Essay: Change in Arts Practice – between post-modern and contemporary arts.

Change in Arts Practice – between post-modern and contemporary arts.

What is the distinction between postmodern and contemporary art practices? Embedded in a culture of ever accelerating technological and social change, arts practitioners of the increasingly networked world are observed to have embraced everything at their disposal to create works that express what it means to be them, and to be in the world as it is (Stallabrass, J. 2006). The changes in social and technological, as well as philosophical atmospheres, between these eras, in various parts of the world, have contributed to both the similarities and the differences in arts practices during this time (Stiles, K. & Selz, P. 1996). Exploring these changes will help define what it means to have contemporary arts practice.

Postmodernism is a comprehensive, wide ranging philosophical term which helps describe and explain many aspects of contemporary art” (Goldner, L. 2013). The term postmodernism is defined by Norman Denzin (1991) as referring to not only a movement in the arts, but also a new form of theorising, each arising simultaneously and informing each other as they evolve.

Postmodernism, taken as the period in art history from 1970 – 1990 (Butler, C, 2002), was driven by the questions, ‘What is art?’ and, ’Is this art?’ (Glade-Wright, R 2013). As arts practices changed, much of Postmodern arts practice was influenced or informed by the philosophical notion of the ‘simulacrum’ which describes representations of reality through media such as photographs and film (Chism, J. 2006). In Images of Postmodern Society, Norman Denzin (1991) describes this influence, stating that the infiltration of media arts is having a profound effect upon the development of the human psyche, modes of relating, expectations, behaviours, and hence, creative and artistic practices. Brandon Taylor (2005) extends this inquiry in to the relationship between emerging contemporary arts practices and the public, emphasising the characteristic of interactivity in artists work through various means, including transmedia hybrid presentations (Kluszczyński,R. 2011).

Characteristics of postmodern art practices include the appropriation of materials and interpretation of styles from previous eras (Best, S. & Keller, D. 1997) in art history with an observable attitude of everything has already been done, and all that can be done now, is a recombination of pre-existing elements in art production (Archer, M. 2002). Fiona Curry (2013) states that postmodernism offered us multiple parallel narratives and worldviews, it closed the gaps between art and daily life, and therefore began questioning notions of identity, exploring alternate realities, as well as employing the deconstruction of images and the creation of hybrid art forms in an effort to explore beyond what was previously known and accepted as arts practice. Postmodernist art practices include, but are not limited to, painting, sculpture, photography, performance art, and video art (Butler, C. 2002). Late postmodernism saw the these elements of technology employed to create examples of imaginative life documentation(Kaprow, A. 2003) which, supported by the advent of personal computing and the internet, helped transform art practices into a contemporary form (Lovejoy, M 1996). Figure 1 shows an early example of imaginative life documentation as art, from Russian postmodern artist Ilya Kabakov, created prior to the era of digital media, yet informed by the advances in technology occurring at the time.


Figure 1, Kabakov, Ilya. (1968-1988)The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, Moscow private apartment and Robert Feldman Gallery New York.

Artistic styles practiced and developed during the postmodern era include minimalism, conceptual art, feminism, land and environmental art, and large scale installation sculpture (Currey, F. 2013). Transience and the ephemeral nature of all phenomena are prominent themes explored by postmodern land based and installation sculptors (Chism, J. 2006), yet a desire to immortalise these erstwhile ephemeral creations has been expressed through photography, and videography, which are often the only record we have of these arts practices having taken place (Owens, C. 1980). The works of Ana Mendieta (figure 2), exemplify this ephemeral aspect of Postmodern arts practice as captured by the camera.


Figure 2 Mendieta, Ana. 1973-77. Silueta Works in Mexico, details, colour photographs, each 19 x 29 inches approx

Contemporary art has its roots in an era where both modern and postmodern arts practices are still current (Glade-Wright, R. 2013). Characteristics of contemporary art practices include; the convergence of art and life expressed as narrative commentary describing the nature of present experience, employing the technology dependent feature of interactivity, presenting material that is challenging, both aesthetically and intellectually, as well as aiming to be engaging for its audience (Smith, T . 2011).

