Contemporary Art in Context


Jenny Holzer. "Truisms," 1977–79. Spectacolor electronic sign. Times Square, New York, 1986. Text: "Survival" (1983-85), Photo: John Marchael, © 2007 Jenny Holzer, member Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What do we mean when we say contemporary art?

Art21 defines contemporary art as the work produced by artists of the twenty-first century. It is both a mirror of contemporary society and a window through which we view and deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves—a rich resource through which to consider current ideas and rethink the familiar. The work of contemporary artists is a dynamic combination of materials, methods, concepts, and subjects that challenges traditional assumptions and definitions. Diverse and eclectic, contemporary art is distinguished by the absence of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or label. Contemporary artists give voice to the varied and changing landscapes of identity, values, and beliefs in the increasingly global culture of our diverse and technologically advancing world.

Contemporary art reflects a wide range of materials, media, and technologies, as well as opportunities to consider what art is and how it is defined. Artists today explore ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past, describe the present, and imagine the future. In light of such diversity, there is no simple or singular way to define contemporary art. Often recognized for the absence of a uniform organizing principle, ideology, or label, contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Perhaps the most helpful defining characteristic is the most obvious: contemporary art is the art of today.


Elizabeth Murray. "Bop," 2002-2003. Oil on canvas, 9 feet 10 inches x 10 feet 10 1/2 inches. Photo by Ellen Page Wilson. Courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York.

Through the Lens of Art History

When we look at works of art, we inevitably think about things that we have seen, heard, or experienced before. Art is rarely created in a vacuum. Artists constantly reference the past—building on timeless themes, critiquing outmoded models, researching forgotten histories, or borrowing traditional methods and techniques to realize new ideas.


Walton Ford. "The Foresaken," 1999. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper, 60 x 40 inches. Private collection, New York. Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Understanding historical precedent is an important part of providing context and informing our experiences with art being made today. Since images were first painted in caves, artists have challenged our notions of what art is and how it can be made.

Visit art21.org for a series of statements and examples [view on art21.org] of how the work artists living today might relate to historical notions of art. Then, explore a series of questions that can be used to facilitate discussions about contemporary art [view on art21.org].