What is contemporary?

Alberro’s argument distinguishes the “contemporary” with four points: 1. globalization, 2. new technologies, 3. reconsideration of the avant-garde, and 4. reemergence of philosophical aesthetics. His main point is to illustrate how ‘art addresses its spectator.’

Globalization views “society in its totality.” Each facet, including but not limited to social, political, economic, historical, and technological context is considered and recognized as being interconnected or having a simultaneous influence. “Contemporary as a period allows us to draw a connection between occurrences and events that are unfolding.” Visual art strategies reflect a shifting context in which we experience art, visually and materially. World events, art events, and pop culture events are simultaneously considered. There is also an extension of Western art to create world art market.

Kara Walker - Camptown LadiesKara Walker – Camptown Ladies

Kara Walker utilization cut-paper silhouettes of previously accepted depictions of the Black figure in order to revisit the how they reinforced unjust racial and gender stereotypes.

Second is the emergence of new technology. This technology is not limited to the Internet or World Wide Web. It includes digital photography and digital projection. Alberro aptly states, “The image has come to replace the object as the central concern of artistic production and analysis”. There is a shift from analog to digital and move from the tactile, tangible, “stable” object. Also marked by a reevaluation of communication, specifically how we receive and send information and impacts how one views art.

Jeff Wall - Invisible Man

Jeff Wall Invisible Man

Jeff Wall utilizes technological advancement in photography in order to create tableau art that was previous incapable of being created.

Third is a reconsideration of the avant-garde. Alberro mentioned Peter Burgers argument in Theory of the Avant-Garde and synopsized by Art History Unstuffed, in the avant-garde, the main roll is the “critique of the middle class by detaching itself from it.” Avant-grade is a critique of class structure ideology, specifically of the upper middle class. Art is created outside the mainstream where there is freedom from restrictions. The work is characterized by the use of “unorthodox” and “experimental” methods. Alberro also mentions “relational aesthetics;” work that is forces viewer to interact with others. Avant-garde refuses the past; the future is a central concern.

matthew_barney_matthew_barney_ne_en_1967_cremaster_3_2002-111-1 Matthew Barney Cremaster 3

Matthew Barney utilizes ideas within the contemporary art context, to create installations that employ video and performance.

Fourth is a reemergence of philosophical aesthetics (a re-engagement with “beauty” and “experience over understanding”). In this aspect, art emphasizes an aesthetics experience over an intellectual experience. These experiences are constructed with a participatory element that is integral to the piece. As coined by Claire Bishop, this idea of “activated spectatorship,” activation implies involvement and spectatorship implies the viewer and how they can interact.


James Turrell Skyspace Pomona College

James Turrell installations utilizes the mechanics of perception in order to decenter the viewer. He accomplishes this by use and absence of light.

I believe I had a good understanding of Alberro’s points on contemporary art until I tried fitting in examples. I am unsure if it is because of my lack of knowledge on the subject or because I do not fully understand his definitions. Succinctly fitting an artist into one of Alberro’s points was difficult. These artists’ works are considered to be “contemporary:” Kara Walker, Felix-Gonzalez Torres, James Turrell, Gillian Wearing, Jeff Wall, and Matthew Barney.

Julia Bryon-Wilson’s answer helped clarify my confusion with Alberro’s argument. Bryon-Wilson postulates that contemporary art is not set in stone, unlike previous eras of art. There is a paradox: if contemporary refers to the present, how can you study history of now? Bryon-Wilson answers this by stating, “we teach artists, artworks, and critical ideas that we anticipate will endure.” She also states: “Contemporary art at its best offers a vibrant sense of inclusion, fostering collaborations…” It understands the limits and powers of art, how images and practices clarify social relationships as well as destabilize positions and scramble histories.” There are some concrete ideas about what is contemporary, some of which Alberro points to, however there is a continuous shift and evaluation and revaluation of what is deemed “contemporary.” “Contemporary” is perpetual. 

Bishop, Claire. Installation Art. Tate, August, 2010.

Roberton, Jean and Craig McDaniel. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980. Oxford UP, 2005.

Questionnaire on The Contemporary, October 130 Fall 2009, p. 3, Alexander Alberro, pp. 55-60,

Willette, Jeanne S. M. “The Definition of the Avant-Garde.” arthistoryunstuffed, Janurary 22, 2010. http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/definition-avant-garde.


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