What is contemporary art? | The Open College of the Arts
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What is contemporary art?

Its a bold person who can articulate a sense of what art is in the 21st century, with no notes and with authority. Sheila McGregor, one might argue, should be well placed to do this, as Chief Executive of Axis, the online resource for contemporary art. She does it remarkably well. Click on the video below to see for yourself.

What is contemporary art? from Open College of the Arts on Vimeo.

Posted by author: Jane Parry
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32 thoughts on “What is contemporary art?

  • Thanks! I too saw Emily Speed at YSP last year and found her work intriguing and compelling. Its not always easy to know who’s doing what and where, so helpful to have someone who knows pointing the direction.

  • Thanks for this as I have been wondering about the distinction. I’m still not sure I could explain it to someone else but I do now have a better implicit understanding.

  • It rather seems as though Axis are having to dig themselves out of a hole. Having created a barrier to entry and purged their membership of those who fall outside the new parameters, they now have to justify it and the examples given here seem to fail to do that to my mind, if we are to take them as an illustration of contemporary rather than modern per se. Neon installations as contemporary ? MoMA (nb not MoCA) were exhibiting Neon installations some 6 or 7 years ago for example, and Im not sure why the content of the neon work alluded to in the video should appear to be attempting to move beyond the “modern”. Praps I’m missing something.

  • I think you’re missing the point there Mike, it isn’t contemporary because of what its made out of. In this case its installed on a building not in an art gallery and it changes every month. So it might be part of a debate about where art should be and who it is for. If you went past it on the train day in day out as you commuted you’d probably feel interested and engaged with it in a different way to if you’d seen an installation in an art gallery.
    If only we could get past all this pro and con type of argument we might be able to discuss things that do actually make a real difference to how we look at art and understand what its about.

  • A thought provoking subject about contemporary art. I see the word contemporary as having as many objective/subjective words in front of it as well as as many more that follow it and as Sheila has tried to define it, it still comes down to using a totally new form of language considering the up and coming art of today and where one sees it, or where it is placed, in a gallery or even in a building, on top of or even on the side of it and what we are doing at the time. I do feel to understand art, be it modern, contemporary or abstract one does have to a feel or even have a creative side to oneself, knowingly or not. I say no feel for art because it has been shown even if you have no desire or apptitude for art one can subconsciously be discerning about a particular piece of sculpture, a painting or other and can openly have a genuine comment about a piece of art, not knowing why which can equal an hidden talent.
    Sheila was articulate in her phrasing as well as her discernment and her own thoughts, feelings and knowledge of the art world as it stands today – much of it can stand alone without much vocabulary being passed over it and as many would pass it by too.

  • Axis is an organisation that has recently thrown out one third of its members for not being contemporary artists. Its new assessment criteria states that artists should have a “…‘critical framework that is ‘contemporary’ rather than ‘modern’…”
    With this act the new organisation became purified of its ‘subversive’ elements, and it is now instructive to hear the Chief Executive, Sheila McGregor, trying to explain what she understands ‘Contemporary Art’ to mean.
    It’s not worth looking up the dictionary for a definition of the word ‘contemporary’ because these days organisations like to change the meanings of words to suit themselves. (A good example is OFSTED who now define the word ‘satisfactory’ to mean ‘not good enough’.)
    Sheila McGregor admits it’s a tricky business, but she arrives at a definition that states that contemporary art is ‘”work that doesn’t simply inhabit a well established convention without in someway trying to move beyond it.”
    The Axis artists she cites as good examples are Emily Speed whose work ‘Cabanon’ 2011 seems to be heavily indebted to Simon Starling’s Turner prizewinning work ‘ShedBoatShed of 2005. Speed’s cardboard box installation ‘Makeshift’ 2011 have a close affinity with Rachel Whiteread’s foray into cardboard boxes of 2005 and ‘Inhabitant’ 2009 has an antecedent in Picasso’s set designs for ‘Parade’ of 1917.
    Victoria Lucas’s neon installations owe an obvious debt to Jenny Holzer’s projections of aphorisms from the 1980s, so much so that the word derivative comes to mind. David Webb’s tasteful abstractions bordering on representation are so Modernist it’s surprising he wasn’t included in the initial cull of artists who have not managed to keep up with “recent trends”.
    Arts Council of England publically funds Axis. They seem to have their own agenda to render contemporary artists they disapprove of ‘invisible’ and to promote instead their own form of legitimised artistic activity.
    It’s about time Axis came clean. Will there be more dismissals from its ranks? Painters, beware!

