In Defense of Contemporary Art: Is There A Case To Be Made?

Elitist, inaccessible, and downright pretentious. Is contemporary art truly all these things? Or is there a case to be made for contemporary art?

Jan 31, 2021By Jamie Rose Valera, BA Art History
contemporary art banksy maurizio cattelan
Girl with A Balloon (Shredded) by Banksy, 2018; with All by Maurizio Cattelan, 2011, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York

In simple terms, contemporary art is any artwork made by any current or very “recent” artist(s). The mediums commonly consist of temporal materials, oftentimes rendering the artwork a short shelf-life. Due to its background in the previous era of modern art, contemporary art continues to push boundaries of what is art. As a result, it often looks to comment on social hierarchies, established systems, or power dynamics.


Is Contemporary Art Really Art?

joseph kosuth one and three chairs
One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1965, via MoMA, New York.



Simply asking what the art piece represents circles back to the rhetoric of anything being deemed art. If something could be framed in such a way that prompts the viewer to ask this question, it must therefore be art. This irony can be traced back to modern philosophies such as Duchampianism, as it satirically questions our traditional notions of art. Must the object be within a museum to be art? Can art exist within the abstract realm of the mind? Does art have to have a tangible quality to it? These are just some of the questions confronted by artists and posed to institutions that have, to some extent, dictated what is to be considered “art.” Consequently, postmodernist ideologies have sought to push back against these standardizations.


Critique Of Capitalism And The Postmodernists

comedian maurizio cattelan
Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan, 2019, via the New York Times


Much of contemporary art has a bit of a critical aura to it. Artists like Maurizio Cattelan are well known for bringing challenging conversations to the forefront of the professional art world and market. Just recently, at the 2019 Art Basel Miami, controversial headlines surrounded Cattelan for his work, Comedian. The work was intended to be a commentary on internal issues of elitism and capitalism within the art world. The piece was recently gifted to the Guggenheim in September 2020.


Cattelan is not the only one poking fun at the current art market. Anonymous street artist, Banksy, had conducted a “performance piece” through Girl With A Balloon. Upon selling at a Sotheby’s auction in London for a confirmed $1.4 million, the frame shredded the painting halfway, leaving onlookers shocked. The performance ironically increased the value of the artwork. In both instances, the contemporary artists had used art as an interstitial object that pointed to the flaws of the art market. This postmodernist rhetoric of rejecting and ridiculing the established power dynamics is quite common within the contemporary art market and shows up in various “white cube” spaces.

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The White Cube

hal fischer signifiers for male response
Signifiers for A Male Response by Hal Fischer, 1977, via MoMA, New York


The “white cube” is considered any institutional art space, like museums or galleries. The white walls are meant to not distract from the art pieces on display, as well as to imply a sense of neutrality and lack of biases within the institution. Although as mentioned earlier with the previous examples, many contemporary artists boldly confront the white cube space and its constituents. 


Issues regarding the supposed neutrality of the white cube space have included topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Artists such as Kehinde Wiley or Hal Fischer have stood as recent examples that have brought in dialogues of diversity and inclusion to the white cube space. Within the walls of the white cube, it is argued that not many artists of various backgrounds are represented, deeming the institution an unethical space. In these contemporary conversations, their role has also been questioned in comparison to the societal roles of the artist.


Role Of The Artist

the birth of tragedy cai guo qiang
The Birth of Tragedy by Cai Guo-Qiang, 2020, via the artist’s website


Gone are the days of the glamorized and romanticized “starving artist.” Many artists of the contemporary period and genre have sought after activist roles. The role of the artist has shifted over from a commissioned laborer in the Renaissance to that of an activist striving for social and political change. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang draws upon Eastern philosophies and contemporary social issues as the conceptual basis for his work. His site-specific artworks directly engage with viewers as a metaphorical response toward larger cultures and histories. 


In response to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, The Birth of Tragedy was live-streamed in Cognac, France on September 25th, 2020. According to the artist, the work consisted of twenty-thousand shots of fireworks made to honor “universal values of resilience, courage, and hope.” In even more recent times with the ongoing pandemic, the role of the artist has changed to that of a harbinger of hope. The use of conceptual frameworks has remained consistent within contemporary art and has arguably become the new classical canon.


Concept: The New Classical Canon

i will not make any more boring art john baldessari
I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art by John Baldessari, 1971, via MoMA, New York



Conceptual artwork is not a new idea by any means. However, the prioritization of the concept over its form has been a more recent phenomenon. As explained through John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art of 1971, the “idea itself…is as much of a work of art as any finished product.” This concept can be iterated through alternate forms such as text. Conventional notions of what we deem to be considered art are passed down through time via systems of language. 


An early example of the use of conceptual and textual elements can be traced back to The Treachery of Images by René Magritte in 1929, for its defiant statement: “This is not a pipe.” Language becomes an essential idea to bolstering an artwork’s concept as the new canon of contemporary art, therefore freeing it of the limitations and restrictions regarding form.


Contemporary Art: The Final Verdict

geometric floral
Geometric Floral by Lazy Mom, 2018, via the artist’s website


In some ways, contemporary art can be elitist, but not entirely, as various artists have entered the art world set out to enact change. Additional conversations regarding accessibility must continue to be addressed as well, as many of these instances are only understood by certain crowds, such as the intellectuals. Critical and postmodern theory is not your average dinner conversation unless you are at a dinner party fundraiser event for an institution. 


There are other concerns as well, given the common temporality of these pieces. Due to their ephemeral nature, documenting and preserving becomes a hassle for the housing institution. Conservation efforts typically resort to entering bits of information on a database, with several photographs to help best preserve the piece. If it is interactive though, how does one best go about addressing the longevity of the installation? These are some of the areas that contemporary art seems to be tackling next.

Author Image

By Jamie Rose ValeraBA Art HistoryJamie Rose Valera is an art historian and theorist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Valera is a 2017 alumna of the Middle College program and will graduate in 2021 with her B.A. in the history of art and visual culture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Currently, she plans to continue researching and writing through a Ph.D. in art history and visual studies. Valera's work focuses on representations of the body by intersecting the past with the present. Her findings have been presented at symposiums and published by arts and humanities journals. After working the contemporary art gallery scene, Valera aims to delve into Museum Education, and later research and teach as a Professor of art history and visual studies.