It would appear that the notion of “the contemporary” is irredeemably vain and empty; in fact, we would not be entirely mistaken in suspecting “contemporary art” to be a concept that became central to art as a result of the need to find a replacement, rather than as a matter of legitimate theorizing. For above all, “contemporary” is the term that stands to mark the death of “modern.” This vague descriptor of aesthetic currency became customary precisely when the critique of “the modern” (its mapping, specification, historicizing, and dismantling) exiled it to the dustbin of history. At that point, when current art lost the word that had provided it with a programmatic stance, chronological proximity became relevant—even if it did not indicate anything of substance. To be sure, “contemporary” fails to carry even a glimmer of the utopian expectation—of change and possible alternatives—encompassed by “the new.”
Nothing would seem to so eloquently suggest the lack of substance in “contemporary art” than the facility with which it lends itself to practical adjustments. Museums, academic institutions, auction houses, and texts tend to circumvent the need to categorize recent artistic production by declaring the “contemporariness” of certain holdings or discourses on the basis of a chronological convention: the MOCA in Los Angeles takes into account everything made “after” 1940; the contemporary holdings of Tate Modern in London were all created sometime after 1965; Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz’s sourcebook Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art takes 1945 as its starting point. In other contexts—particularly on the periphery—the horizon of contemporaneity tends to be narrower, usually defined as appearing in the early 1990s and associated with the rise of the postcolonial debate, the collapse of the Euro-American monopoly over the narrative of modernism, or the end of the Cold War. In any case, “contemporary art” appears to be based on the multiple significance of an “after.”
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