The term “contemporary art” is marked by an excessive usefulness. The contemporary has exceeded the specificity of the present to become inextricably linked to the growth of doubt consolidation. At the same time, it has absorbed a particular and resistant grouping of interests, all of which have become the multiple specificities of the contemporary. The tendency is for artists to deny that they are part of something that is recognized and defined by others. Frustrations here are always unique. Donald Judd did not identify himself as a minimalist. Yet “contemporary art” activates denial in a specifically new way. It does not describe a practice but a general “being in the context.”
The people who leave graduate level studio programs are contemporary artists—that much is clear. They represent the subjective artist operating within a terrain of the general. Yet we now find that the meaning of contemporary art is being redefined by a new art historical focus upon its products, ideas, and projections. That means we are going through a phase in which—whether we like it or not—it is quite likely that a new terminology and means of delineation will be proposed. It is therefore necessary—for artists specifically (although never alone)—to engage with this process of re-describing what gets made now. What constitutes the image of the contemporary? And what does the contemporary produce other than a complicit alongsideness?
“Contemporary art” has historically implied a specific accommodation of a loose set of open-minded economic and political values that are mutable, global, and general—sufficing as an all-encompassing description of “that which is being made now—wherever.” But the flexibility of contemporary art as a term is no longer capable of encompassing all dynamic current art, if only because an increasing number of artists seek to radically differentiate their work from other art. In a recent essay I attempted therefore to re-term contemporary art as “current art,” as a way of dropping the association with the contemporary of design and architecture and simply find a term that could contain the near future and recent past of engaged art production rather than an evocative post-modernististic inclusion of singular practices. However, this new adjusted definition also does not suffice as a description that can effectively include all the work that is being made with the intention of resisting the flexibility of contemporary work. It is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the definition contemporary art has been taken up by such apparently mutually exclusive arenas as auction houses and new art history departments as a way to talk about a generalization that always finds its articulation as a specificity or set of subjectivities that no longer include those who work hard to evade its reach.
Contemporary art has become historical, a subject for academic work. The Fall 2009 issue of October magazine on the question of the contemporary tended to focus on the academicization of contemporary art while acknowledging extensively the existing unease that many artists have with being characterized within a stylistic epoch. Hal Foster noted that the magazine received very few replies from curators to his questionnaire. This could be due to the October issue coinciding with the end of the usefulness of the term “contemporary art” for most progressive artists and curators—or at least with the reluctance of more and more to identify with it—while remaining a convenient generalizing term for many institutions and exchange structures including auction houses, galleries and art history departments, all of whom are struggling to identify the implications of their use of the term—some more than others, of course.
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