Of whom and of what are we contemporaries? What does it mean to be contemporary?
According to common-sense understanding, defining what we mean by the “contemporary” in art presents few problems: anything being produced in the present is always contemporary, and by the same token all art must necessarily have been contemporary at the time of its production and/or initial reception. This much is clear. It is also clear, however, that the phrase “contemporary art” has special currency today, as a commonplace of the media and of society in general. If “contemporary art” has largely replaced “modern art” in the public consciousness, then it is no doubt due in part to the term’s apparent simplicity, its self-evidence. Trouble-free outside the art world, the “contemporary” is twice as useful on the inside. For one, it appears to be a purely temporal marker, simply denoting the “now,” purged of critical or ideological presupposition. It appears not to require any lengthy unraveling, of the kind that Baudelaire, for example, felt to be required of the “modern,” whose sense of “the ephemeral, the contingent” linked an orientation towards the future to a break with traditional values, and in particular to a break with a cyclical conception of time.
In his discussion of the word “revolution,” Göran Therborn has recently provided us with a striking indication of how this very shift from a cyclical conception of time to one of linearity and teleology took place in European thought:
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