Liz Goldner (2013-2) describes the movement, Contemporary Art, as self-referential, and existing as an expanding global subculture with its own distinctive structures. She tells us that contemporary artists are embedded in a culture that is predominantly visual, and a space where they are compelled to compete in an image economy in ways previously unknown (Goldner, 2013). Contemporary Art practices include influences from styles developed and established by Postmodernism as well as extending into working with non-traditional media including x-ray images, electron-microscope images, cymatic plate wave forms, and many others from sources such as the hard sciences, industry, technology and popular culture (Goldner, 2013).

In the 21st century, Contemporary Art is emerging along three distinguishable lines. 1) Re-modernisation, which is a continuation, as evolution, of modernist art practices, occurring mainly in North America and Europe; 2) Social and political commentary from artists in former colonies and recently independent, or ‘fringe’ nations, and 3) Contemporary concerns being expressed by individual artists about issues of personal significance to them, all with a distinctly globally informed flavour (Smith, T. in Glade-Wright, R. 2013-2).

In his introduction to Contemporary Art, World Currents, (2011), Terry Smith contextualises the situation in which young and emerging contemporary artists find themselves. He states that the most recent generation of contemporary artists have inherited a staggering complexity of changing social, political and economic structures, knowledge of which is made available to them through technology in ways never previously experienced (Smith, 2011). The availability of information illustrating the precarious position that humanity seems to be in, in light of the effect on the natural systems of our planet (Montuori, A. 1999), serves as both incentive and inspiration for the artistic expression of what Terry Smith, (2011), describes as an art movement of the whole world, which tries to imagine the world, as awhole.

Exemplary of the overall conceptual trend in contemporary art is Globe, The Veld, (fig 3) which comments on the exploitation of developing nations and consumerisms’ unaddressed waste disposal issues (Smith, T. 2011).


Figure 3, Simms, Arthur and Orner, Peter. 2004, Globe, The Veld, assemblage sculpture, 43 x 35 x 35 cm

Comparing the Postmodern and Contemporary art periods, we find that both stages have some similar characteristics. Postmodern art practices are too diverse to qualify as a movement as such, yet their consistence in pluralism across the board allowed for Postmodernisms influence to be recognised as a phenomenon in art history (Archer, 2002). Liz Goldner (2013-2) tells us there is no signature style with which to identify art as Contemporary, and much of Contemporary art does not necessarily look like art at all. There is a continuation of the thematic approach between the movements (Goldner, 2013). Robyn Glade-Wright (2013) says that Contemporary artists are often presenting perspectives on social and political issues, which is a characteristic they have in common with some artists from the late Postmodern era.

Large scale installation work is one example of art practiced across both eras, although when considering the motifs and intentions of the types of works produced, marked contrast between Postmodern and Contemporary installation arts practices such as, the former expressing an aesthetic meaningful to the artist and the latter creating an aesthetic designed to invoke meaning making in the viewer, become apparent (Bishop, C. 2006). Figure 4, (Claes Oldenburg, 1985), one of America’s best known Post-Modernism pop artists, and who, with a sense of fun, created numerous large scale sculptures of everyday objects for installation in public spaces, blurred the boundaries between Postmodern arts and architectural practices (Chism, J. 2006).

4 Claes Oldenburg Free at Cleveland City Hall

Figure 4, Free, 1985, Claes Oldenburg, steel, 28 x 48 ft, Cleveland Ohio

In contrast to the playful nature of Oldenburgs’ creations (fig 4), Anthony Gormley (fig 5) demonstrates an arts practitioner who expresses contemporary concerns of a global nature through large scale installation work. With the title Asian Field, this work explores the theme of human overpopulation and its effects on humans and the environment. In an interview with Harvey Sheilds (2005), Gormley describes his approach as ’testing a worldview’, using his art to explore individual and collective consciousness.


Figure 5, Asian Field, 2006, Anthony Gormley, fired clay, size variable.

Based on the lecture by Fiona Curry (2013-2) it is possible to conclude, that postmodern art seeks to convey the personal affect, or emotional motivation, of the artist; whereas contemporary artists seek to engender affectin their audiences. Contemporary artists have unprecedented access to viewer participation, and a capacity to engender a state of ‘constant transformation’ in the artist/audience matrix (Smith, T. 2011).

