“What is contemporary art?”

By Jason Franz

When asked to write something answering the question “What is contemporary art?” I was uncertain where to begin. I mean, isn’t it obvious?

This is one of those situations where the question tells you far more than the answer ever could. The fact that it is asked, or has to be, is symptomatic of a general condition in society of an overall lack of awareness.

Put simply, contemporary art is art made ‘today’, in other words at the same time as other things happening ‘now’. Generally speaking it is art made with a recency to such a degree that it is too close to understand, quantify, or accurately categorize in a broadly conclusive way. When enough time has passed since its making, and it can with any objectivity and clarity be understood for all it is, in the bigger picture, then it is no longer contemporary, and no longer ‘now’ in the loose artistic sense of the word. I believe this time span varies, fluctuates, expands and contracts. But I would guess it is usually about 10 to 20 years. In truth the ‘contemporary’ of a work of art fades gradually. But a 5 to 10 year timeframe is its contemporary half-life. The fact is that works gain new perspective over an even much longer span of time with decades and centuries adding more context and therefore more clarity, or obscurity such as the case may be.

Beyond the time period, nothing here is really debatable by opinion. Contemporary is contemporary, just like today is today (the day after yesterday). It is not accurate as an adjective used to describe Avant-garde or leading edge work, even though it is conveniently misused in that way all the time – to the great confusion of people and artists everywhere. The most traditional of paintings, say a landscape, made today is as contemporary as a work of hi-tech digital wizardry, or a radical political performance piece. Even works that try very hard to emulate the art of past movements, nostalgia art, has a role to play in the understanding of art and society today, and is contemporary despite its best efforts to appear otherwise.

At Manifest, we rarely limit the age of works we consider for exhibit, preferring to look at quality without the assumption that newer is necessarily better, or that old works are not just as intriguing or powerful in the new context of our exhibit as they once were elsewhere. In fact, we find it perplexing that so many artists (and galleries) feel as if a work of even a few years old is somehow ‘used up’ and less viable. If it stands the test of time it is quite the contrary. And the only way to test it, is to show it over time.

I believe it is irresponsible to use the term ‘contemporary’ to describe a particular genre or nature of artwork beyond what I’ve offered above. Doing so risks it becoming a finite movement fixed in time, as Modern Art did so many decades ago. Rather, contemporary is a sliding frame on the line of time, containing like a lens all that is within it, but due to the magnification, distorting clarity of the relationship of what’s seen within with all that came before.

– Jason Franz

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