Linguistics of Contemporary Art

The question that has been asked so many times and yet still has so many people wondering: What is contemporary art?

Nowadays, contemporary art has a different definition according to who you ask. Most commonly, it is defined as art made from the 1970’s and on. However, “in its most simple and basic terms, [contemporary art] is art being made today,” explains UMOCA’s Curator of Public Engagement, Jared Steffensen. Yet, defining it becomes a little more complex than that. When it comes to contemporary art, there is typically a message behind the piece. Jared further explains, “The artist is using a specific visual language to help you understand what that concept or idea is. It’s art that is engaged in contemporary issues and things that are facing everybody right now.”

DSC_0006 copy

However, many people define contemporary art as works created through unusual mediums with opaque messages behind them. The term “contemporary” has essentially become synonymous with “avant-garde.” This is unsurprising when you think about how art is taught and consumed today.

Jared claims that without formal education, it’s common to feel as if you “don’t’ understand or get the work,” since there is a certain artistic rhetoric that comes with viewing and discussion art. Similar to learning a foreign language, it’s pivotal for an individual to learn the dialogue.


“As an educator, what you see is that because we do have that formal education that is about reproductions of nature in some shape or form, coming in and seeing something that is totally outside that experience might make anybody say, “I don’t get it” or, “I don’t understand it,”” says Jared.

Due to formal art education practices, people are used to instantly understanding the purpose or meaning of an artwork, so encountering a work that is meant to be pondered for an extensive amount of time can be daunting. However, most visitors find that if they slow down and take the time to consider each piece individually, contemporary art becomes much more rewarding and digestible. UMOCA even hosts a course called Art Fitness Training aimed at teaching adults how to uncover the meaning behind contemporary art, because it is something that gets easier with practice.

DSC_0037 (1)

Frustration or an indifference to a piece can produce an elemental uneasiness that makes artistic pedagogy arduous. Museums and galleries are invested in the public’s experience and artistic relatability which is why didactics are universally parallel to a collection work. The didactic – most commonly found on panels or gallery walls – will provide the viewer with all the historical, educational, or conceptual information they would need to interrupt a piece. It’s a constructive exercise to imagine the artist’s perspective; it’s hard to imagine any artist would create a piece with the intention of frustrating viewers. Yes, these pieces attempt to make the viewer consider new ideas or problems, but they are not meant to be inaccessible. They are meant to encourage thought on certain topics, but to let the viewer decide what is being said.

We encourage anyone who does not feel that they “get” contemporary art to come check out UMOCA. You might be surprised to find that we house film, sculpture, and photography installations amongst the less traditional mediums. If nothing else, you will have experienced something new.