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Contemporary art practices and the Postmodern Frame

Focus questions:

  • What are art practices?
  • How has the role of the artist changed?
  • How has the public’s perception of the artist changed?
  • What myths still surround the notion of what artists are like?
  • How do artists go about making art works?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the art historian?
  • How has the role of the art historian changed?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the art critic?
  • What role does the audience play in determining the form and presentation of the artwork?

Issues covered in this document:

Modern versus contemporary practice

The table identifies some basic differences between modern and contemporary practice.

N.B Contemporary means of the past ten years

Issues that formed modernism
Contemporary art practices are informed by the following issues
characterised by:
belief in authority/leadership, patriarchy, formal education,
faith/optimism in science, technology to create progress)
widespread realisation of the gap between the optimistic ideas of modernity and the contemporary reality of acid rain, AIDS, nuclear pollution and urban decay. Little faith in progress, science and dogma that “new is best”
(study of museums- museology
belief in a single, national identity
globalisation, multiplicity of meanings and cultures
art separated into strict categories based on techniques and intentions
breakdown of traditional categories and materials: notion of process not product
belief in the artist, author as genius
belief in truth and authenticity
hollowness of modernist authority e.g the romantic privilege of genius understanding that the artist or author cannot be the sole arbiter or originator of meaning recognition of roles played by audience, culture and context
separation of ordinary life and art e.g. illustrated by the distance placed between high art and popular culture
belief in separation of art from economics of the art market, linked to the romance of the artist as genius
fusion of the artificial and real and of electronic space and virtuality

understanding and recognition of the inevitable integration of economics and art
separation of politics /concepts /ideology
integration of philosophy and art
postmodernist methods of awareness of appropriation and deconstruction recontextualisation, semiotics and discourse
intrinsic belief in aesthetics
dichotomy of Abject and the Aesthetic
belief in the individual consciousness, independent from the environment (world)
body as a social text or representation as an irrevocably mediated activity (e.g. the phases of the Madonna pop star reinvention of self)
belief in the concept of the avant-garde
fallacy of avant-garde at the cutting edge; avant-garde as necessarily subversive of established cultural orders.
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Characteristics of Contemporary art practice:

In 2000, the main art forms are sculpture, installation, environmental art forms, computer generated forms, painting, performance.

Avant-garde influences included Minimalism, Pop Art, Art Povera, Post Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Dada. Key artists include Duchamp, Beuys & Fluxus artists.


The study of the power of the institutions such as museums, galleries and libraries is a feature of the contemporary period. Curators, critics and historians are perceived as taking part in controlling art markets and cultural values. Artists have reacted against this in attempting to de-commodify the art market by creating works that cannot be bought and sold such as temporary, interactive, process only and conceptual works.

International exhibitions

Intrinsic to contemporary art practices is the interchange of ideas through international exhibitions. Contemporary art is diverse in ideas, approaches, contexts, and historical backgrounds, creating new and changing relationships between the agents of the art world.

Globalisation has seen the breakdown of boundaries between regions and it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the world of artists from USA, Europe and Australia. There is a dissolution of differences between some regions with artworks exhibiting an international flavour e.g. world survey exhibitions such as Documenta, Kassel, Venice Biennale, Australia Pacific Triennale, Sydney Biennale.

International exhibitions in Australia

Venice Biennale
Sydney Biennale
Asia- Pacific Triennial

Australia participated in the Venice Biennale (considered by some to be the world's most important contemporary art event), in 1997 sending the work of three Aboriginal women, Judy Watson, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Emily Kngwarreye.

The first Sydney Biennale (1973) presented predominantly Australian art; by 1988 the display had become a mixture of Australian and international art. This indicates not just an increase in the centrality, institutionalisation and funding of the Biennale but also a shift in the Australian practice that marks it as simultaneous with much overseas work. In 1979, the Australian representation appeared to be totally international in flavour. National or regional characteristics were not present.

Sydney Biennale 2000 (26th May-30th July 2000) was an International festival of contemporary art. It was exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW, MCA, Art Space, Government House and Customs House.

Artists from 49 countries exhibited including Yoko Ono, Gerhard Richter, Xu Bing, Louise Bourgeois, Juan Munoz, Shirin Neshat, Luc Tymans, Dieter Roth, Chris Ofili.

The Queensland Art Gallery formed a policy of international programs, which has led to the establishment of the first collection of contemporary Asian art in Australia. The Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993 was established by the gallery to provide a framework for a genuine Australian artistic and intellectual interchange with the countries of the region aiming to build long-term relationships based on mutual respect. The second Triennial was held in 1996 and was accompanied by a major international conference and brought together artists, writers and critics in the Asia-Pacific region. The intention is to understand traditions of these nations as well as their global context.

Asia Pacific Triennial 1999 Queensland Art Gallery Brisbane

In the Asia-Pacific region, new practices involved interdisciplinary approaches involving visual elements, music, popular culture and new technology.

Also issues which have dominated western discourses are playing an increasingly important role in both public debate and the art of the Asia-Pacific region. This has been revealed in culturally specific and idiosyncratic forms with environmental and gender issues becoming part of a broader social conscience. Some issues that have been raised are human aspirations, democracy, religion and spirituality, the place of women, the divide between rich and poor, tradition, globalisation, indigenity, marginalisation, and hybridisation, artists reclaiming identity through culture, and dynamism, constraints and inequalities of cultural interaction, fracturing of cultures and lives through human and natural catastrophes.

Australians artists are visiting Asia-Pacific nations in greater numbers than ever before. Government support through programs instigated by the Australia Council and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has allowed Australian artists to look to Asia for inspiration. Organisations such as Asialink have promoted a residency program and touring exhibitions of contemporary Australian art and craft to Asia in order to help foster contact.


Asia Pacific Triennial Catalogues 1, 2 & 3
Biennale catalogues

Michelle Watts, Visual arts teacher

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