  • Sheila McGregor made the following statements in both her blogs on Contemporary Art
    “To be a contemporary artist means remaining curious and active, keeping pace with new developments by looking at what others do and keeping in the swim.”
    “Work that seems to me to be responding to current ideas and debates. Work that does not simply inhabit a well-established convention without some way of trying to see beyond it.”
    Well Sheila the first statement sounds like the contemporary artist is a plagiarist that follows whim and fashion. I agree with the curious and active part – any artist , be they artists’ working in the present day or artists’ of the past, must be curious and must be active! – “ Looking at what others do and keeping in the swim “ is an unfortunate pairing. Yes, I think it is vital to see what other artists do but to restrict this to keeping in the swim is exactly where Axis is going wrong. A real artist is not interested in keeping in the swim it is not important. What is important is their obsession their drive to work and to use their skills ( a dirty word!!) to help express their personal voice.
    The second statement is again suspect – Why should debate necessarily influence what an artist does? Has she ever heard of work speaking for itself?
    What is wrong with well-established conventions? Can they not be progressive?
    Seems like a veiled attack on painting, sculpture, printmaking and all the well –established conventions in art. There is nothing wrong with installations, video projections , digital imagery, theoretical art or the Curator as the Artist – in fact the pluralism that we currently have in art is healthy – However to eject artists because they represent well-established conventions [offensive text removed by OCA moderators].

  • I didn’t manage to get through to the end of the video., but read Jim and Richard’s comments with interest as they make a lot of sense. Contemporary art is art that is going on now. End of.

  • I don’t really want to stir up too much dissension in this discussion as I have a great deal of sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong end of a change of policy by Axis but there is a difference between Contemporary Practice and contemporary practice just as there is between Impressionism and impressionism. There is much art being made at this moment that is by no means Contemporary, some of it very good indeed and some not so but quality is not the point here, not all Contemporary art is of a high standard either. I do not want to discuss here whether Sheila McGregor has given an adequate definition or whether Axis should have done what they have done, I have no interest in them and will leave that to those who do, or did.
    The interesting thing will be when Contemporary Practice is no longer contemporary!

  • Well that’s just too confusing! The will have to come with a better name for it that rely on capitalisation. I note that the axis website says it represents the type without the capitals. And how do I know what I would expect to find at the Baltic when the title of the gallery is all in upper case: BALTIC CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART. ??

  • These confusions are rife: Modern Art is now old hat, Minimalism has more and more in it, Arte Povera is very expensive and Deconstruction tends to build things up.
    Oh what a tangled web we weave! 🙂

  • ….when first we practise to deceive.”
    The chief Executive of Axis has been with the organisation for three years and together with her staff of 10 (at a cost of £447,000 of tax payers money) decided that the organisation, first founded in 1991 originally as a free service with entry ‘open to all professional visual artists’ was ready for take over. In line with the political correctness of its paymasters the Arts Council of England , the organisation would purify its membership and exclude those who in its opinion did not abide by the tenets of Contemporary art.
    Plurality in the art world is healthy and necessary, whether it is derivative or not, but increasingly
    there seems to be only one type of fare on offer.

  • The nub of the problem is exclusivity – it comes down to the very British disease of exclusion and the clique which has always dogged art -Remember that it was the opposition of John Rothenstein the director of the Tate Gallery that prevented us from having a decent collection of Picassos in this country. Remember also that Picasso was treated with suspicion when his work was first shown in England and Sickert described him as ‘a quite accomplished sort of minor international painter’
    Just because an artist uses Contemporary Practice it does not make that artist any more important or exclusive than another artist who may employ a traditional or modernist approach. This is my final take on this discussion.

