Most people claim that they don’t understand contemporary art, but they do understand money, and contemporary art has in many people’s minds become synonymous with money.
Common and even not so common folk, including Morley Safer of 60 Minutes fame, scoffed at a Jeff Koons piece that sold for $250,000 in 1994. The same piece sold for $25 million last year. Koons’ works have since sold at auction for in excess of $58 million.
Another rise to legendary status is Cindy Sherman, whose works were selling for a mere $250 in the early 1980s. Recently they have fetched as much as $40 million.
Then there are the likes of Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter and Peter Doig, to name but a few, all of whom are very much alive, and all of whose works sell in the tens of millions.
The potential for serious gains in the contemporary art market is so real that BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, speaking at a conference in Singapore in April of this year, stated that contemporary art and luxury apartments in New York, Vancouver and London are better vehicles for storing wealth than gold. Yes, that's right. Larry Fink. Contemporary Art.
When did Contemporary Art begin?
The terms contemporary and modern are synonymous in vernacular speech, but, as in so many specialized fields, they take on alternative meanings in the world of art.
On the calendar, the transition from modern to contemporary begins approximately in the 1960s by most accounts. Many credit Pop Art and in particular Andy Warhol as the beacons that proclaimed the end of modernism, and by default, the beginning of post-modernism and/or contemporary art.
Modern art (think early Impressionism, say 1870s or so up to the 1960s) tended to adhere to rather lofty spiritual, aesthetic and/or philosophical goals and manifestos. That all changed with the social and political upheaval of the 1960s.
Philip Guston, a devout abstract expressionist and modernist for many years, suddenly and drastically changed his style, essentially becoming contemporary in the process.
Guston's change from pure abstraction to representation also marked his change from modern to postmodern. Here to the left we see one of his abstracts dated 1957 and to the right one of his representational works dated 1969.
“I got tired of all that purity,” he stated as he began to paint representational, sometimes ironic and/or humorous social and political images that led him and others on an entirely different tack.
The elevated assertions of modernism were drying up, and seemed rather dated and irrelevant to many young artists. It’s hard to be pure when Rome is burning.
Within that very general label contemporary, so many new labels and “isms” began to appear: post-modernism, hyper-realism, neo-expressionism, conceptualism, pop, among dozens of others.
What is Contemporary Art and what does it look like?
Andy Warhol chose to eschew lofty, esoteric themes and aspirations, and chose instead to describe his contemporary world as it was. While focusing on contemporary subjects such as movie stars and consumer products, he also turned to contemporary media, including the mass-production capabilities of photography, silkscreen, film, and even music, in essence abandoning the materials of modernists and embracing all things new. It was new art, about new subjects, produced with new materials.
He repackaged contemporary pop icons and culture and elevated their status to that of fine art, not in a critical or antagonistic way, but more in a descriptive and at times ironic way: this is who we are and this is what we care about, without any particular slant or agenda.
He embraced the idea that the artist’s hand no longer needed to be evident in art, and this opened the floodgates for what was to come.
If madmen had created modernism, they had been let out of the asylum by post-modernism. All bets were off, and the public would soon behold the apparent zaniness that would soon characterize to the point of cliche the nature of contemporary art.
Of course some very progressive artists were creating what many would describe as contemporary art in the modernist era, and many contemporary artists are creating what many would describe as modern art. That said, contemporary art is not so much an era as it is a style, an approach, or way of working.
Below is a survey of some recurring themes and ways of working that have come to symbolize much of what is described as contemporary art. It is in no way an exhaustive list, but simply points out some of the features that separate contemporary art from its modernist ancestors. Some would laugh at many of these contemporary approaches to art, but of course the public had the same reaction to Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Expressionism etc., all or most of which no longer raise any eyebrows.
