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Andy Warhol's '32 Campbell’s Soup Cans'
Photograph: John Wisniewski Andy Warhol's '32 Campbell’s Soup Cans'

Bluffer's guide to contemporary art

We untangle the knottier parts of “this thing called art” (you’re welcome!)

By Dee Jefferson

From Duchamp and Warhol, to Koons and Ai Wei Wei, contemporary art can take a fair bit of untangling to take in. Luckily, Time Out's art boffins have translated all things to do with contemporary art into plain English so the next time you find yourself debating the a piece of conceptual art with a fellow gallery crawler, you'll know exactly what to say. 

For more experiences that are 'so Melbourne', find art on the streets of Melbourne, and check out the city's best rooftop bars. 

Handy contemporary art definitions

Contemporary art
The term’s literal meaning is art made now, but in art-speak it applies to work that is made from around the 1950s onwards (opinions differ, with some saying it’s ’60s onwards and others ’70s onwards). Apart from that, anything goes – but painting, drawing and traditional sculpture are rather out of fashion these days.

Modern art
Modernism as a school of thought begins with the Industrial Revolution and stretches to the end of the ’60s. In art, it manifests as the rejection of traditional subject matter and realism in favour of experimentation.

Involves an arrangement of different elements of the one work in three-dimensional space (for example, a sculpture, a video screen and a soundtrack).

Conceptual art
Is art where ideas are more important than images/tangibles, and the artist’s “personal touch” is irrelevant.

Performance art
Is less interested in character and narrative and more interested in social and relational experiments.

A huge festival of art, held every two years. The best-known these days is the Venice Biennale.

Artist-run initiative (or ARI)
Is used to describe galleries that are run by emerging artists and focus on emerging artists. Profit is secondary.

Commercial gallery
The majority of galleries in Melbourne are commercial galleries – run by art dealers for the purposes of profit. 

The Turner Prize
Was created by the Tate Gallery in 1984, named after 19th-century landscape artist JMW Turner, and is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50 ”who has made an outstanding contribution to art... during the previous year.” Past winners include Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.

Strange moments in contemporary art

Technically, contemporary art didn’t kick in until around 1960s, but its granddaddy is Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917  broke the mould by entering an actual urinal into the Society of Independent Artists’ annual exhibition in New York. He signed the urinal ‘R Mutt’ and titled the work ‘Fountain’. It was rejected by the selection committee, but inspired countless artists for generations to follow. Here are some other amusing, confusing moments from contemporary art...

Warhol flips the bird at the Abstract Expressionists with ‘32 Campbell’s Soup Cans’, using mass-production techniques.

John Baldessari creates ‘Pure Beauty’: two words, painted in black capital letters by a sign writer on a white canvas.

For his work ‘Shoot’, artist Chris Burden is in fact shot, by a friend (in his left arm).

Baldessari sings Sol LeWitt’s 1969 manifesto ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’, to popular tunes.

A young Jeff Koons fills the window of the New Museum in New York with vacuum cleaners, for his debut solo show The New.

Young British artist Damien Hirst makes ‘Mother and Child Divided’ – featuring a calf and its mother preserved in formaldehyde tanks, displayed side by side.

Scottish artist Martin Creed wins the Turner Prize, for ‘Work 
No 227, The Lights Going On and 
Off’ (which does just that, and nothing else).

Californian artist Paul McCarthy’s bronze statue ‘Santa with Butt Plug’, created as public art for Rotterdam, causes a furor.

Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal presents a piece at Venice Biennale in which gallery attendants dance and sing around visitors – and subsequently manages to sell it.

Jay-Z raps ‘Picasso Baby’ continuously at Pace Gallery to individuals including performance-art pioneer Marina Abramovic. Reactions range from enthusiasm to others calling it “the day performance art died”.

Actor Shia LaBeouf wears a paper bag with ‘I am not famous anymore’ written on it on his head to the premiere of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac at Berlin Film Festival, as part of his #IAMSORRY art project.

Where to see contemporary art in Melbourne


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