What is Contemporary Art? 1

Part of the exploration I want to cover in this MA is to look beyond of the history and schools of photography and be able to see that practice within a wider artistic framework.

I have previously looked at various definitions and histories of art, and read some great introductions to the subject by for example, Howells and J Negreiros[1] as well as Gombrich, Fry, and others. So I understand how such histories define art in terms of semiotics, iconography, and ideology and artistic movements. These approaches are similar in the way photography’s history can be interpreted, and the power of different definitions such as ideological/structural ones or psychological one such as psychoanalysis. But while I am clear on how the terms Pictoralism, Expressionism, Formalism, Modernism and Post Modernism are used in regard of photography I am less clear on how the term Contemporary Art is used in broader artistic circles. So I bought this book[2] that should illuminate matters. I don’t plan to read the whole thing at once. Rather I will just dip into it when it seems relevant.

The book is introduced by the editors and they explain that it began as a two part issue of e-flux journal and public lecture in 2009, so it’s already five years old. The editors posit that the term is amorphous and difficult to define and so they have brought together a series of thinkers to explore the subject. Here is the first.

C Medina. Contem(T)orary: Eleven Theses

  1. Stands to mark the death of “modern” art
  2. Moveable definition of time dependent on context
  3. But not as neutral as time suggests because a. There is a direct immediacy of the relationship of the term and its host society and, b. “aristocratic popularism” where extreme subtly and simplicity collide
  4. The ideal of beauty articulated in 1823 as attained not longer applies and contemporary art stands at the point between elite entertainment and mass culture
  5. Thus the main cultural function of art and its institutions is reflected in contemporary art – to be the most newsworthy/fashionable place/person/artist
  6. But this is all based on the centre/periphery of contemporary art being based around north Atlantic jet set – disenfranchised industrial elites buying new civic identities based on artistic and philanthropic culture
  7. Contemporary art challenges the dominance of the old elite arts that should now be redefined as NATO art (ie Western capitalist art) by including other art forms from 2nd and 3rd world (referred to as the “South” in this article)
  8. “ revolution in standstill” – I don’t fully under stand this point
  9. Post 1960 cultural transformation in artistic practice embraced common definitions of what art is- they occupy the “ruins of the visual arts” by carrying on experimentation and questioning of cultural discourses
  10. But contemporary art is still the place where values are fought out and this is a good reason to participate
  11. “it may well be that contemporary art’s ethical imperative is to deal with the ambivalence of the experience of emancipation”

I thought this opening chapter really good. Its structure was simple and brought out 11 various aspects of emphasis in respect of the term. Thus for example, if picked up the literalness of the term as well as drawing on some of the main features that distinguish it from modern art and some of the values and polemics that surround it as well as some of the main structural influences upon it.

In fact I could only think of two weaknesses in the approach:

Firstly the chapter did not pick up on technology. It appears to limit itself to an Economic/political interpretation (capitalism creates it own type of art that reflects changes within it) without exploring some of the technological issues such as the rise of digital or video art and it similarities and differences from other forms of contemporary art.

Secondly some of its focus seems to me to ignore continuity is traditions in much contemporary art. For example I think much art is still created in the modernist sense where formal composition and accepted conventions are applied. So for me this would be classified as contemporary modernist art whereas the removal of formal composition and or the attention to the photo as Simulacra would make it post modern.

However much of the chapter passed me by and I had particular difficulty understanding the point “ revolution in standstill”(page 18). I can see that much contemporary art positions itself as inclusive of non western culture and how that can disrupt versions of art history based on western perspectives, but just don’t get how this leads to a “revolution in standstill”.  I look forward to seeing whether these gaps in my understanding and omissions will be addressed in other chapters. For now though I will consider the points in relation to my own work.

How would I classify my work?
Even though almost all of my work has been created since 2009 I think my oeuvre is one that would be classified as modern rather than post modern because its approach is less a commentary on photography and follows the more traditional classical approaches to photography.  Of course, many of my photos depart from this but I am talking about my oeuvre as apposed to all my work. See On Redaction: Heaps And Wholes, or, Who Empties The Circular File?[3] for the distinction.


[1] R Howells and J Negreiros, Visual Culture, Published Polity Press 2012 (2nd edn)

[2] J Aranda, B K Wood, A Vidokle (eds) What is Contemporary Art?, Published by Sterberg Press, 2010

[3] A.D. Coleman, On Redaction: Heaps And Wholes, or, Who Empties The Circular File? in Depth of Field: Essays on Photography, Mass Media, and Lens Culture, Published by University of New Mexico Press 1998


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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