles, transforms, takes possession of the signs that surround him", says Nicolas Bourriaud, who proposes the idea of ​​post-production. 

This concept refers to the tendency of a large number of artists to interpret, reproduce, re-expose and use works made by others or cultural products available in their daily settings. It is not about quotes, references or tributes, but about a new use that proposes an active and creative relationship with what exists. It is an idea of ​​the artist as an "appropriationist”, which uses the codes of culture, the formalizations of daily life, all the works of world heritage and rearranges them and makes them work in a specific way, according to specific meanings. Thus, the new contemporary artists turn to culture, cinematographic language, advertising, journalism, art, everything that surrounds them, as a toolbox with which to "use" the world and create complexes of meanings.

Writer: Jennifer Durrans
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