Contemporary art is often defined as “art of the current day.” But is that all contemporary art is? Or is it something more? We’re going to explore the world of contemporary art by looking at some examples from prominent contemporary artists around the world. By the end, you’ll know what contemporary art is, and what makes it unique.

Contemporary Art Meaning

How do you define contemporary art?

Contemporary art is uniquely modern – which makes it the perfect medium to learn about on the internet. It can be difficult to connect to the art of the ancient and classical eras (especially when galleries aren’t in the immediate vicinity) because they’re so far disconnected from our current reality.

So, before we jump into our contemporary art definition, check out this short video on “how to learn about contemporary art” from The Art Assignment by PBS Digital Studios. For more, check out our index of art styles covering more specific and noteworthy movements.

Contemporary Art Styles  •  How to Learn About Contemporary Art

Now that we know how to learn about contemporary art, let’s formally outline a contemporary art definition.


What is contemporary art?

Contemporary art is art that’s made in the current era. What is the current era you ask? Well, art critics offer differing opinions. Some say contemporary art encompasses all art created after World War II; others suggest it encompasses all art created after the 1970s. My suggestion is this: think of contemporary art as all art created within the length of an average living lifespan. So, about 70 years from the current day.

What Makes Something Contemporary Art?

Modern art vs. contemporary art

A lot of people logically think contemporary art and modern art are the same thing – but that isn’t the case. 

Contemporary art is art produced during “our time,” which is usually cited as 1970 to the current day.

Modern art refers to art produced between the 1860s to the 1970s. Modern art was significant because it represented a global shift from realism to abstractionism.

The paintings, drawings, sculptures, and architectural works produced during this era were largely more experimental than their predecessors.

For more on the difference between contemporary art and modern art, check out this quick video from the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Contemporary Art Time Period  •  smART Talk: Modern Art vs Contemporary Art by San Antonio Museum of Art

Now that we’ve reviewed the difference between contemporary art and modern art, let’s take a look at some contemporary art examples.

Contemporary Artistic Movements

Contemporary art examples

One of the associative features of contemporary art is a focus on social injustice. We see this theme addressed in contemporary art all over the world; let’s take a look at a few examples.


Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous works of contemporary art. The piece was an art installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine in Hall in London from 2010 to 2011.

Famous Contemporary Art Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern Photo by Lennart PressAP

Famous Contemporary Art  •  Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern, Photo by Lennart Press/AP

Ai Weiwei is one of the world’s most lauded contemporary artists; working in a variety of forms, including photography, videography, sculpting, and installations. The millions of porcelain sunflower seeds were hand-crafted for the installation by workers in China.

Weiwei proposed the installation by saying, “[In] the times I grew up, it was a common place symbol for The People, the sunflower faces the trajectory of the red sun, so must the masses feel towards their leadership. Handfuls were carried in pockets, to be consumed on all occasions both casual and formal. So much more than a snack, it was the minimal ingredient that constituted the most essential needs and desires. Their empty shells were the ephemeral traces of social activity. The least common denominator for human satisfaction. I wonder what would have happened without them?” via Tate Modern.


Girl with Balloon by Banksy is an iconic piece of contemporary art. Banksy has become a household over the past couple decades in large part due to his anonymity – but he’s a daring contemporary artist as well.

Contemporary Painting Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern Photo by Lennart PressAP

Contemporary Painting  •  Gilr With Balloon by Banksy

A lot of people, both in and out of the art world, dislike Banksy’s works. Some art critics consider his works “obvious” and “juvenile” because they’re often too easy to interpret. And obviously, there’s a contingency of people who bemoan having to clean up his graffiti. 

Still, there’s no denying that Banksy has had an enormous influence on contemporary art. In 2018, a painted version of Girl with Balloon was sold at auction for a record £1,042,000, but immediately after the gable hit, it was shredded to pieces. Check out the moment Love in the Bin was created below.

What is Contemporary Art?  •  Banksy Artworks Shredded by Inside Edition

Some art critics and appraisers have speculated that the shredding of the painting increased its value. Banksy is a contemporary artist who’s known for being anti-authoritarian – so it makes sense that a work that symbolized his anti-authoritatian perspective would be more valuable than one that did not. Perhaps more importantly, Love in the Bin was a spectacle – and spectacle always attracts eyes and dollars.


Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst is a famous piece of contemporary art by an artist many consider to be a preeminent master 0f the recent era.

Modern Contemporary Art Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living Photo by Oli Scarff

Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The work was originally commissioned in 1991 – but it’s been updated since then. The killing and subsequent showcasing of the shark has been met with criticism from some groups, including animal-rights activists and art scholars. Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living raises points about zoo-like spectacle and artistic culpability; still it’s hard to refute the installation is an important piece of contemporary art.

Contemporary Genre Examples

The next era of contemporary art

Remember: contemporary art is simply the art of our time. As the world veers more and more in a digital direction, art has begun to take new forms. 

The emergence of blockchain technology has opened new opportunities for digital artists to take ownership of their work. NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) allow artists to list their creations on digital marketplaces through a digital ledger. Here’s a video on NFTs and digital art from The Wall Street Journal.

Types of Contemporary Art  •  NFTs Are Fueling a Boom in Digital Art by The Wall Street Journal

Whether or not NFTs have staying power in the world of contemporary art remains to be seen – but it’s certainly exciting to see art take new forms.


Explore More Styles and Movements

This was just one of many fascinating segments of art history. There are many eras, styles, artists, and movements to discover. Let's continue our study by choosing the next stop on your way to becoming an art aficionado. Below you can visit our Art Styles Index, our Art History Timeline, or choose an individual movement.

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  • Chris Heckmann is a Professor of Media & Communication at Roger Williams University and graduate of UCLA’s Cinema & Media Studies Master of Arts program. When he’s not writing or teaching, he’s probably playing video games (or thinking about the next great Boston sports trade).

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