What is Contemporary?

by evanbaden

What is Contemporary Art? I have always thought that it we call the art we make now contemporary because we don’t know what to call it, and we won’t for another 20 or 30 years. I also wonder whether all times of art making have had this much diversity when it comes to subject matter, medium, and style? And maybe there always has been great variety in art making around the world, and only a few definitive styles have been able to stand the test of time. Or maybe what has changed in our ability to see and be influenced by all art instead of only what is in our general geographical location.

I think this is a large part of what Alexander Alberro is getting at in his Questionnaire on “The Contemporary.” Alberro defines four major aspects of contemporary art. These are as follows:

  1. “Social and political (and to a large degree economic) and relates to what has , since the end of the Cold War, come to be referred to as “globalization.” I have never thought about the term globalization referring to art, but in Alberro’s writing, it makes sense to me. I have previously thought of it mostly as economic and somewhat culturally, at least when related to the US. I think it can most notably be seen in the crossing of styles that were once relegated and contained to one particular culture. I mostly think of eastern traditions crossing with western. And while I think there is still much seperation between cultural styles, I can see the barriers being broken down until there is a homogeny that develops.
  2. “…the emergence of new technological imaginary following the new communication and information technologies of the Internet, and the development in the 1990s of the global hypertext space know as the World Wide Web.” The free flow of ideas and art is an important, and maybe the most important, aspect of what it is to work in the contemporary space. I think about what my own work would look like had it not been for the Internet. In my case, my work in it’s current form would not exist at all. Not just because I would not have been exposed to the styles that have influenced me, but my subject matter would never have existed at all. I also think that the Internet provides a shortening of distance that makes us (at least as young people) more able to relate to other young people around the globe. Especially as shared ideas become common due to constant exchange.
  3. “The reconfigured context of contemporary art prompts a thorough reconsideration of the avant-garde.” Contemporary art today asks the question; What is the Avant-Garde? Does it even exist? Things move so rapidly at this point, that was the avant-garde yesterday is no longer accepted as valid tomorrow. To use an analogy, in war, the avant-garde (or advanced guard) were basically scouts that advanced ahead of the main body of troops. This was when troops moved slowly. The parallel to current art practice is the same as current warfare. In current warfare theory, there is no longer an avant-garde because mechanized warfare has lead to soldiers being everywhere, always–making the avant-garde (as well as front-lines) obsolete.
  4. “the surprising reemergence of a philosophical aesthetics that seeks to find the ‘specific’ nature of aesthetic experience as such.” I think this is a reaction to the over-theoried work of post-modernism. This backlash (although I don’t really see it at Columbia) says that the meaning behind the work is no longer important, but rather what is important is how the viewer experiences the work. I think this also has to do with the great abundance of work that is no long visual (or solely visual), but instead immersive sound and video, or tactile, or installation. While there may be meaning behind the work for the artist, it is no longer important to the artist whether that specific meaning is related to the viewer, but instead what is important is that the viewer have an experience that is unique to that viewer, in that particular space and time.

Terry Smith also has some viewpoints of his own on different ways that contemporary art can be viewed:

  1. “Contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes.” He uses Barney and his Cremaster


    series as well as Serra, Koons, Murakami, Richter, Gursky, Struth, and Demand as examples. To me, these artists are all highly institutionally supported and sponsored. They are continuing the modernist structure that has been in place and continued to be carried on by institutions like MoMA and the Guggenheim.

    Serra Tilted Arc

  2. “that which emerges from within the conditions of contemporaneity, including the remnants of the cultures of modernity and postmodernity, but which projects itself through and around these, as an art of that which actually is in the world, of what it is to be in the world, and of that which is to come.” Smith uses Shirin Neshat’s video Passage (2001) and Ayanah Moor’s installation Never.Ignorant.Gettin’ Goals.Accomplished (2004) extensively as an example. Both of these works carry a duality that I find in many examples of art that is considered ‘contemporary’ and both are works that have arisen from the contemporary culture, yet have distinct differences. While Moor’s piece evolves out of current politics familiar to Western culture, Neshat’s video shows contemporary culture that those in the West are not familiar with. While what we see in Neshat’s video may seem foreign and out of time, there is something familiar about the ceremony that surrounds death. All cultures that have ever existed have had some sort of ritual regarding the death. So while at first we are unfamiliar with the actions that are taking place on the screen, we soon relate to notion of death and the traumatic experience that surrounds it.


    Moor’s work carries another type of duality. While the clip of Rice being presented as Secretary of State (as well as the words in the title) can be seen as a huge accomplishment for a woman of a minority, the abbreviation of the title provides a negativity. Perhaps a secret thought by those purporting to be for advancement.

  3. A number of different small-scale strategies “are understood not as mere artworld stylistics but as symptoms of a limited number of powerful, shared tendencies that are themselves the outcome, not of a persistent modernist formalism, but of the great changes of the 1960s and 1970s, the paradigm shifters internal to art itself, and those of a world reshaped by rapid decolonization and incipient globalization.” I think what Smith is talking about here is all of the different approaches that are pervading the current art scene. And this is only furthered by the amount of art fairs, festivals, biennials, triennials (and all the other -ennials) as well as the ability to rapidly communicate ideas and art across great boundaries and the ability of artists to be influenced and, in turn, respond to artwork that would have been previously inaccessible. Artists are responding in countless ways and exhibiting those responses at a speed incomprehensible two decades ago (especially given that an artist not need to be represented by a gallery or have a dealer in order for their work to be seen).
  4. His own proposal: “Every situation that is truly contemporary is an out come of the friction” between the first three proposals. “…Art supplies provisional syntheses, provides pauses in the overall rush into the unsynthesizable…” I find his own proposal somewhat lazy. But maybe it is correct. Instead of picking one way that art in the contemporary space is headed, he simply concludes that the current trend is not an either/or, nor is it a middle pathway, but instead is a friction between all three of his previous proposals. Art that is truly contemporary works both within and against the current condition. It both uses and critiques the condition it works within.

I also thought the section in Smith’s piece about curators framing the debate was an interesting one. What Okwui Enwezor did with Documenta 11 seems very fitting in the world we live in today. The old centers (at least the physical centers) of art are disappearing. Why? I think it has a lot to do with technology and the Internet. The Internet (while a terrible way to view art) is slowly diminishing the importance of physical art centers by providing access to those who would not have had it before. There was a time not too long in the past, where if you wanted to see a great work of art you either had to 1) travel to a museum or gallery that was exhibiting it or 2) buy a book containing it or 3) buy a print of the piece. The problem with all of those is the limits it placed on the works that were not “great”. Because being in a larger museum or gallery show, or book, or having a print of your work made and sold was something that an artist needed support for, there were only a select few that were afforded the chance. And they were usually operating within proximity of a large art center like New York or Paris.

What we have been afforded today is the ability to create and spread work like never before. And the gates have been thrown open to the masses in many art forms (music, writing, visual art, film, and publishing) with large industries being the victims. Music is maybe the most publicized, but digital technologies have exploded the old gated system and have allowed many that may have previously been unable to disperse their work to do so. I think this is what is most contemporary about the time that we are living and working in.