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What is Contemporary Art? Issue Two


What is contemporary art? First, and most obviously: why is this question not asked? That is to say, why do we simply leave it to hover in the shadow of attempts at critical summation in the grand tradition of twentieth-century artistic movements? The contemporary delineates its border invisibly: no one is proud to be “contemporary,” and no one is ashamed. Indeed, the question of where artistic movements have gone seems embedded in this question, if only because “the contemporary” has become a single hegemonic “ism” that absorbs all proposals for others. When there are no longer any artistic movements, it seems that we are all working under the auspices of this singular ism that is deliberately (and literally) not one at all...

Widespread usage of the term “contemporary” seems so self-evident that to further demand a definition of “contemporary art” may be taken as an anachronistic exercise in cataloguing or self-definition. At the same time, it is no coincidence that this is usually the tenor of such large, elusive questions: it is precisely through their apparent self-evidence that they cease to be problematic and begin to exert their influence in hidden ways; and their paradox, their unanswerability begins to constitute a condition of its own, a place where people work.

So it is with the contemporary: a term we know well enough through its use as a de facto standard by museums, which denote their currency through an apparently modest temporal signifier: to be contemporary is to be savvy, reactive, dynamic, aware, timely, in constant motion, aware of fashion. The term has clearly replaced the use of “modern” to describe the art of the day. With this shift, out go the grand narratives and ideals of modernism, replaced by a default, soft consensus on the immanence of the present, the empiricism of now, of what we have directly in front of us, and what they have in front of them over there. But in its application as a de facto standard this watery signifier has through accumulation nevertheless assumed such a scale that it certainly must mean something.

If we pursue it further, however, and try to pin it down, it repeatedly escapes our grasp through a set of evasive maneuvers. And perhaps we can say that the ism that is simultaneously not is its evasive maneuver number one: the summation that does not admit to being critical or projective (in the grand tradition of modernist ideological voices), to denoting an inside and an outside, a potential project, but that is simultaneously there, saying nothing. So why the extra qualifier? Why insert an extra word into “museum of art”? Like any evasive maneuver, this one works by producing a split: between the term’s de facto usage, which momentarily holds your attention by suggesting the obvious parallel with the “current,” with its promise of flexibility and dynamism, while simultaneously building a museum collection along very specific parameters—masking ideology. To follow the self-evidence of the question at hand, we could note the morphological Frank Gehry walls of a spectacular contemporary museum to be in fact made of concrete and steel—their suggestion of formless flexibility, their celebration of the informal, is frozen in some of the heaviest, most expensive, and burdensome institutional public sculpture around. The contemporary suggests movement, yet it does not itself budge.

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