Questionnaire on “The Contemporary”

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Questionnaire on “The Contemporary”

The category of “contemporary art” is not a new one. What is new is the

sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment. Such paradigms as “the neo-avant-garde” and “postmodernism,” which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and, arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, “contemporary art” has become an institutional object in its own right: in the academic world there are professorships and programs, and in the museum world departments and institutions, all devoted to the subject, and most tend to treat it as apart not only from prewar practice but from most postwar practice as well.

Is this floating-free real or imagined? A merely local perception? A simple

effect of the end-of-grand-narratives? If it is real, how can we specify some of its principal causes, that is, beyond general reference to “the market” and “globalization”?

Or is it indeed a direct outcome of a neoliberal economy, one that,

moreover, is now in crisis? What are some of its salient consequences for artists, critics, curators, and historians—for their formation and their practice alike?

Are there collateral effects in other fields of art history? Are there instructive analogies to be drawn from the situation in other arts and disciplines?
Finally, are there benefits to this apparent lightness of being?

—Hal Foster for the Editors

A categoria de "arte contemporânea" não é nova. O que é novo é o

sentido de que, em sua própria heterogeneidade, tanto a prática atual parece flutuar livre de determinação histórica, definição conceitual e juízo crítico. Tais paradigmas como "a neo-vanguarda" e "pós-modernismo", que uma vez orientaram um pouco a arte e a teoria, afundaram-se na areia, e, sem dúvida, não há modelos de muito alcance explicativo ou força intelectual em seu lugar.

Ao mesmo tempo, talvez paradoxalmente, "arte contemporânea" tornou-se um objeto institucional em seu próprio direito: no mundo acadêmico há cátedras e programas, e no mundo dos museus departamentos e instituições, todos dedicados ao assunto, e ainda mais tendem a tratá-lo como distante, não só da prática de antes da guerra, mas de práticas do pós-guerra também.
É este flutuar livre real ou imaginário? Uma percepção meramente local? Um simples efeito do fim-das-grandes-narrativas? Se é real, como podemos especificar alguns dos suas principais causas, ou seja, além referência geral ao "mercado" e "globalização"?

Ou é realmente um resultado direto de uma economia neoliberal, que,

além disso, agora está em crise? Quais são algumas das suas consequências mais importantes para os artistas, críticos, curadores e historiadores - para a sua formação assim como para as suas práticas ?

Há efeitos colaterais em outros campos da história da arte? Há analogiaa instrutivas para serem tiradas da situação em outras artes e disciplinas? Finalmente, existem benefícios para essa leveza aparente de ser?

Hal Foster para os Editores


As you can see, the questions are directed at critics and curators based in North America and Western Europe; I hope they do not appear too provincial as a result. I have arranged the extracts with an eye to connections that exist between them. My purpose here is simply to suggest the state of the debate on “the contemporary” in my part of the world today.

First from Grant Kester, a historian of contemporary art, based in southern California:
The problem of “the contemporary” is rooted in a tension that emerged when Western art history was first formalized as a discipline. The generation of European historians that helped establish the discipline in the mid-nineteenth century found itself confronted by a vast range of new and unfamiliar artifacts that were circulating throughout Europe as a result of colonial expansion into Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as well as early archaeological excavations in Italy and Greece. Historians and philosophers raised the question of how contemporary viewers could transcend the differences that existed between themselves and very different cultures whose works of art they admired—cultures whose shared meanings were inaccessible to them due to distances of time or space.