  • “The nub of the problem is exclusivity” – I think that there is a lot of truth in that Roger.
    I suppose that we are all neo-liberals now, obedient to the dictates of the free market so this sort of thing is likely to happen more and more.
    We artists are likely to join up to what we assume to be some sort of reasonably idealistic organisation dedicated to promoting all artists but in reality turns out to be just another manifestation of the market, albeit dressed up in non-profit-making clothes.
    Arts Councils are a branch of government (big fleas have little fleas etc?) rather than an artists’ collective and in my view are as much about keeping art under control as promoting it…trouble is we can’t do without them most of the time.
    One argument I have heard is that the more established forms of practice have more acceptance in the market and many places that promote them already whereas cutting edge or Contemporary practice need all the help it can get….discuss, you may write on both sides of the paper 🙂

  • Thanks Mr de Havilland – oh sorry! that’s the aircraft company.
    To be serious though! – if Contemporary practice needs all the help it can get – then all the more reason not to promote it’s exclusivity. Surely it should be all embracing and recognize the healthy plurality that should pervade through all the arts (not just the visual arts) and promote catholic taste rather imposing a fascist dictate.

  • On that you will get no disagreement from me. Though I am not sure that the original premise holds water.
    I think that, for all the numbers visiting galleries in Britain, there is very little tradition of people buying original works of art here except for the very well off, this puts us even more in the hands of a very tightly controlled art market, and I don’t trust markets any further than I can throw them.

  • “‘a very tightly controlled art market”
    Artists who want to sell their work have always relied on dealers to create a market but increasingly we have quasi government bodies such as the Arts Council of England and its client organisations such as Axis controlling the type of work to be seen in the provinces through touring exhibitions to its government funded Galleries. Every seaside town and declining industrial city seems to have one and they serve to provides employment for the vast numbers of curators and arts administrators coming out of our Universities. As all roads on the promotional ladder leads to Tate Modern we find that we are increasingly fed with a diet of officially approved Contemporary art .
    Now if those professional arts administrators set up their own Galleries to sell the work they so admired I think we would have a different story to tell.
    As an afterthought , should not Tate Modern be called Tate Contemporary – watch this space!

  • Peter, I presume what you are saying is that photography has a hard time in the market place because it is not so proven as, and is even seen as a secondhand form of, painting. On the whole, people are not educated as to what “good” photography might be and hence the market is unsure of what kind of photography it might be promoting !? On the face of it this does not seem the way things are though … so much photography out there but where does one begin to sort the grain from the husk!?

  • I make no particular distinction between any media. The average member of the public in Britain is unlikely to buy any original work of art for their home, whatever the medium and the outlets of original works are not particularly interested in changing that on the whole. That much of the output of cutting-edge artists over the past 50 years or so is not made for the private dwelling place does not help this but that is a different issue.

    • Excuse my assumption but I was trying to reply to your statement …
      “the more established forms of practice have more acceptance in the market and many places that promote them already whereas cutting edge or Contemporary practice need all the help it can get….discuss, you may write on both sides of the paper”
      In this context, I could not help seeing the situation that exists between painting and photography as a more general acceptance of photography as collectable and possibly art is a relatively new development.

  • I went to a lecture two weeks ago at which David Alston was the guest speaker on the subject of Wales and the Venice Biennale (Wales now exhibits there as an independent country to Britain.) He’s currently Arts Director of the Arts Council of Wales, and I’ve read some of his writing in books on the Welsh artists Brendan Stuart Burns and Peter Prendergast so I’m aware that he’s very pro-painting. Here’s an extract from “Into Painting; Brendan Stuart Burns, (2007)” “Painters to some extent have had to build themselves a carapace of their own convictions over the last twenty-five years within the mainstream tendencies of Western Art. The proliferation and assimilation of other media and approaches, the tactics of irony and dystopia charcterising the wake of the post-modern, the influx of theory before practice, have all mitigated against painting and led to its sense of an almost impossibile persisting tradition.” So I asked in the lecture if there was a conscious choice to include a certain percentage of painters for the Biennale. David answered me “no”, that they chose things “of the moment.” Research on the web later showed me that in the five Biennale’s that Wales has exhibited at, only one painter has ever been included. It’s primarily video, photography and even sound – yes sound – sculpting with sound. Interestingly the one painter who had been included, Merlin James, was also on stage with Alston, but the despair from James was palpable. His words were “nothing happened, and nothing was expected to happen.”

