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Contemporary art - what does it mean?

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

A banana fixed to a wall with duct tape.

A urinal mounted on a plinth.

A sea of lolly wrappers in the shape of a dolphin.

Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the gist.

What does contemporary art mean? Is it an elite joke designed to make the rest of us feel stupid, which is what many people seem to suspect?

I would argue that contemporary art is a meaningful language, occasionally used to taunt and confound, but usually consistent and readable if the reader can interpret the language.

Unfortunately much of the literature swirling around the subject is deliberately obscure and written by academics riding a solipsistic treadmill of self-importance. They know who they are. Their engagement is not so much about the artwork but about their own careers.

The language of visual art does not need to obfuscate. Each artwork sits at a point where many different trajectories converge. Understand the basic trajectories and you can locate the work in time, space, relevance, and value.

I've put together six basic precepts that will allow you to ask better questions when reading an artwork.


Genre is the classification to which the artwork belongs. Begin with portrait and landscape. Is it a still life, a religious work, a botanical study, a nude? Is it abstract, or does it represent an object? If abstract, is it cubist? expressionist? colour-field?

Genre is the way art interacts with other works with similar intent. Understanding the genre a work belongs to gives background and context to an individual work. Every artist is in a dialogue with other artists, but none so much as other artists in the same genre. To understand genre is to understand the other artists who have influenced the work. Is the artist conscious of these influences? How is this demonstrated in the work?

Many artists experiment in the grey area between genres. Think of Fred Williams abstract landscapes, or the abstract portraits of Picasso. This activity can lead to the emergence of new genres.

Ideological perspective

I never attempt to read an artwork without investigating the cultural heritage and possible agenda of the artist herself. An individual artwork sits at a point of convergence, and the background of the artist and their previous works is one of the most important trails towards meaning.

The artists' gender, political ideology, culture and ability speak to the perspective from which the artwork came forth.


Learn to speak the language of medium. From what materials is the artwork made?

What can thousands of pieces of pollen harvested from a rare species of flower say that a giant construction made from steel cannot?

Medium is the interface from which you can read an artwork emotionally. How do the materials make you feel? In other words, what are they saying to you?

What is the language of clay? Of paint? Can fabric be made to scream? Can metal whisper? Can glass wax lyrical about the state of the economy? Can bamboo speak to western imperialism? Can Styrofoam sing?

Don't forget to consider the provenance of the medium. Where was it found? Oil paint is made from pigments found all over the world. It is no coincidence that the practice of oil painting rose to prominence during the years of European colonial expansion.

How does the medium interact with the subject being portrayed? Is the artist using the medium consciously? How can you tell?


The process to which the materials have been subjected is very much a part of the language of the work.

Investigate the artist's process. Did they draw, drip, throw, kiln-fire, burn, chemically develop, collect, find, break, re-purpose, spray, weld, copy, replace, extrude, mould, cast, stamp, glue, saw, poke, prod, build, shave, indent, emboss, print, etch, conceal, reveal, drop, explode or merely abandon to the elements for a period of time?

In the place where the process meets the medium, something has been done to an object. The object has been transformed by the act. You could say the artists' stock in trade is her ability to transform an object in a way that creates meaning, therefore art can be defined as an object infused with meaning.


Like every sentence, every artwork must have a subject.

The subject of the work is often the least important, yet its the element that most people engage with first.

It is the essence of the piece, as it is the element the work is ostensibly about. However, subject holds a specific place in relationship to the other elements of the piece. For example, is the subject central to the work? Could the work exist relatively unchanged if the subject was changed? Does the subject distract, elucidate or support the meaning of the work?

Since Cezanne, thousands of artists have engaged in the genre of still life, typically a piece of fruit with a few kitchen objects. Does every work in the genre of still life hold the same meaning?


Composition is about the elements of a work, and their arrangement within the plane/s.

The way to understand composition is to begin by looking for tension. Which elements are competing for attention? A well composed artwork will contain different qualities in relationship with one another. Something long and narrow leaning towards something short and squat. Something furry moving away from something shiny or prickly. Colours. Sizes. Warmth and coolness. Humour overlaying something deadly serious.

Explore the negative shapes as much as the positive shapes. Sometimes tension is contained therein.

When looking at composition, experiment with removing elements, either in your imagination, or block with your hands. I have found that in every successful piece, there is one element that cannot be removed without the entire piece becoming devoid of meaning. Find that element, and you have decoded the entire work.

Finally, never forget you are the viewer and as such, play a very important role in the life of an artwork. Art is a circuit from artist to artwork to viewer. It does not exist without the eyeballs that view it. Every interpretation adds something to the life of an artwork and the work will receive your feedback, adding to the aura that surrounds it. As you deepen your art experiences by asking better questions, your interpretations improve in quality and scope and thus the circuit of quality art is enriched.

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