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How can art be freed from the clutches of the contemporary?

Frieze Art Fair London 2013. Photograph by Linda Nylind, courtesy Frieze

As a particular genre of art that came to prominence during and after the demise of modernism, Contemporary Art has successfully took advantage of the literal meaning of the term “contemporary” to metaphysicize its connotations and in effect operationalize its permanent hold on the ontology of art in relation not only to today but also tomorrow. The implications of the philosophy of history that contemporary art perpetuates constitute a ‘permanent present’ - a sort of conceptual entropy management that keeps a stranglehold of what art might be, and indeed what the wider world that art ‘engages’, ‘reflects’, and ‘impacts’ might be. In this regard, what kinds of social and discursive strategies can effectively neutralize the ongoing processes through which ideas, practices and institutions of contemporary art bind the general term “contemporary” to the particularity of this genre of making and reception of art?


The only way to exit contemporary art is to effectively historicize it. It is virtually an abreaction from history. One of the most effective claims in contemporary art is the claims on the particulars. - you can’t make claims about contemporary art because of particularities always exist that deflect most statements- but with computing power, one can potentially gather all the data on the particularities and turn it into a general. Subversion, antagonism, etc are useless: they will just be incorporated into the network of particularities that constitute contemporary art


Art unfolds across a historical horizon. It is procedural. So it can be considered ontological in that sense, but still within a historical moment. Surely it (art) is just as transient, fleeting?

what kinds of social and discursive strategies can effectively neutralize the ongoing processes

Perhaps clarify the problem at hand. Or consider a working definition of the contemporary and what the issue is so this reflection/engagement/impact can move forward.

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clutches or crutches

The problem is clear: Contemporary Art is not contemporary in the literal sense of the word but a tried and tired genre or mode of production and reception of art which needs to be overcome.


So, what is contemporary, or, how can contemporary be a mode of production? I take it there is something other than time or a moment that, at least nominally, underwrites contemporary.

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As with modernism, the temporal designation of contemporary art creates a haze in the look for definitions. One can, however, say that the principles of the contemporary art system are the same as the principles of a western democratic liberal system; a proliferation and affirmation of differences incorporated into a unifying structure. What this always comes to is a reification of particularities. It is in other words an indeterminate system.


You can’t get away from temporalization in at least some form-- the problem of indeterminacy is not just political (as in Malik), but ontological. The problem with CA, is its persistence in maintaining the present as its horizon, and therefore sacrificing any epistemic determination of its value. The problem of temporalization, or rather historicization, is one of how to state the processes that affect its accretion, and those parameters that allow us to navigate the determinate descriptions of the present, identify vectors of transformation, and construct futures which realize further development. In so far as CA has sacrificed this constructive project to a devil’s bargain, wherein ontological indeterminacy is equivalent to its epistemic incompleteness, and is incapable of locating value under the constraints of the manifest, it has seceded these questions to economic value. I’ve attempted to outline some of the issues that need to be considered (as best I understand them thus far) with a restatement of the problem elsewhere:


I think there are some complicated issues that need to be unravelled here. On the one hand, it is fair to say that discourses of ‘contemporary art’ can sometimes tend towards the false appearance of a ‘permanent present’, which certainly plays into capital’s triumphalist narrative regarding the ‘end of history’. This is inseparable from the common consensus that ‘contemporary art’ was born somewhere around 1989. At the same time, however, as Peter Osborne, Chantal Pontbriand and others have suggested, ‘contemporary art’ is simultaneously related to the problem of contemporaneity in the globalised world post-1989; in other words, it arises out of the contradictions involved in the simultaneity of differing historical strands, which are drawn together in a ‘present’ that is actually incredibly uneven and conflictual. To view ‘contemporary art’ as an even field is to ignore the way that the great Sauron’s eye of the international market sweeps its way across the globe, briefly beaming down on different regions, but generally leaving without effecting significant institutional change and so maintaining the situation of uneven development and turning artists into agonistic economic competitors. In this sense, when Documenta 14 arrives in Athens in 2017, the results are sure to be deeply problematic, but also very telling of the situation. So, while Manuel is right to criticise the way that contemporary art as ‘a proliferation and affirmation of differences incorporated into a unifying structure’ operates quite neatly within the logic of the market, we must equally acknowledge that this situation is inseparable from the political realities of uneven development. It is really only from a narrow north-western perspective that the ‘problem’ of contemporary art appears to be that of ‘a tried and tired genre or mode of production and reception of art which needs to be overcome’, as if the major concern were an issue of style, rather than economic and geopolitical antagonisms.


Very interesting points, DMHodge. I think I am in agreement with you regarding the uneven development of the geopolitical system, the unifying structure of the marketplace, and that CA operates from a narrow framework – however, it is also willing, as Manuel pointed out above, to hoover up the particularities of these uneven developments and represent them within this narrow framework. Works which reflect these conflicts, which should spark real debate regarding questions of form and content, as Mo knows in regards to the Here and Elsewhere show at NuMu, become instead just another curiosity to be filtered through the circuit. The question with art, isn’t so much one of shifting our view back to a properly political field, which then become the “real” question that we simply have to notice in different artworks – there will always be, no matter how advanced development becomes – real political tensions, and people making art about them. What we lack right now, is a means of aesthetically differentiating disciplinary shifts that reveal that movement. With this does come a political question, but it may not be one that is tackled by the production of more art, but rather the production of a politics of art that can destabilize the institutional and economic sovereignty of the market status quo. To do this, I think you have to begin by prefiguring a sense of a positive conception of the field and what it would look like if it were to take seriously the hard questions of aesthetic judgement, and how those come to be realized and recognized through the aesthetic operation, that is, if we believe that aethetics (as a domain of operation) really has anything to contribute to these political aporias. Simply setting forth this epistemic view is not enough though, it may require strategies of market capture and institution building that are not in themselves art projects. So yes, CA may be a narrow perspective, but one that is dominant. I do think we have to begin to think about how these issues can be separated, and then, how they come back together, can be redefined, and confronted, rather than viewing them as an immovable totality, else we are left with a position of despair.