    • One doesn’t have to be ‘anti’-paintings to recognise that the pre-eminent position that painting had prior to the 20thC slowly ebbed away during that century to the point where it became but one medium amongst many and possibly a minor one at that. Add to that the near impossibility of being a single medium fine artist today and it is no wonder that many who were brought up to be painters feel embattled. However I feel that the answer is not to come over all old fogyish or to wail that the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket because some fool said that painting is dead (originally it was attributed to Delaroche on seeing a Daguerreotype in 1839!!) but simply to get on with making the best art that one can and maybe even embracing some of the possibilities that other media offer. Complaining about the lack of status that painting has have of late is about as sensible as complaining about he lack of status that handwriting has.

      • I completely agree Peter, put very well. Then why does the OCA continue with single media degrees? Are there any plans for an OCA BA fine arts? Not sure if this is a discussion to be had on the student site? I would be interested to know if this is a pragmatic or principled decision.
        I am keen on painting and drawing and think is has an important place, but why stay restricted to this? Or stay restricted because it best suits what you want to say/do, not because you are on that degree pathway.

      • Out of 14 artists who’ve been selected to represent Wales over the past ten years, only 1 of them was a painter. That’s less than a “minor” medium; it would seem positively discriminated against. That’s not the case with the British Pavilion though which has had less numbers of artists overall (because of more solo shows rather than group shows), but a greater percentage of painters; out of nine artists going back to 1995, three were painters; Chris Offili, Gary Hume and Leon Kossoff.

  • Getting back to ‘What is Contemporary Art?’ I feel I have been spending days on the bus trying to define it- I can’t! Perhaps it’s for historians to define. I think if you are making art (in whatever medium) now and are relating it somehow to the now, being curious, engaging in aspects of current debate (but by no means being a slave to it), being honest and open, pushing your own boundaries, getting out of your own comfort zone, then you are making Contemporary Art. Isn’t this what lots of artists have also done in the past? Of course, some artists fit the trends more snugly, but this is not important to lots of us, myself included. I am not interested in being cutting edge but do want to be seen as contemporary. What I see as being non-contemporary is the adherence to a tradition from the past without pushing it further. I see nothing wrong in this if that is the artist’s intention. Paradoxically, Minimalism seems to be endlessly rehashed and is seen as Contemporary.

  • I could descend to a caricature of Prof. Joad here but it rather depends on what you mean by Minimalism! I think that we tend to be, or at least lazy critics mostly in newspapers tend to be, rather loose in our use of these labels. Anything that uses repetition is tagged Minimalism, anything where the idea is at least as important as the form, Conceptualism and anything that explore dark distortions or juxtapositions, Surrealism whereas in fact though they may take something from those isms they are most often something else in intent. Feldman may use repetitious images but his purpose is very different from Andre, LeWit, or Judd

  • Axis considers Contemporary Art to be different from Modern Art so you could ask where does Modern Art stop and Contemporary art begin?
    This years Turner Prize was won by Martin Boyce with an installation that parodied Modern Art, so that would tick the box for Contemporary . He could also be considered to have pushed a tradition further so that earns him another tick.
    George Shaw on the other hand could be seen as either Traditional or as a photorealist, Modern . However in using Humbrol enamel paint does that push him into the Contemporary camp?
    The Turner prize sets a seal of approval on what is to be considered Contemporary Art and further down the food chain self aggrandising organisations such as Axis funded by tax payers money set themselves up as arbiters of taste and influence.
    Academic artists are again a power in the land. Bring back Modernism!

  • yes, Peter, I see your point. I suppose i was talking about those minimalists whose purpose is not different from those of the past whose main concern is the process (drips etc). Of course, why shouldn’t they do it, but they get called Contemporary for being Traditional.

  • Of course all these definitions are going to cause difficulties in that firstly they are not precise so there will be grey areas, overlaps and so on and secondly they are a matter of interpretation and so there will be disagreements as to who does what, with which and to whom.
    I think that the real problem with the case that sparked off this debate is less with the definition than with the fact of change and the consequential removal of many due to these changes. Those arguments I will leave to the parties involved!

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