In its most basic definition, Contemporary Art means art that is made today, by living artists. It may suffice to stop there because although there are many more detailed and specific definitions, there are often contradictory definitions as well. If contemporary art is distinguished by any one factor, it would be that it defies definition. Contemporary art can be made in any material or media. Contemporary art encompasses all current practices, cultures, methods, and technologies.
There are some common threads that run through most contemporary art practice. Contemporary art usually references culture. This can happen in a variety of ways. It can engage with its culture of origin, or offer commentary on world events. Sometimes the artwork will reference history. Sometimes popular culture is a latent or overt theme.
Contemporary artists are keenly versed in art history and the artwork reflects this through subtle references or direct quotations either in method or image.
Contemporary art practice is not necessarily materials based. Artists are free to use any media and technique and often use multiple media. The use of new technologies, or at least and awareness of new technologies is essential. There are as many ways of working as there are artists. Art materials vary widely from the traditional (paint, clay) to things not usually identified as art materials such as found objects and the human body. It’s the artists utilization of the media that makes it art.
The unifying factor, if there is one, in contemporary art, is the artist’s concern for meaning. To take it one step further, I would say that art, for the artist, is a way of interacting with the world that makes life more meaningful for the artist and uncovers meaningful truths about the human experience for both the artist and the viewer. While meaningful experience has always been the result of interaction with a successful artwork, the notion of meaning being primary to the artwork is a contemporary idea.
This a very exciting time to be an artist as there are no limitations to what or how art can be. While some artists find this liberating, the lack of parameters can seem overwhelming to others. Artists must decide what methods and materials to use to say what they need to say with their art.