To bastardize Wilfrid Sellars’ theory of language transitions we might say you have a politics>aesthetics entry; a aesthetics<>aesthetics inter-domain operation, and an aesthetics>politics exit. To return to the politics question, as you do above, often shifts the debate back to the final operation, while leaving the two other movements untouched. I want to direct attention to the other two parts of this equation.

Limited by replies, I guess, so to edit, and expand further:

Our politics>aesthetics entry is horribly deformed by marketization at the moment, while our aesthetics<>aesthetics inter-domain communication is on cryo-freeze, and the aesthetics>politics exit is usually operationalized as a short circuit to prevent any critique of the politics>aesthetics entry by confusing the issue.


How much I love the looking back at e-flux time line past futuristic premonitions:

Boris Groys paper : Comrades of Time

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Seems that the word Contemporary as the word New too, is some how endowed of an inextricable aura that makes the Orwellian theses on Newspeak and its instructions of its use or misuse, the right example for the case. As it is clear that there is something very conspiratorial about the use of the word.
Specially when Orwell proposes the idea of how a word can appear or disappear from a language, so that some actions, even feelings, will disintegrate for not been able to have the words belonging to them anymore.
The case with the word Contemporary seems to be the opposite: we find that its use is been instilled, becoming a tool for a sort of collective unconscious fascistic implementing of a notion that has to do with an accelerated “Present only” time, flooding us with the Cum of the Clocks wile generating a totalitarian divorce from any past or any future.

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The proper and useful term is “art in the contemporary style.”

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“So it first has to be acknowledged that much of the activity responsible for the current condition of art is no longer under development, but has assumed a fully mature form—and yet it still somehow refuses to be historicized as such. Or are we simply not trying hard enough? Perhaps it is time to approach the notion of contemporary art as a fully formed cultural project with certain defined parameters, complete with logics of inclusion and exclusion not so different from those of the modernist project. There is a lot of work to be done here. How do we begin to recognize these parameters that have already been established? At the same time, there is some agency in the idea that they remain open: how can we also take advantage of this to develop our own criteria for browsing and historicizing recent activity in a way that affirms the possibilities of contemporary art’s still-incompleteness, of its complex ability to play host to many narratives and trajectories without necessarily having to absorb them into a central logic or determined discourse—at least before it forms a historical narrative and logic of exclusion that we would much rather disavow? In this sense we are looking at two distinct approaches to contemporaneity: one that has already been fully institutionalized, and another that still evades definition.” (from the first issue of e-flux linked to above)

I’m not sure what Anton is suggesting with the link to the first issue of e-flux but since he has done so, I wanted to suggest that Dadabase’s point is that the two distinct approaches are actually the same: contemporary art is the institutionalization of the evasion of definition. As such, we shouldn’t talk about this evasion of definition as a virtue—a unique absorbency or “complex ability.” It is not that we should all want central logics or determined discourses. But CA defined here lacks even a non-central logic.

So I appreciate manuealcorreac’s point that it might be useful to gather mass data on the particularities of CA in order to find the general resemblances and the golden mean of the contemporary style: it goes hand in hand with the question of how one goes about forging it. The obvious reference points in comparative literature is what Franco Moretti did with the novel, and Richard Jean So is trying to do with early 20th century poetry.


Right, yes: contemporary art is the institutionalization of the evasion of definition.
So we seem to come back to the horizon of now, what is in front of us unfolding in time as a thing that is procedural. It is rather than it ought to be. Not an ethic but a moment. So what is to be neutralized when this thing exists in the now, opening up on to the future that is nothing aside from a nominal moment? Or, what is to be grasped?

It might be useful to cite some past conversations around this issue, in particular Suhail Malik’s very developed critique of CA:

& Malik with Andrea Phillips:

“The Wrong of Contemporary Art” paper, in particular, responds to e-flux’s statement.

Mcc, not just democ. liberal system, a little more today than that. This is the way in which art shows us how platform capitalism (Ben Bratton’s term?) works. In the post-war period, the primary model of growth was lateral and vertical expansion: you make more things, or other, similar things; or you go up and downstream of your product. The alternative model is perhaps simply to do the one thing you do really, really well. Now the main way, I don’t mean in terms of it’s the only thing people are doing, but just as something people are thinking about and impressed by, is the Uber/Airbnb/Taskrabbit etc. model where you try to become the interface or marketplace for a particular industry so that you can basically take rent instead of wages or profits. It’s the market as an institution, it’s about flattening everything onto a place, and then the only significant hierarchy is the difference between the plane and the points, that’s two whole dimensions of profit-power in difference!

Some of the particular trends that can be identifiable in CA are the incorporation of particulars to reify its lack of definition. In other words, if you try to do something that challenges, or redefines contemporary art, it will only bring you as far as incorporating that particular into its own system. Thus, an injection of a Sellarsian vaccine into the CA system will only supply the anti-bodies required to deflect any critique’s impact, thus becoming yet another particularity in this system. The ultimate challenge is thus: with so many opportunists in the art world, most willing to subscribe into ideas like these and produce work that pretends to reflect them, one can’t linger in particularities, as they will just be endless. Ignoring artists and their practices might be all the more interesting then: the question can not be answered in a form of "a Capella virtuoso solo (emphasizing the unique individuality of the artist, an idea that naturally is endorsed by the market), but akin to a choral, where the part ceases to be important to address the whole. The big question of course is: What are the generalities that constitute CA?