Then from James Elkins, a meta-theorist of art history, based in Chicago:

From the perspectives of “world art history” and its critics today, “the contemporary” would appear to be either exempted from the discipline of art history, because of its position outside or before art histories, or exemplary of the discipline, because of its newfound universality (i.e., by definition “the contemporary” exists everywhere).
Next from Miwon Kwon, a contemporary art critic and historian based in Los Angeles:
Contemporary art history sits at a crossroads in the uneven organization of the subfields that comprise the discipline of art history. Within most university art history departments, one group of subfields covering Western developments is organized chronologically, as periods (i.e., from Ancient to Modern, with Medieval and Renaissance in between). Another group of subfields that covers non-Western developments is identified geographically, as culturally discrete units even if they encompass an entire continent (i.e., African, Chinese, Latin American, etc.) The category of contemporary art history, while institutionally situated as coming after the Modern, following the temporal axis of Western art history as the most recent period (starting in 1945 or 1960 depending on how a department divides up faculty workload or intellectual territory), is also the space in which the contemporaneity of histories from around the world must be confronted simultaneously as a disjunctive yet continuous intellectual horizon, integral to the understanding of the present (as a whole). Contemporary art history, in other words, marks both a temporal bracketing and a spatial encompassing, a site of a deep tension between very different formations of knowledge and traditions, and thus a challenging pressure point for the field of art history in general.
For instance, what is the status of contemporary Chinese art history? What is the time frame for such a history? How closely should it be linked to Chinese art, cultural, or political history? How coordinated should it be with Western art history or aesthetic discourse? Is contemporary Chinese art history a subfield of contemporary art history? Or are they comparable categories, with the presumption that the unnamed territory of contemporary art history is Western/American?

Alfred Barr’s Evolution of Abstract Art diagram, 1936.

Then from Joshua Shannon, a historian of postwar art, from the mid-Atlantic area near Washington, D.C.:

In the last twenty-five years, the academic study of contemporary art has grown from a fringe of art history to the fastest-developing field in the discipline. It is not so long ago that dissertations on living artists were all but prohibited, while statistics published this year by the College Art Association confirm that job searches in contemporary art history now outnumber those in any other specialization, with almost twice as many positions in the field, for example, as in Renaissance and Baroque combined. We might wonder whether a discipline too long afraid of the present has now become besotted with it.
Next from Richard Meyer, a theorist of “the contemporary,” based in Los Angeles:
Recently, I have put to my “contemporary” students several questions that are at once straightforward and aggressive. Why are you studying art history if what you really want is to write about the current moment? Where are the archival and research materials on which you will draw—in the files of a commercial gallery, in a drawer in the artist’s studio, in the works of art themselves, in a series of interviews that you intend to conduct with the artist, in a theoretical paradigm that you plan to apply to the work, or in an ideological critique of the current moment? What distinguishes your practice as a contemporary art historian from that of an art critic? And how does the history of art matter to the works you plan to write about and to the scholarly contribution you hope to make?

Then from Pamela Lee, a scholar on postwar art, based in San Francisco:

Call it “the moving target syndrome.” At what point does a stack of press releases turn into something like a proper reception history? How do you write about a contemporary artist whose work shifts radically in mid-stream? And what does one do when the topics that seemed so pressing and so critical just a few short art-world seasons back lose that sense of urgency? There is, then, a paradoxical way we might characterize the problem: contemporary art history is premature because it is always in a perpetual state of becoming, one that alternates endlessly between novelty and critical (as well as commercial) exhaustion.

Next from Mark Godfrey, a young curator of contemporary art at Tate Modern in London:

If it is correct that no “paradigms” have emerged in the place of those such as “the neo-avant-garde” and “postmodernism,” then one should first look precisely to the success of those discourses to understand why. The critical discourse of postmodernism caused most historians and critics to distrust any overarching and monolithic model that would account for what is most compelling about contemporary art. At the same time, following the impact of postcolonial theory and a simple widening of our horizons, American and European art historians and curators have become far more attentive to contemporary art as it emerges across the world. Most acknowledge that serious art is being made in China, Latin America, South Africa, and so on, but few have the opportunities to see what is being made. With this situation, who would presume to name a new paradigm? A new name would assume a totalizing explanatory power and be akin to a hubristic, neocolonial move. One also begins to distrust the presumptions of the previous paradigms. How useful are the terms “neo-avant-garde” or “postmodernism” when we think about the art that emerged in centers away from North America and Western Europe where modernism and the avant-garde signified quite differently?

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