What is contemporary art?

Published 23 May 2024 in Art for All

by Nolan Stevens

What is contemporary art, really? 


If you're curious about art, learning the difference between modern and contemporary art will help you understand what you see in galleries and online. This understanding allows you to build a deeper connection with any artwork you’re looking at or looking to buy. 


At the end of the day, it’s all about context, because without that vital component you can’t really evaluate the significance or value of an artwork in front of you. 

We hope that this explainer on ‘contemporary’ art helps you grow your knowledge about art. By doing so, we believe you’ll be able to build a greater appreciation for local art and the stories and themes behind them. 

Andy Warhol

Modern art isn’t really ‘modern’? 

Throughout history, new art movements have been given terms to help identify the iconic styles and forms that define them. Two of the more ‘recent’ styles are broadly defined as Modern Art (roughly 1860s - 1970s) and Contemporary Art (from the 1950s onward).

Here's a brief summary of key art movements and themes 

Modern Art 

1. Impressionism (1860s-1890s): Artists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas emphasised light and colour, often capturing fleeting moments in their paintings. 

2. Post-Impressionism (1880s-1910s): Artists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin expanded on Impressionism, focusing more on symbolism and bold use of colour. 

3. Cubism (1907-1920s): Initiated by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism used fragmented forms to depict subjects from multiple angles. 

4. Surrealism (1920s-1940s): Artists like Salvador Dalí and René Magritte explored the subconscious and dreams, creating bizarre, dreamlike scenes. 

5. Abstract Expressionism (1940s-1950s): American artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko used gestural brushstrokes and abstraction to express emotion and spontaneity.