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Themes of Contemporary Art

Visual Art After 1980

Fifth Edition

Author Jean Robertson, Craig McDaniel, and Contributions by Scott Contreras-Koterbay

Publication Date - 01 June 2021

ISBN: 9780190078331

464 pages
7 x 10 inches

In Stock

A thematic introduction to the diverse world of art today.


Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980, Fifth Edition, offers students and readers an introduction to recent art. The primary focus is an examination of themes that are widespread in contemporary artistic practice. Individual chapters analyze thematic content in eight groupings: Identity, The Body, Time, Memory, Place, Language, Science, and Spirituality. These eight thematic categories provide a significant sample from which readers can grasp influential concepts that stretch across much of the art of our time. Profiles of key artists and works enhance student understanding of these major themes and the individual approaches and key movements in the world of contemporary art.

New to this Edition

  • New discussions on global artists and on artistic responses to climate change
  • Two new Artist Profiles - Hito Steyerl (Chapter 1) and Ragnar Kjartansson (Chapter 4)
  • A significant expansion of the treatment of digital art and issues surrounding the digitalization of culture and society


  • Thematic organization allows students to make connections between a wide ranging selection of artists, styles, and media, offering a rich visual program complementing a detailed text.
  • Diverse and global coverage is highly relevant and reflects today's global art world.
  • Discussions of both history and process appeal to both studio art and history history majors.

About the Author(s)

Jean Robertson is Chancellor's Professor Emerita of Art History at Indiana University, Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI. Other books co-authored with Craig McDaniel include Spellbound: Rethinking the Alphabet (Intellect and University of Chicago Press, 2016); and Painting as a Language: Material, Technique, Form, Content (Harcourt, 2000). She is lead co-author with Deborah Hutton of The History of Art: A Global View (Thames & Hudson, 2022).

Craig McDaniel is Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Indiana University, Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI. In addition to volumes co-authored with Jean Robertson, McDaniel has published essays on art and culture, most notably a series of articles that reevaluates the practice of painting and the achievements of key painters. In addition to participating in exhibitions of his own art, McDaniel has curated over 50 exhibitions of contemporary art by others.

Scott Contreras-Koterbay (guest author) is Professor in the Department of Art & Design, adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy & Humanities, and Director of the Bert C. Bach Fine & Performing Scholars in the Honors College at East Tennessee State University. He is co-author with Lukasz Mirocha of The New Aesthetic and Art: Constellations of the Postdigital (Instituut voor Netweerkcultuur, 2016).


"Themes of Contemporary Art, Fifth Edition, is one of the best introductions to the thematic artistic concepts that continue to create the varied field we call "contemporary art." The chapters on identity, memory, and time are peerless in an introductory text such as this." - Jae Emerling, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

"This is the best textbook for contemporary art, because it is up to date, and is thematic. Its strong points include the summaries of dense post-structuralist and art theories; the artist profiles; and discussion of key works in a chapter. The book has been useful for students by providing a theoretical and historical context for contemporary works since 1980." - Lisa Lipinski, George Washington University

Table of Contents



    Themes of Contemporary Art: What, Why, and How
    A Brief Orientation

    The World Changes, The Art World Expands
    Overview of History and Art History: 1980-2020
    Traditions Survive, New Trends Arrive
    Theory Flexes Its Muscles
    Impact of the Digital*
    Social Experience as Art
    Art Meets Contemporary Culture
    Artists Respond to the Anthropocene
    PROFILE: Hito Steyerl*

    CHAPTER TWO: Identity
    A Focus on Identity in Art History
    Identity Is Collective and Relational
    Identity Politics
    Otherness and Representation
    Essentialism Versus Diversity
    Authenticity and Hybridity
    Identity Is Constructed
    Deconstructing Difference
    The Fluidity of Identity
    Synthetic Identities
    Fictional Identities

    Are We Post-Identity?
    PROFILE: Shirin Neshat
    PROFILE: Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch

    Past Figurative Art
    Performing Bodies
    The Body Beautiful
    Grotesque Bodies
    The Body Is a Battleground
    Sexual Bodies
    Gazing at Bodies
    Mortal Bodies
    Classifying Humans in the Genomic Age
    Posthuman Bodies
    PROFILE: Renée Cox
    PROFILE: Zhang Huan

    Changing Views of Time
    Time and Art History
    Time as a Medium
    Live Art
    Film and Video
    Process Art

    Exploring the Structure of Time
    Counting and Measuring Time
    Reordering Time

    PROFILE: Hiroshi Sugimoto
    PROFILE: Ragnar Kjartansson

    CHAPTER FIVE: Memory
    Memory and Art History
    The Texture of Memory
    Memory Is Emotional
    Memory Is Unreliable
    Memory Is Multisensory

    Strategies for Representing the Past
    Displaying Evidence
    Reenacting the Past
    Fracturing Narratives and Reshuffling Memories

    Storehouses of Memory
    Revisiting the Past
    Recovering History
    Rethinking History
    Reframing the Present

    Commemorating the Past
    PROFILE: Christian Boltanski
    PROFILE: Brian Tolle

    CHAPTER SIX: Place
    Places Have Meanings
    Places Have Value
    Looking Out for Places
    Art History's Influence
    Representations of Space
    (Most) Works of Art Exist in a Place

    What's Public? What's Private?
    Fictionalized Places
    PROFILE: Turbine Hall at Tate Modern
    PROFILE: Andrea Zittel

    CHAPTER SEVEN: Language
    Art and Words: A Quick History
    Recent Theories of Language
    Reasons for Using Language
    Language Makes Meaning
    Language Takes Form
    Transparency and Translucency
    Spatiality and Physicality
    Books Made by Artists
    Wielding the Power of Language
    Confronting the Challenge of Translation
    Communication in the Digital Age*
    Text and Power
    Text as Digital Material

    PROFILE: Nina Katchadourian
    PROFILE: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

    CHAPTER EIGHT: Science
    What Is Science?
    Artists as Amateur Scientists
    Artists Adopt Scientific Tools and Materials
    Creole Technologies
    Bio Art

    The Visual Culture of Science
    Scientific Imaging and Art
    Deconstructing the Visual Culture of Science
    Scientific Displays and Archives
    Science in Popular Culture
    The Ideology of Science
    Changing Paradigms of Science
    Is Science Running Amok? Activist Art Responds
    Is Nature Natural?

    The Anthropocene: Climate Change and More
    PROFILE: Patricia Piccinini
    PROFILE: Eduardo Kac

    CHAPTER NINE: Spirituality
    Spirituality and Religion
    A Short History
    Religious Iconography
    Spiritual Forms and Materials
    Mingling the Sacred and the Profane
    Sacred Spaces and Rituals
    Finding Faith and Harboring Doubt
    Facing Death, Doom, and Destruction
    Art and Transcendence
    PROFILE: Bill Viola
    PROFILE: José Bedia

    Selected Bibliography

    *Sections authored by Scott Contreras-Koterbay