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By submitting this request for more information, you are giving your express written consent for Lindenwood University and its partners to contact you regarding our educational programs and services using email, telephone or text - including our use of automated technology for calls and periodic texts to the wireless number you provide. Message and data rates may apply. This consent is not required to purchase good or services and you may always email us directly, including to opt out, at [email protected].

Home Blog A 21st-Century Activist’s Guide to Contemporary Art

A 21st-Century Activist’s Guide to Contemporary Art

October 25, 2023

Contributing Author: Alley Bardon

9 mins read

Do you have a keen appreciation of the arts and would like to parlay your interest into a career? Earning your Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts in Art History could be a wonderful first step. At Lindenwood University Online, we offer both programs, fully online, to allow nontraditional students and adult learners the flexibility they need to advance their careers. In our art history program, you'll learn about the different movements that inspired the world's greatest artists throughout time, including the contemporary artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What Is Contemporary Art?

Contemporary art is art made by artists who are still alive. It's often explorative and thought-provoking, with artists using their works to make statements regarding issues of importance in today's world, including culture, politics, and social structures. This type of art instigates discussion and is best viewed with an open mind and no preset expectations. Curators of contemporary art often collect these pieces because they have cultural relevance or because they touch a nerve.

Modern vs. Contemporary Art

Modern art refers to works created between 1880 and the 1970s. It includes artists such as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh. Most art enthusiasts have heard these names and seen the fascinating and inspiring pieces they've created. Beneath the umbrella of modern art, you'll find several important art styles, including Cubism and Surrealism.

Contemporary art, conversely, refers to art that is created today, in our current era. Not surprisingly, many contemporary artists are controversial, delving into topics that prompt heated debate or discussion. While modern art consists mostly of paintings or drawings, today's contemporary artists often venture into other media, including performance art, graffiti, and digital works.

Contemporary Art History

Contemporary art is a dynamic, ever-evolving movement that emerged in the mid-20th century as a reaction to the conventions and traditions of the art world. Rooted in the modern avant-garde movements of the early 20thcentury, such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism, contemporary art seeks to challenge established norms and push boundaries. It thrives on diversity, both in the artists and their mediums, moving away from more traditional modes of artistic expression, such as drawing and painting, and instead embracing mediums like performance, video, and digital expression. Early pioneers of contemporary art, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, played pivotal roles in shaping the movement, which evolved into various strands, including Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, and Postmodernism. With globalization and technological advancements, contemporary art has become increasingly interconnected and reflective of the complexities of our rapidly changing world, often addressing issues of identity, culture, politics, and the environment. Today, it continues to inspire and provoke discussions regarding the nature and purpose of art in the modern era.

Modern and Contemporary Art Movements

Art movements are eras defined by specific creative techniques, subjects, or media. Many artists will adopt similar styles or techniques at the same time, spawning a plethora of conceptual art that is all, stylistically, somewhat similar. In the realm of recent contemporary art, several stylistic movements stand out:

Abstract Art

Abstract Art began gaining popularity and acceptance in the 1940s. It's defined as art that moves away from the visual representation of an idea or object and instead uses artistic techniques such as line, form, shape, and value to describe the subject. Zao Wou-Ki, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock are all artists of note who were followers of the Abstract Art movement. Some of the more well-known pieces that evolved from the abstract art movement include Jackson Pollock's "Convergence" and Helen Frankenthaler's "Mountains and Sea."


As Abstract Art took root and evolved, it spawned the Minimalist Art Movement of the 1950s. Minimalism uses shapes, such as rectangles and squares as the subject. Minimalism is a form of extreme abstract art that doesn't seek to represent anything other than what it is. Viewers are expected to notice elements such as texture, media, form, shape, and color while judging the artwork as a standalone piece.

Frank Stella, Robert Morris, and Agnes Martin achieved fame as minimalist artists with works such as "Die Fahne Hock!," "Untitled (Mirrored Cubes)," and "With My Back to the World," respectively.

Pop Art

Pop art of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s sought a return to representational art, as it depicted subjects in easily recognizable ways. Inspired by pop culture imagery in movies, comic books, product packaging, and more, pop art pieces could be described as simplistic and advertorial. This style was popular among young art enthusiasts, who viewed the movement as a sort of rebellion against more traditional attitudes and techniques. Many pop art pieces depicted products or celebrities that were important to the generation at the time, including Campbell's soup tins, Marilyn Monroe, comic book panels, beverage bottles, and billboard art. Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and Roy Lichtenstein are artists who are associated with pop art.

