It's pretty easy to spot an Impressionist painting or tell the difference between a Renaissance sculpture and a modern one. But when we try to categorize 21st-century art, it seems defined by diversity and pluralism more than similarity, which begs the question – what art movement are we living through now?
"There are no art movements today," says Michael Rooks, Wieland Family curator of modern & contemporary art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. "There is no one dominant philosophy or ideology. Contemporary art is characterized by its global nature." It is also not media dependent. Today's art crosses boundaries in terms of discipline. For example, artists can be designers, focus on mass consumption, work in fashion or even collaborate with industrial designers.
In fact, the whole idea of art as a series of movements is "a modernist schema" more useful for scholars and others to understand the past than for artists working in the present, notes Alina Cohen on the art website Artsy. "Since the middle of the 20th century, the idea of movements has eroded as the art world has become increasingly fractured," she writes.
Art today is "incredibly diverse," explains Rooks. If the 1980s and 90s saw the importance of multiculturalism, today's diversity is much broader. It's about equity, inclusion and access, and the empowerment of traditionally underrepresented voices, not just representation.
Pop art of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a narrowing of the gap between art and real life, according to Rooks. The style presented the notion that everyday objects and those we consume were worthy of artistic consideration. It seems from there, the word "art" has grown ever more fluid.
Contemporary Art Influences
Art being made today may be driven by a variety of influences, but most importantly, it must be relevant to contemporaneity and to the context in which it is produced, explains Rooks.
"There is an idea that art must have a social and political function," says Rooks. "I think that's a dangerous idea." That line of thinking, he says, encourages critics to look for a political function first rather than considering the artist's intention alongside formal aspects of a work or the relationship of art to the past and its impact on the future.
Technology can be important in terms of innovation, which could mean the use of digital technology, augmented reality or virtual reality. But not all art puts the focus on tech – artists are still painting and making sculptures too.
What integrates the multifarious influences, media and artists of contemporary art is that it asks the viewer to think differently about both the art form and the world we live in.
"Rather than offering answers, contemporary art asks questions," says Rooks.
Fluidity of Styles
OK, so today's art can be driven by politics, technology or other contextual issues, and it asks questions. But what does it look like, and what is it made of? According to Art Acacia Gallery & Advisory, "Even if we can't define one exact movement, we can take a look at those styles, approaches, and philosophies which are beginning to shape the latest era of human creation." These might show up as computer-generated work, installations, oil paintings, TV, murals – the list goes on.
Added to that, historic representation styles tend to go in and out of favor, "but they'll never go away," says Rooks. For example, abstraction, an important modernist idea, which challenged concepts of representation, largely antithetical to modern philosophy, is experiencing a revival.
At the same time, figurative art is currently popular, partly because it helps people to see themselves reflected in art.
"That creates a connection between art and life," says Rooks. "It helps to perpetuate a broader understanding of the role of art in people's lives."
And that connection is one of the most notable features of contemporary art.
Participation Is Key
If you think art is just something to look at, contemporary artists beg to differ.
"Contemporary art invites the viewer or the audience to bring with them their own experience to the art," says Rooks. "It is very generous in that way."
In this manner, contemporary art wants to be accessible, it seeks participation. Even if you walk into a gallery or museum knowing nothing about the artist, history or traditions, you as the viewer enter into an exchange.
"There is no ideology," says Rooks. "It asks questions. When you are in front of it or in it, you are engaging in an exchange. You can bring your own experience to this work of art, and through that exchange, that is where meaning is produced."