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Defining Contemporary Art
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
' How important are the visual arts in our society? I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course I could be prejudiced. I am a visual art.'

Kermit the Frog

The dance of defining what is new

In the 1980s I worked as a musician and composer for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. At the time they were one of the most respected and influential dance companies in the world. Their demise in the 1990's arose because they could not persuade the Arts Council of England they were delivering dance works that reflected a contemporary expression of dance, and so the company lost significant financial support and as a result, perished.

Contemporary art is a movable art world category. All contemporary art enters the domain of the historical past at some point. The Museum of Modern Art in New York initially regarded contemporary as referring to works produced in the past 50 years. Art world literature also defines contemporary art within an historical framework, for example, the art produced post 1945, after world war II. More recently the boundary of what Contemporary refers to in arts institutions has changed to the last 30 years, and some scholars define contemporary art as the art of our lifetime; for students this would mean the art of the past 20 years. From this it is apparent there is no clear consensus of what 'contemporary art' is.

'Snowstorm' 1842; Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon coming on ("The Slave Ship") The Fighting "Temeraire" tugged to her last berth to be broken up 'Sun Setting over a Lake' c. 1840; Oil on canvas, 91 x 122.5 cm; Tate Gallery, London

The phrase 'contemporary art' came about after 'modern art' was formalised by educational and cultural establishments (schools, universities, galleries and museums etc). The term modern art was used to describe a particular type of art and many scholars now date its beginnings to the 1830s when Joseph Mallord William Turner began painting his wonderfully abstract, atmospheric seascapes.

'Contemporary art' might describe a category defined by time (art which is experienced now), or as an aesthetic category (a certain type of art). Viewing 'contemporary art' as an aesthetic category is problematical as its definition constantly shifts.

The Culture of Politics

I have come to view contemporary art as a political phrase rather than an aesthetic one. The word contemporary has a dictionary definition as 'belonging to the same age; living or occurring in the same period of time; current'. The phrase contemporary art however is not simply used in this way as it is high-jacked by businesses in the arts sector (creative agencies, commercial galleries etc), educational, and cultural institutions. The meaning of Contemporary Art alters depending on the political standpoint of the individual or organisation.

If you sell art, the word contemporary is used to reassure the client they are buying something that is 'in-touch', 'on the pulse', urbane - the word contemporary is rarely used to describe works created outside a metropolis. Educational and cultural institutions' categorise art works to confirm their world picture, to justify the institutions historical context, and assert their authority.

The Secret of Eternal Youth

'Peace: Burial at Sea' 1842; Oil on canvas, 86.9 x 86.6 cm; Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection, London 'Norham Castle, Sunrise' c. 1835-40; Oil on canvas, 78 x 122 cm; Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection, London 'Landscape with Distant River and Bay' c. 1840-50; Oil on canvas, 94 x 124 cm; Musée du Louvre, Paris 'Colour Beginning' 1819; Watercolor, 22.5 x 28.6 cm; Tate Gallery, London

'Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.'

Edgar Degas

Turner is among my favourite painters. For me his work remains fresh, enriching, inspiring, and above all, new. I never tire of his paintings, there is something always to discover, and his work is as relevant to my life as it was to those of his contemporaries. That his paintings are now more than 150 years old is of no importance...


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851).

Hover your mouse over each painting for information. Click each painting to enlarge.

Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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