Brad Blackman, "Hope," 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

3 Surprisingly Powerful Factors That Make Up Contemporary Art

I’ve found that contemporary art is dominated by 3 factors: place, politics, and personality. This really is not new. They’ve been part of art for hundreds of years. But I’ve seen a lot more of them in the past 20 years or so as contemporary art (art since 1970) has evolved.

The art movements of the early-to-mid-20th Century still have a lot to teach us. To be sure, the wider culture’s visual language has evolved since then, and contemporary art embraces the conceptual over all else these days, even if it is highly rendered (realistic). It’s less about style and more about social consciousness.

Brad Blackman, Hope, 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Most of the art I see today features three P’s: Place, Politics, and Personality.

“Place” in Contemporary Art

Graffiti art has exploded the past few years, especially in Nashville (where I live.) What used to be a sign of gang activity is now a sign of commerce (and on the downside, gentrification). Bachelorettes line up to get their photo taken in front of giant wings. And it’s not just “graffiti.” Toronto has a famous “TORONTO” sculpture that tourists love to get on their instagram feeds. Incidentally, the “3D Toronto Sign” was a temporary installation, but it got so much attention on social media that it is now a semi-permanent feature of City Hall. (I believe there are plans to make a permanent version of the sculpture.)

Contemporary art and place: 3D Toronto sign

By { pranav } from Hyderabad, India – Toronto sign, CC BY 2.0

Politics in Contemporary Art

Art has long had ties to politics, either in the service of or in opposition to the prevailing ruler. It can be propaganda, or it can state a specific view that may or may not be popular or “safe.” Brian Rutenberg argues that all art is political — even his abstract landscapes of South Carolina swamps.

The Cult of Personality in Contemporary Art

KAWS is an example of personality in contemporary art

Again, this is nothing new, and perhaps less outsize than in the past, but in recent years I’ve seen artists exploit their strong personal brands on social media with the likes of Ashley Longshore, Joyce Pensato, KAWS, and more. Warhol and Dali set a precedent for this decades ago. “Personality” might better be thought of as a “personal brand” these days.


While my own art doesn’t blatantly possess these characteristics, I agree with Brian Rutenberg that all art is political by default since when a viewer looks at it, they are seeing from your eyes, even if for a moment. What I try to show is that the world, for all its brokenness, is a beautiful and hopeful place.

“I laugh when painters claim to make political painting because all painting is political. The very act of making a work of art is a political act. Whenever you see a play, or read a poem, or look at a picture in a gallery, you are submitting to and and investing in the entire political belief system of that artist. Art can only be political because the artist is subverting and undermining the way the viewer sees the world for a moment. So I think it’s kind of sad when younger painters are led to believe that painting has no real value in and of itself, that it’s only a delivery system for some other message, which sounds to me like propaganda, There’s a lot of clever, witty work being done out there, but we must never let semiotic wit replace dreaming.”

Brian Rutenberg, Studio Visit 58