Contemporary art - a primer

Want to know the exact difference between contemporary and modern art? Read on
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Urs Fisher, You (2007)

1 / 16 Urs Fisher, You (2007)

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987)

2 / 16 Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987)

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989)

3 / 16 Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989)

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty (1993)

4 / 16 Olafur Eliasson, Beauty (1993)

Matthew Barney, Cremaster 4 (1994)

5 / 16 Matthew Barney, Cremaster 4 (1994)

Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (2001)

6 / 16 Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (2001)

Nathalie Djurberg, Tiger Licking Girl's Butt (2004)

7 / 16 Nathalie Djurberg, Tiger Licking Girl's Butt (2004)

Marina Abramović

8 / 16 Marina Abramović

Ai Weiwei, Fairytale, 'Documenta 12' exhibition, Kassel, Germany (2007)

9 / 16 Ai Weiwei, Fairytale, 'Documenta 12' exhibition, Kassel, Germany (2007)

Christian Boltanski, The Life of C.B. (2010-present)

10 / 16 Christian Boltanski, The Life of C.B. (2010-present)

Jeff Wall

11 / 16 Jeff Wall

Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (1990)

12 / 16 Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (1990)

Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum (1992-93)

13 / 16 Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum (1992-93)

Stan Douglas, Monodramas (1991)

14 / 16 Stan Douglas, Monodramas (1991)

Peter Doig, 100 Years Ago (2000)

15 / 16 Peter Doig, 100 Years Ago (2000)

Thomas Hirschoorn, Bataille-Monument (2002)

16 / 16 Thomas Hirschoorn, Bataille-Monument (2002)


The art world can be a daunting place for the uninitiated. The language it speaks and the terms of reference it uses can often seem all but designed to keep people out. While this can work to the advantage of a small group of dealers and collectors it's not much good for the rest of us. From its origins in 1923 and through its groundbreaking book The Story Of Art, Phaidon has always tried to democratise the enjoyment and understanding of art, which is why we're especially excited about a new book we're about to publish. 

Defining Contemporary Art is the story of art's evolution told through 200 pivotal, rather than merely famous, artworks. It's one of our favourite books of the moment here at phaidon.com so we asked its commissioning editor and contemporary art expert Craig Garrett to talk us through a handful of the big questions it addresses.

Craig, what is contemporary art and how is it different from modern art?

The term ‘modern art’ originally just meant art of the present era. Eventually the modern period was nailed down to a particular time — roughly the early 19th century to the late 20th century — and the word ‘modernism’ came to designate the artistic concerns of that era.  As a consequence, people took up the term ‘contemporary art’ to say ‘the art of today’ without claiming the same ideologies and approaches as modern art.

To confuse matters, not everyone means the same thing when they talk about contemporary art.  Some museums and auction houses act like it begins with Warhol.  For many art historians, it emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s, when movements like Conceptual art attacked the foundations of modern art.  Wikipedia says contemporary art starts with the end of the Second World War.  Meanwhile everyone still uses the term to mean any art being made right now.  Please don’t ask me to explain how postmodernism fits in with all of this. 

Marina Abramović, <em>Seven Easy Pieces: Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a dead Hare, 1965</em> (2005)
Marina Abramović, Seven Easy Pieces: Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a dead Hare, 1965 (2005)

So why does Defining Contemporary Art begin its examination of contemporary art in 1986? 

Until the mid-1980s a lot of people still believed in art movements.  In reality, movements were always less tidy than the history books would have you believe — few artists really called themselves abstract expressionists or minimalists or conceptual artists.  But the whole idea really fell apart in the early 1980s.  Critics of the time made a last few attempts, but the labels they came up with — ‘neo-geo’, ‘commodity art’, ‘transavanguardia’ — never really stuck.  By 1986 there was a consensus that art could be experimental and groundbreaking without marching under the banner of a movement.  And today that’s still true.

The other big development during the mid-1980s was globalisation.  The story of the last 25 years is really the story of a small art world becoming bigger, more diverse, less centralised.  Biennials sprang up in every corner of the world while cheap airfares shrank the distances between them.  Art fairs grew and multiplied, creating a movable feast with regular stops on every continent.  In the round-table discussion at the end of Defining Contemporary Art the authors make this change palpable, saying that in 1986 the only places they really had to visit were New York and Cologne, while now they have to keep abreast of developments in Beijing, Beirut, São Paulo.  And you can see this in many of the works they’ve selected for the book.

Why are some people dismissive of contemporary art?

People have always been wary of new art.  Impressionism caused an uproar in late-19th-century Paris, but now you find it on the walls of doctors’ waiting rooms.  It’s hard to accept something as art if you don’t understand where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to do.  That was one of our intentions with Defining Contemporary Art.  Instead of wrapping art in abstract generalisations, the book starts with specific artworks, explaining why each one was (and still is) important, where it came from, how it changed the course of art.  As you make your way through the book, you begin to see art advance a little bit more with each work, and the larger picture starts to emerge — a picture not just of art’s past but also of its future.  And that’s exciting.  Just think, some day you’ll find yourself in a doctor’s office watching a Paul McCarthy video.

Mike Kelly, <em> More Love Than Can Ever Be Repaid</em> (1987)Mike Kelly, More Love Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987)

 Does that mean painting is dead?

Far from it.  Painting is still the place where contemporary art takes some of its greatest leaps.  The 200 pivotal works in the book include paintings by Tomma Abts, Sigmar Polke, Peter Doig and many others.  Another book I’ve been working on recently is Vitamin P2, a survey of recent contemporary painting.  We consulted 83 of the world’s top curators and critics, and they nominated more than 700 artists for the 115 spaces in the book.  The sheer variety of techniques and approaches of those 700 painters was, I have to say, a little overwhelming. I think it’s safe to conclude that the medium is very much alive, despite any reports to the contrary.

Art is a popular financial investment if you can afford it. Do you think contemporary art has become too much about the money?

If art has a problem with money, it’s how few of the artists end up seeing any of it.  Posthumous recognition is great, but it doesn’t put food on the table or pay your medical bills.  So, no, content-wise I don’t think art has become too much about money. 

Are there any works of art where you have thought, ‘Come on now, this isn’t really art!’?

A restaurant I was in recently tried to pass off their strawberry and mascarpone cheesecake as a work of art, but I wasn’t fooled.

More about Defining Contemporary Art.


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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