What is Contemporary Art?


This past March, while I was at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum as part of the Cowgirl Up! Show, I attended a round table about the future of western art. An interesting question came up during the session: What does the word “contemporary” mean when applied to an artist? There were five people participating in the roundtable: A museum curator who was also a buyer for a major collector, a museum director, a collector, and two of the artists participating in the show. What was interesting was, despite the expertise of the participants on the panel, none of them came to a conclusion on the actual definition of a contemporary artist. I left the meeting a little unsettled with the responses.

First, let me say that my understanding of the term “contemporary art” meant that the artwork produced is not realism per se, but is a representational painting where elements are stylized, abstracted, or exaggerated without losing the identity of the subject. But after a lot of research, I’m finding that the term “contemporary art” is a very broad term that actually refers to artwork from a living artist, or is probably produced either since World War II, or since 1970, depending on the definition of the institution. That means that everybody creating art today – in all forms, because the definition encompasses any type of visual art – is a contemporary artist.

I would define myself as a contemporary western artist, but with the above definition, that would put me alongside artists whose work most people would not compare mine to, as my style can be very different from what the term “western” has traditionally conjured. How do I define myself when I present my work to galleries? “I’m a nontraditional contemporary western figurative artist introducing conceptual abstract elements using impressionistic brushstrokes creating an illustrative narrative.” Does that work? Probably not! How do I educate my potential galleries or buyers so that they understand who I am so that they will invest in me as an artist?

I have since talked to other artists about the problems associated with being a contemporary artist in the western genre. We have no real way of defining who we are and why we are to be distinguished from other artists or our genre, other than to say that we’re not traditional western artists. There are no current movements that define us, so we’re left to create the vision of who we are through our artists’ statements and hope that galleries and buyers will be intrigued enough to investigate.

My question is, how can we create distinctions so that the buyer is educated enough to be bolder with their investments instead of gravitating toward artwork that is familiar? For those artists who want to play outside of the box, how do we connect with the viewer if we don’t even have a vocabulary to explain it? And how can we, as artists, create a category that all contemporary artists can use to clearly communicate our styles?

One comment

  • Tim Rowley

    Its interesting to read your analysis on the use of the word contemporary. There are three words that fit a category in our discussions that are very hard if not improper to use when dealing in the Western Art business. Contemporary
    is the most difficult , in our opinion, since it has several meanings , all which create havoc with the sophisticated and unsophisticated collector – gallery owner – Western Art participant alike. As you concluded , its may be best to leave it out of conversations where it could be taken wrong, sort of like the word “interesting”. The other words we have highlighted as “best to avoid” are investment and authentic. Both have nothing but trouble written all over them.
    Western is also a nuanced word. It means this part of the world. Or Californian. What happened to SouthWestern?
    It was more direct. What about Western American?
    So, what is the best terminology to brand your type of art, you have asked. Branding is a complicated business. But I think you have something there. By starting the discourse there is no harm and it really is a good idea to get the ball rolling.
    I , for one, will consider the options and talk with others that may be interested in the solution too.

    Tim Rowley

    December 29, 2014

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