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What is Not Contemporary Art?: The View from Jena


Ask not what contemporary art is, but what contemporary art should be.

—Oksana Pasaiko, 2009

“What is contemporary art?” is (clearly) not the same question as “What is art?” The former basically asks us to define what is particularly “contemporary” about art—not, significantly enough, what is particularly artistic about it. The question of what is “contemporary” about contemporary art seems straightforward enough: answering it would simply require our invoking all the art that is being made now—but of course there is more.

Now, answering the question as to what is particularly artistic about art (contemporary or not) is famously impossible, and it belongs to the specific condition of contemporary art (or at least of the contemporary art world, which may or may not be the same) to have made the very act of asking this question not just impossible, but also unreasonable, even irresponsible—a show of poor taste or, worse still, of irreversible disconnect from the daily practice of (contemporary) art. Contributing to, or participating in, something that does not tolerate definition or other forms of circumscription (so being part of something that is ultimately unknowable: not knowing what we’re doing) is one of the ways in which “culture” in general essentially reproduces itself. This is an important nuance to distinguish, for it necessarily means that contemporary art belongs to the general field of “culture,” whereas art does not (that is to say, not necessarily). And this, in turn, is not necessarily a good thing; in fact, it may be a bad thing. It probably is a bad thing. Alain Badiou, in his introduction to Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, remarks that

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