These practitioners have in common their willingness to imagine the world as a whole, and to address concerns that are informed by a global understanding of the relationships between sub-systems of a larger, integrated, intellectual, philosophical and environmental ecosystem, where everything is available for reference in the present.


Archer, Michael. 2002, Art since 1960, new edition;Postmodernisms, pp. 143-181, Thames & Hudson press, London

Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas. 1997, The Postmodern Turn, Guildford Press, accessed 3rd November, 2013 <;

Bishop, Claire. 2006, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, MIT press journals, accessed 3rd November 2013 <;

Butler, Christopher. 2002, Postmodernism, a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, UK.

Chism, Jill. 2006, Learning Guide, COR301 Culture and Context Postmodernism, FNQIT, delivered 10th July – 28th August, 2006.

Curry, Fiona. 2013, Minimalism to Postmodernism, NM1101 Arts in Perspective, James Cook University, Cairns, delivered 24th August.

Curry, Fiona. 2013-2, Are we still in the cloud? NM1101 Arts in Perspective, James Cook University, Cairns, delivered 29th October.

Denzin, Norman K. 1991, Images of Postmodern Society, Sage publications, London.

Glade-Wright, Robyn. 2013, Contemporary Art, NM1101 Arts in Perspective, James Cook University, Cairns, delivered 1st September.

Glade-Wright, R. (2013) (2), Contemporary Art; Three Currents, NM1101 Arts in Perspective, James Cook University, Cairns, delivered 8th September.

Goldner, Liz. 2013, Deconstructing Postmodern Art, accessed 18th September 2013 <;

Goldner, Liz. 2013, (2), Contemporary Art Trends Illustrated by Contemporary Artists, accessed 18th September, 2013, <http://www.contemporary-art>

Kaprow, Allan. 2003, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press

Kirby, Allan. 2006, The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond, in Philospohy Now, issue 58, accessed 30th September 2013, <;

Kluszczyński, Ryszard W. 2011, Nomadic images. Transmediality and hybridity in contemporary media art, Art Inquiry, issue 13, 2011, accessed 3rd November 2013 <;

Lovejoy, Margot. 1996. Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media (2nd ed.). Prentice Hall Publishers, USA.

Monuori, Alfonso. 1999, Planetary Culture and the Crisis of the Future, World Futures; Journal of Global Education, volume 54, issue 4, acessed 3rd November, 2013 <;

Owens, C. 1980, The critique of Originality, in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. eds, 2003, Art in Theory 1900-2000an anthology of changing ideas, Blackwell publishing company, UK.

Sheilds, Harvey. 2005, The Interview, serious, accessed 6th October, 2013 <;

Smith, Terry. 2011, Contemporary Art – World Currents, Lawrence King publishing ltd, London.

Stallabrass, Julian. 2006, Contemporary Art, a very short introduction, Oxford University Press, UK.

Stiles, Kristine. & Selz, Peter Howard. 1996, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, University of California Press

Taylor, Brandon. 2005, Contemporary Art; art since 1970, Pearson Prentice Hall Publishers, USA.
Figures list;

Figure 1, Kabakov, Ilya. (1968-1988)The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, Moscow private apartment and Robert Feldman Gallery New York. Photo: Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée d´ Art Moderne, Paris, accessed 6th October, 2013, <;

Figure 2, Mendieta, Ana. 1973-77. Silueta Works in Mexico, details, colour photographs, each 19 x 29 inches approx. accessed 6th October, 2013, <;

Figure 3, Simms, Arthur and Orner, Peter. 2004, Globe, The Veld, assemblage sculpture, 43 x 35 x 35 cm, accessed 6th October, 2013, <;

Figure 4, Oldenburg, Claes. 1985, Free, steel sculpture, 28 ft x 48 ft, located Cleveland, Ohio, accessed 6th October, 2013 <;

Figure 5, Gormley, Anthony. 2003 , Asian Field, Clay from Guangdong Province, China, 210,000 hand-sized clay figures made in collaboration with 350 people of all ages from Xiangshan village, north-east of the city of Guangzhou in south China, accessed 6th October, 2013, <;


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