Contemporary art is a bit difficult to understand at first glance. In summary, it might be better described as non-traditional or non-classical art.

Damien Hirst's "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"

The work shown here is "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" by Damien Hirst. A 4.3-meter-long shark is preserved in formalin in a huge box surrounded by steel and glass. It was sold for about $8 million.

Why is a formalin-preserved shark considered art? And why is contemporary art, which is not well understood, established as an art genre?

In this article, you will learn about what contemporary art is, which not many people are able to understand.

How Contemporary Art is Established

By unraveling the history of art itself, a picture of contemporary art can be revealed.

History of Art

Art is a belief in God.

It dates back to Egypt, 5,000 years ago B.C. As civilization developed and established the existence of gods such as the sun god and Ra, the Egyptian civilization needed a tangible symbol for their belief in the gods. This is where art came in. By depicting the gods in paintings, they were able to establish a firm presence as objects of worship.

At the same time, the culture of art spread to Greece. Art as an object of worship for the gods of Greek mythology flourished. Unlike in Egypt, the artworks pursue the beauty of the gods.

The center of the world then moved to Rome, which became the economic and political center of the world. Copies of Greek sculpture began to be made for successful businessmen, influential people, and other wealthy people, and the concept of art became as something to be bought.

Then Christianity spread and associations began to be built in various places. Stained glass windows and mosaics depicting Jesus, as well as icons, or holy pictures, depicting biblical events and events in the societies increased.

Examples of icons

This was followed by the Renaissance, a period of widespread revival of Greek and Roman culture. It was during this period that the famous Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were active. Artists, whose status had not been very high until that time, gradually began to rise.

Michelangelo's "David"
Representing the ruler of the Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament

How Realistic Can Art Be?

After the Renaissance, various art styles continued to emerge. One of them was Romanticism. Unlike the classical style that depicted the Bible and God, Romanticism pursued the idea of freedom in various fields, such as love and war.

Eugène Delacroix's "The Massacre at Chios"

Influenced by that liberal Romanticism, landscapes were painted.

William Turner's "Fishermen at Sea"

As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the lives of the people whose wealth disparity widened was also depicted.

Jean-François Millet, The Fallen Earl

At this time, paintings are positioned as artwork that serve as photographs. The focus was on how realistic the painting can be, not on how individualistic it can be.

Individuality Started to be Reflected in Paintings

At a time when paintings depicting realistic scenes were at their peak, two revolutionary objects were born in the art world: the camera and the paint tube.

With the development of the camera, painting was no longer meant to be an object for memorizing realistic scenes. With the invention of the paint tube, painting no longer had to be done in the studio, but could be done outside.

No matter how precise a painting could be, it was no match for the camera. So, painters entered a new stage of development.

In the technique known as "impressionism," the precise color differences of nature's light that cannot be captured by a camera could be expressed on the canvas.

Claude Monet's "Sunrise"

Picasso, famous for "Guernica," was created out of this trend. Guernica is a style of painting called cubism, which depicts various perspectives on a single surface.

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"

Individuality is added to paintings that were supposed to pursue realism, and various styles of painting expanded.

The Emergence of Contemporary Art

After the wars that engulfed the world, people started to ask themselves, "Are humans rational?" "What is rational in the first place?", and began to deny reason itself.

Consciously created things have no meaning. For this idea, works that looked like random arrangements of something, or things like poems with random letters were created. These activities ended after a few years, but this idea gave rise to the next idea.

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," a men's urinal that has been turned on its side and signed "R. Mutt.” This work, which makes you want to ask yourself, "Is it artwork in the first place?, changes the way art is considered.

Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"

In the past, artworks were mostly beautiful just by looking at it, but with this work, if you remain passive when viewing it, you have no idea what's beautiful about it.

If you saw this work on display in a museum, you would ponder why it is art and what exactly art is. That is right. Duchamp's idea is that the work is completed in the viewer's mind through thinking about the work, and that this is what art is all about.

This is the core of the concept of contemporary art, and various ideas of contemporary art are derived from it.

Types of Contemporary Art

Contemporary art is a dialogue between the viewer and the artist. The art is completed when the viewer tries to appreciate the work without being passive and has an opinion about it.

Influenced by Duchamp, artists began to search for new ways to express themselves. Art is no longer limited to the canvas. It can be three-dimensional, video, music, performance, and more.

Three Prominent Contemporary Artists

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Utilizing a "suggestive dichotomies" sensibility to depict opposites, he made a social critique of art on a variety of objects.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's "untitled"

What do you feel from this work? A skull-like object is drawn with strong lines in colorful paints that remind us of Africa. And the powerful eyes are staring at the white color.

In 1982, when this work was created, discrimination against black people was still remained. Is the black man depicted screaming out at the treatment they are receiving from society? Or is it an antithesis to the fact that they are being neglected like dead people?

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst's "Mother and Child Divided"

This work shows a mother and son cow split in half and pickled in formalin. The dead cow is displayed in formalin, which has a very mysterious color.

The eeriness of "death" is wrapped in a beautiful light blue liquid. Death is a scary thing, but for some reason, we can't help but look at this work. Does this depiction of human contradiction toward life and death sublimate death into something mysterious? Or is it just Hirst's creepy taste? His work has received both praise and criticism.

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami, "727"

Takashi Murakami is one of the most famous Japanese artists in the world today. His style, which combines his world view with a uniquely Japanese sense of the world, is highly acclaimed in many countries around the world.

He is especially acclaimed for his technique called "SUPER FLAT," in which he draws objects two-dimensionally and flatly, without using perspective or other techniques. His works, which combine elements of Japanese otaku(meaning 'geek') culture and Japanese-style painting, have had an impact on the world and established a new technique as an art form.


Contemporary art is a dialogue between the viewer and the artist that is completed by actively questioning, not passively. It is art that is completed by questioning the work.

There may be a lot more difficult works to decipher in the future, but you can be a part of the art by thinking deeply about the work rather than denying its existence.

The World's Biggest EC Mall for Contemporary Art