And What the F#$& is Contemporary Art?

By Camila Durán

It is not a new thing: When someone says contemporary art, two groups immediately open up: those who love it and those who hate it. Has it ever happened to you? One is in a museum and suddenly a family composed of a father, a mother and a daughter begins an argument that is going nowhere. The daughter is excited by what she sees in front of her; while parents seem to understand nothing. It is not that contemporary art is for young people, but at least it requires a position where the viewer has the desire to be seduced by a work of art. A feeling that, undoubtedly, comes from the spirit of youth.

Be that as it may, no one can deny the importance of contemporary art: like it or not, it’s a market that moves millions of dollars, grants status to those who are collectors and, more importantly, establishes an open dialogue about the art of our time.

For those who were looking in this article for a definition of contemporary art, here we go: Contemporary art often stretches its limits. Challenge your own rules. In that sense it is indefinable. Or its definition is an unstable space that is constantly reconfiguring itself. 

However, we can define it as an object, an action or a phenomenon that asks about the present of its environment. It is not a technique. Nor is it necessarily material. It can be ephemeral. Contemporary art is something bigger: an idea that takes place in a precise space and time that divides its interests between artistic forms and political, social, economic, cultural contexts, etc. Nothing more, nothing less.

Some art critics have located the beginning of contemporary art with Duchamp and his readymade. And without a doubt Duchamp is a significant historical parameter. Other critics place it much earlier, with examples of artists who were already making works that questioned the language of art. Finally, there are those who think that contemporary art began in the 60’s and 70’s of the twentieth century. And they have chosen to call contemporary every piece of art of our times.

Of course, this article is insufficient to define contemporary art. I will dedicate myself to the purpose of doing it in this column during the next publications. For now, I will only say that the bad reputation of contemporary art comes from a phenomenon that occurs in all disciplines. Yes, there is stimulating, surprising and attractive contemporary art. But there is also empty, repetitive and unpromising contemporary art. Just as there is good music and bad music. Or as in literature we have Paul Auster at one side and Paulo Coelho on the opposite side. There is good and bad contemporary art. But we cannot classify all contemporary art by the poor quality pieces that are exhibited in museums, galleries or through digital media. Art cannot be reduced to just a qualifying adjective.