We’re several millennia into this whole human civilization experiment and not a single person can clearly answer the question: what is art? It doesn’t exactly help that the contemporary art landscape is deeply inaccessible to anyone without a degree in humanities, and that fine art seems locked behind the doors of expensive museums and haughty collectors. Does art matter anymore? Isn’t art just a complicated money laundering scheme for the hyper-wealthy?
The answer to those questions remain unclear, but what is obvious to those who care to see it is how — despite its inaccessibility — contemporary art continues to shape the pop-culture landscape. From Marvel movies to your favorite rapper, there are hints of highbrow influence everywhere you look.
We’re breaking down 10 influential contemporary artists whose works you might have absorbed without even realizing it. By getting to know their contributions to culture, you might find that you’ve actually loved their art before even knowing that they were the ones who made it. Each of these artists also continues to ask the same question that no one’s been able to answer: What is art, anyway?
Damien Hirst’s most famous and controversial art piece, titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” perfectly encapsulates the debate around his works: the sculpture is a literal dead shark rotting inside a glass vat of formaldehyde. Hirst often uses the carcasses of actual animals as sculptural statements in a complex commentary on both existential emptiness and the nullity of the art market itself. His most gruesome output, made in the early and mid-1990s, sparked considerable debate around what “art” actually is. His more recent multimedia pieces are far more tame and frequently use pills, gold, and tropes from high-end fashion in repeated motifs to highlight the emotional deadness of the gallery circuit. He’s also responsible for what is widely considered the most expensive piece of art ever made: a diamond-encrusted human skull tilted “For The Love of God.”
Japanese artist Takashi Murakami remains in-vogue amongst hip hop heads thanks to his partnerships with Louis Vuitton and several famous rappers. You might recognize him as the designer behind the album cover of Kanye West’s 2007 LP, Graduation. Before his partnerships with luxury brands and radio stars, Murakami’s works were abstracted versions of anime in-jokes, which turned Japanese cartoons into the subject of existential contemplation. He dubbed his oeuvre the start of the “superflat” movement, a systematic critique of post-World War II culture in his home country, which he saw as increasingly infantile, as a response to the violence and trauma of the atomic bomb. His most infamous piece is titled “My Lonesome Cowboy” (link NSFW), a life-sized sculpture of a masturbating anime hero.
Pierce is a representative of a new generation of so-called “meta-modernists” who use interactive multimedia and internet-based performance art to comment on our increasingly mediated world and our inseparable interconnectedness to technological existence. Her lushly gorgeous photography depicts neon-drenched near-future worlds that make not-so-subtle commentaries about women’s work and female desire. Pierce’s art went viral with the video “American Reflexxx” (a collaboration with Alli Coates), in which Pierce poses provocatively in public before she is — quite unexpectedly — the victim of assault. The object styling of her fantasy settings rose simultaneously with the look of the nostalgia-tinged and far more ironic vaporwave movement.
Cindy Sherman exclusively works in the medium of photographic self-portraits, in which she uses elaborate costumes and disguises to create fully formed alter-egos for exploring different aspects of her identity. Her works pre-date both the popularity of the “selfie” and the drag explosion catalyzed by LGBTQ+ artists in the past decade but set a highbrow precedent for complex evaluations of gender presentation through photography. As she rose in esteem, she became an unlikely model for high-end brands like Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga.
Rashaad Newsome uses hacked technology to address the intersecting complexities of both gay and black identity, as exemplified most explicitly with his “Shade Compositions” performance and video pieces, in which he uses a modded video game system to loop vocal samples from a chorus of disappointed-sounding queer people and people of color. These artistic statements deconstruct various categories of identity in unusual and nuanced ways: by taking stereotyped gestures and turning them into avant-garde musical masterpieces. His choreographed exhibitions of vogue dancing in New York celebrate the joy of the ballroom scene, bringing the style of movement which had once only existed in the underground into galleries.
After a documentary on Ai Weiwei’s life debuted in 2012, this artist became somewhat of an object of fascination for the hipster glitterati in New York City. His trendy popularity was misleading considering the desperate and deeply political messages of his work, which were so objected to by the Chinese government he was at one point incarcerated for 81 days without charge. Weiwei’s outspoken disapproval of fascism — through his art, which challenges the surveillance state and covered-up human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese regime — is quite dangerous. But Weiwei is willing to sacrifice his well-being to stand against injustice. His best-known installation is probably “Sunflower Seeds,” a literal pile of miniature porcelain spheroids painted to look like — you guessed it — sunflower seeds. The heavily symbolic imagery is borrowed from the iconography of the Cultural Revolution.
Is throwing a party art? Is being a fashion model art? Is writing poetry on Tumblr art? Is mixing music art? Juliana Huxtable was a well-known internet personality and DJ in Brooklyn’s queer underground scene long before sculptures of her populated the Whitney Museum. Her multimedia pieces and writings which investigate transgenderism, African heritage, and post-modern queer theory are widely celebrated, as are her club kid-inspired, series of avant-garde and semi-legal events throughout Brooklyn. Her noisy and experimental DJ sets mix together high-brow and low-brow influences, drawing inspiration from alternative fashion and under-appreciated art icons who had previously been ignored by the fine art world.
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“Elephant” (2003) is modelled from a readymade inflatable that I acquired in 1979. The work is made from stainless steel that is brought to a high mirror-polish then painted with transparent colors. I’ve always enjoyed both the masculine and feminine aspects of the object. #jeffkoons #elephant #inflatable #stainlesssteel #reflection #contemporaryart #art #sculpture #mirrorpolish #masculine #feminine
Koons’s pop-art sculptures have attracted the ire of more conservative critics for decades. With an ironic appreciation of celebrity culture and an impeccable sense of decadence and tackiness, Koons’s works are funhouse reflections of our hyper-capitalist society. His most notorious piece depicts Michael Jackson with his pet monkey, but he’s best known for his giant sculptures of balloon animals, which he says don’t represent anything other than what they are. By skirting the limits of bad taste — his pornographic portraits of buxom women are sometimes too raunchy for museums — Koons continues to piss off modernists by claiming that there’s no deeper message or critique in his work at all. Many say he’s more of a brand than a creator, and that seems fine with him.
Similarly despised is Richard Prince, a photographer whose most famous works are pictures he took of printed advertisements. Mentioning his name among professionals often evokes boos and hisses — why does he get to make money off of other people’s work? Surely copying other peoples’ art isn’t art!
More flexible critics can see that by recontextualizing these commercials as art, he’s creating something entirely original and with much deeper meaning, but plenty of people simply don’t buy that explanation and would rather he retire. Despite all the criticism, The New York Times described him as “one of the most revered artists of his generation” in 2017.
You might already know of Abloh as the CEOof the Off-White label, which in the past year had become the “it” brand through collaborations with Nike. Abloh’s fashion designs were notably minimalist and post-modern. He’d often print the name of the object which he designed on the object itself: shoelaces in his sneaker collection had the word “SHOELACES” written right on them. This sort of deadpan self-awareness became his signature in his visual art as well — his paintings often had the colors in which they were painted plainly written on the canvas — but sometimes the trope took a more existential turn, with phrases like “LIFE ITSELF” etched boldly on the pieces. He currently works as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton while simultaneously churning out fresh music and new paintings.
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