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Contemporary Art

 Contemporary art can be defined variously as art produced at this present point in time or art produced since World War II.  The definition of the word contemporary would support the first view, but museums of contemporary art commonly define their collections as consisting of art produced since WorldWar II.  

Contemporary art is exhibited by commercial contemporary art galleries, private collectors, corporations, publicly funded arts organizations, contemporary art museums or by artists themselves in artist-run spaces.  Contemporary artists are supported by grants, awards and prizes as well as by direct sales of their work.  

There are close relationships between publicly funded contemporary art organizations and the commercial sector.  For instance, in Britain a handful of dealers represent the artists featured in leading publicly funded contemporary art museums.

Individual collectors can wield considerable influence. Charles Saatchi dominated the contemporary art market in Britain during the 1980s and the 1990s; the subtitle of the 1999 book Young British Artists: The Saatchi Decade uses of the name of the private collector to define an entire decade of contemporary art production.

Corporations have attempted to integrate themselves into the contemporary art world: exhibiting contemporary art within their premises, organizing and sponsoring contemporary art awards and building up extensive collections of corporate art.

The institutions of art have been criticized for regulating what is designated as contemporary art. Outsider art, for instance, is literally contemporary art, in that it is produced in the present day. However, it is not considered so because the artists are self-taught and are assumed to be working outside of an art historical context.  Craft activities, such as textile design, are also excluded from the realm of contemporary art, despite large audiences for exhibitions. Attention is drawn to the way that craft objects must subscribe to particular values in order to be admitted. "A ceramic object that is intended as a subversive comment on the nature of beauty is more likely to fit the definition of contemporary art than one that is simply beautiful."

At any one time a particular place or group of artists can have a strong influence on globally produced contemporary art; for instance New York artists in the 1980s  

Coming to Terms with Contemporary Art

It is something of a paradox that works of art created in remote times and places can often seem more accessible than the art of our own era.  Before the 20th century most works of art were created on commission to accomplish a specific task and contained visual clues to help viewers understand their intended meaning.  Today things are frequently a good deal more difficult.  Contemporary works are often open-ended, with deliberately vague, overlapping and even contradictory meanings.  Much contemporary art is, in fact, about asking questions and challenging assumptions rather than about providing answers.  A viewer’s willingness to enter actively into this spirit, to participate in the interrogative process, is key to coming to terms with this sometimes difficult art.  As a start, you might ask yourself:

Does art always have to reproduce the visual world or tell a story?

Why do we feel comfortable with music (which is not always narrative or reproductive), yet uncomfortable with non-representational painting?

How important are, technical skills, traditional craftsmanship or fine materials in producing an engaging work of art?

Can an unexpected perspective or innovative technique yield new understandings of our world and our place in it?

Could a four-year-old, or you yourself, really paint these pictures; or might many contemporary artists’ works, like a dancer’s or athlete’s, make the difficult look easy?

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