A Survey of Contemporary Art Styles
1. Photographs with add-ons such as text and/or other media.
"Back to the Garden" by Richard Prince, 2008
2. A performance, usually video-recorded, rather than an art object.
"A Void" by Lilibeth Cuenca, 2008
3. Cartoon-like images done large scale on canvas etc.
"Post-modern Rabbit" by Francis Berry, 2007
4. Environments created by placing objects in rooms.
"O.T." by Esther Stocker, 2006
5. Images from art history set in a new context.
"American Gothic comes to the city" by Steve Furman
6. Photographs of mundane objects, subjects and activities, sometimes backlit and blown up to previously unheard of sizes. "Dressing Poultry" by Jeff Wall 2007
7. Ideas take precedence over the art object, and the idea may simply be documented rather than executed."One and Three Chairs" by Joseph Kosuth 1965
8. Modernist traditions, e.g. abstract painting on canvas, done in a new
and original way."Abstraktes Bild (809-1)" by Gerhard Richter 1994
9. Fine Art Kitsch. Nothing more to explain. "Michael and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons 1998
10. Unorthodox materials. "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst, 1991
11. Video Art "Electronic Superhighway" by Nam June Paik 1974.
12. Use of New Technology (3-D printer) "Period des Attitudes Passionelles" by Sophie Kahn 2014
So that's contemporary art in a nutshell. Of course the term contemporary art encompasses so much more, but this is enough to distinguish that which is contemporary from that which is modern.
The Rise of Contemporary
The next question is how/why some contemporary art is attracting such high regard and netting financial yields so soon after it is produced. This new paradigm appears to be making many people very uneasy.
Looking back, modernist movements continued to be misunderstood by the public many years after they had run their courses, and did not achieve acceptance nor lofty prices for many decades after the fact. After all, new ideas, new thinking, and new art have always been a threat to the status quo.
Contemporary art, like modernism in its day, is very much about challenging complacency of the imagination. The difference, however, between consumption of modern art in the 1950s and of contemporary art in the 2000s is the speed and ease with which we can now "consume" images. We don't have to wait for a magazine with shocking pictures of Jackson Pollock's drippy work to be published next fall, or wait for a friend to return from an avant-garde exhibition in Paris, Berlin or New York--we are surrounded by the shock of the new, inundated with it, immersed in it, to the point where we have begun to accept it at a much faster rate than we did in the past.
But since we see thousands of meaningless and superficial images every day, all designed to be recognized, understood and digested within seconds, maybe we have started to gravitate towards images that intrigue us with their encrypted messages, provoke us and make us think.
A point to take into consideration is that the vast majority of contemporary artists are not out to dupe the public--they are generally following their artistic paths and making art that expands their personal vision. Once the artworks leave their studios, however, things are in most cases out of their hands.
David Liss, Artistic Director and Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto puts it like this:
"Perception has changed somewhat, partially because people are increasingly interested in what artists are thinking and doing, and many people are asking serious questions about the human impact upon the planet and questioning some of the ways that we've been conducting ourselves as a species. I find also that the ubiquity of generic mass-entertainment, the constant barrage of advertising, and the emptiness of celebrity culture are causing the more curious and adventurous among us to engage with more challenging subject matter – including art that examines these phenomena.”
So we are getting smarter? Perhaps. Or maybe, as change speeds up, we have developed the skills needed to perceive, learn and adapt faster. We “get it” during the artist’s lifetime, not years after he/she is dead.
Am I being naive? Is it only the incestuous and corrupt art marketing machine that has made the difference and launched some artists' prices into the stratosphere? Perhaps.
"It's also helpful that, for several reasons, from about the mid-1990s, contemporary art evolved into a multi-billion global industry and if people don't understand art, culture, or the human spirit so much, we all readily accept and understand the power and influence of money. If some people have difficulty understanding the deeper, intrinsic value of art and culture, they have an easier time understanding it from a financial and business perspective.”
And as Karen Treml of Private Wealth Canada puts it, "Indeed, contemporary art today is not only a symbol of status, but is a powerful speculative mechanism. Divided into collectors and speculators, contemporary art boasts its own museums, sees $5.5 billion a year in auction sales alone, and is in a world where price fixing and the control of supply and demand are not just okay, they are expected."
While art experiences fluctuate along with the markets, some contemporary art has dramatically outperformed the stock markets, particularly in hard times. This we know for sure.