Surrealist Art

Surrealism, or art that is "beyond reality," became a popular movement between the first and second world wars. It sought to explore the inner workings of the mind and featured scenes that could be considered fantasy-like or surreal. This art movement paid special homage to the connection between dreams and reality, often depicting images that appeared nonsensical and could be interpreted as part of the dreamworld.

Successful artists of surrealism included Andre Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró. More popular works of surrealism include Miró's "The Tilled Field" and Dalí's "The Persistence of Memory."


Postmodernism is a product of the 1960s that sought to veer away from previous art movements of the twentieth century. Postmodernism was defined by skepticism and resistance to authority, seeking to refute minimalist principles and the theory of a utopian society and instead touting the importance of independent experience.

Artists important to the Postmodern Art Movement include Joseph Kosuth and Damien Hurst, as well as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Famous Contemporary Artists

The term "contemporary artist" is inclusive of those artists who are living and working today, which is a sweeping demographic. Unless you're a student of art or an avid appreciator, you may be less familiar with the names of today's contemporary artists and with the media they use. However, they are making contributions just as impactful to the art world as Picasso, Matisse, or Van Gogh. 

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese-born artist whose love and manipulation of polka dots is present in every piece of her art. Born in 1929, she was an early inspiration to other artists of the contemporary movement, including Joseph Cornell and Donald Judd. Her works spanned the likes of pop art and minimalism, and she was a pioneer of performance art.

Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović is a performance artist who uses her body as the subject and instrument of her works. While her work has always been controversial and sometimes called sensationalistic or masochistic, it still draws hundreds of thousands of appreciative fans to her performances. Born in Belgrade in 1946, Abramović struggled through a strict, authoritarian childhood in which art and creative pursuits were a form of escape.

Today, Abramović enjoys meditation, shamanism, and other therapeutic endeavors that both influence and challenge her art. She is perceived as a pioneer in performance art and one of the great modern artists of the 21st century.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, born in 1957, is a Chinese activist and modern artist. His works are often autobiographical, echoing his political convictions. Born and raised in northern China, Ai Weiwei was the son of an exiled father. As a result, his experiences made him critical of the Chinese government, and he became an outspoken opponent of China and its human rights violations. In 2015, he left China and now resides in Portugal.

Throughout his career, Ai has dabbled in architecture, activism, and art. He was instrumental in designing the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium that played host to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and he has built several of his own studios. His installations, including "Sunflower Seeds" and "Forge" speak to human rights, atrocities, and social commentary.

Modern and Contemporary Art Pieces and Artwork

If you're like most of the population, there are certain names that stand out in the art world. These artists have gained fame and notoriety for making significant contributions to a range of art styles. Artists such as Matisse, Kahlo, Pollock, and more have instant recognizability because some have been in our history books and museums for nearly a century. We've studied many of their more famous works in school, debated their interpretations in college, and viewed them on display in our favorite museums with our spouses and children in tow. They include 20th century works such as those listed below.

Famous Artwork

  • "Self Portrait with Cropped Hair," by Frida Kahlo
  • "The Persistence of Memory," by Salvador Dalí
  • "Les Damoiselles," by Pablo Picasso
  • "Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)," by Jackson Pollock
  • "Woman with a Hat," by Henri Matisse

Important Contemporary Art

However, there have been many artists, new to the scene, who have contributed works just as impactful. Unless you're an art aficionado yourself, you may not have heard these names because they've been exhibiting their works for only the last twenty-three years or less. Many are performance artists or artists who work in media other than paint and canvas to express their cultural identity, but their work is just as dynamic and as important to today's contemporary art movement. They include works such as:

  • "Wildness," by Wu Tsang
  • "Maybe She's Born with It," by Anika Yi
  • "Surviving Active Shooter Custer," by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds
  • "Dustheads," by Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • "Cube Light," by Ai WeiWei
  • "Breonna Taylor," by Amy Sherald

While only time will tell whether these newer artists and their works will achieve the same notoriety as their 20th-century counterparts, each one is indicative of the social unrest, income disparities, and precarious lifestyles of modern times. If relevance becomes the determining factor, then these artists and others like them will become truly iconic.

If you're interested in art, its interpretation, and its value to society, earning a degree in art history may help you reach your goals. To learn more about the many degree programs available at Lindenwood University Online, including our Master of Arts in Art History & Visual Culture and our Bachelor of Arts in Art History & Visual Culture, we invite you to contact one of our admission advisors today. We're happy to answer any questions you may have regarding enrollment and financial aid.


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