Friday, 15 July 2011

TERRY SMITH - What is Contemporary Art?

Ordinarily I would not bother with an affliate of Critical Theory, much less a minor, cautious one, like Smith, since philosophical differences are so vast and familiar, there is little point. But since I have just spent time reviewing the state of art history as a discipline, ostensibly in defence of E. H. Gombrich (an article now on The Gombrich Archive site as a PDF - here) and since Smith at least claims to deal in art history, I take this opportunity to press several points made in the Gombrich essay concerning the folly of art history pursued as social science and the disadvantages to practising art history from too lofty a remove. And since Smith is a senior academic with a secure reputation, and the book was published in 2009, no real harm can come from a fairly robust examination here. This post is 4362 words.

What Is Contemporary Art? (here WICA) is a good example of art history poorly conceived, heavy on generalisation, a top-down analysis that proceeds from sociological claims, ideological commitments but light on stylistic or formal nuance and ultimately, sound argument, lucid exposition. ‘Contemporary Art’ is the book’s preferred term for a movement that succeeds Modernism (hence taken as a movement rather than period), in the 1980s, a period widely understood as Post Modernism (or Postmodernism). Although WICA occasionally acknowledges postmodernism as intellectual doctrine, and reluctantly acknowledges it as merely ‘an anachronism from the 1970s and 1980s’ [p.242] in its closing chapter, the persistent contrast for Contemporary Art is with Modernism, so that what is described as Contemporary is, for the most part, Post Modern in other accounts and gains little by another name. Smith is not alone in using Contemporary in this way, but he is in a minority. WICA declares its distance from stylistic matters firstly in the chapter headings, dealing with Museums, Spectacles, Markets, The Post-Colonial Turn and Times/Places. It is an institutional perspective, and a highly selective one, that never quite gets to grips with the works themselves, distracted by publicity and marketing but finally because the analytical tools are simply too broad.

The problem is only compounded by the name ‘Contemporary’, usually understood as a concern with the present, in the case of ‘contemporary’ as opposed to ‘modern’ museums, understood as including Modern and later, but mostly the terms are taken as synonymous, and museums of ‘modern’ art usually show Contemporary work as well. But Contemporary Art here is stretched to a trend that commences around 1950, with a commitment to ‘an ontology of the present’ in works by Lucio Fontana and similar (although Fontana usually taken as a Modernist) and this emergence goes unexamined. Contemporary Art supposedly then slowly eclipses Modernism by 1989 and continues to the present. But a transition covering forty odd years to allow a flowering of only twenty, argues more for continuity than change. So there is a structural problem here. To put it another way, a movement that keeps moving is not much use, ultimately lacks definition. If Contemporary Art properly starts around 1989 [p.256 allows that it is ‘unmistakeable’ since the 80s, although p.242 assigns the 80s to Post Modernism] then the book ought to have devoted at least one chapter to this decisive transition. As it is, there is only the sentence in a closing summary:

‘Geopolitical changes in the years around 1989 opened out a degree of access to societies closed for one or sometimes two generations. The work of unknown contemporaries became visible and the vanquished art of an earlier avant-garde became suddenly pertinent to current practice.’ [p.266].

But which current practice or practices find this suddenly pertinent? And how was this pertinence manifested? The New Leipzig School is sometimes cited as some such reconciliation to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but The New Leipzig School scarcely rates a mention, and is not widely recognised before 2000 in any case. And why is this decisive for a movement in train since 1950? Art history calls for a little more evidence, a little less rhetoric. If anything, WICA sometimes trips over its own rhetoric, as in a concluding definition: ‘Contemporary Art is the institutionalised network through which the art of today presents itself’ [p.241]. But if Contemporary Art is simply a network of institutions, why call it art? And if they are art, then what can ‘the art of today’ mean? Since, it is surely Contemporary as well? It is one of many clumsy formulations that do nothing to clarify or advance the book. ‘Contemporary’ is also crammed with three distinct connotations, firstly, immediacy or novelty, indicating a detachment from tradition, secondly, a recognition of ‘distinct temporalities’ at best glossed as ‘modes of being’ but given no further explanation beyond a nod to Heidegger and thirdly, a sense of being in step or ‘with’ time – although apart from the notion of feckless clock-watchers or chronic historicists, it is hard to know what such accompaniment might mean, what benefit it can possibly serve here. The existential tenor is obvious but none of these meanings are unpacked with any rigour or reward and as a consequence ‘Contemporary’, even before Art, is simply vague and unpersuasive. None turn out to have much bearing on the art taken as Contemporary anyway.

This distance and dissonance to framework only encourages easy and mostly wayward description. ‘Provocative testers, doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, tentative projections, diffident propositions or hopeful anticipations; these are the most common forms of art today’ [p.2]. The trouble is, they were also very common in Modernism, in the doubt and indeterminacy of Abstract Expressionism and more figurative work from the 50s, such as Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon or Larry Rivers, in the equivocation of Surrealism, the diffidence of Impressionism or Post Impressionism, the provocation of Dada or Realism, the hope of Romanticism or The Baroque. Provocation, doubt and hope are such vital emotions they are never far from any period of art, any movement or school, so in themselves, are trivial as defining features for Contemporary Art. And obviously, they are not necessarily forms at all, even of art, but apply equally to scientific or political activities, amongst others.

Although Contemporary Art is seen as succeeding Modernism and is contrasted throughout, at no point does the book trouble itself with an adequate definition of Modernism, puzzling in a publication anxious to cite precedent, vital given the diverse array of literature on the topic. As a consequence, further distinctions drawn, of Retro-sensationalism and Re-Modernism; (here taken as styles) only beg the question as to what these purportedly regressive tendencies appeal? Retro-sensationalism is seen as the comfortable institutional assimilation of ‘spectacle’ or perhaps scandal, and is exemplified by the work of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Julian Schnabel, but differences in era between Koons and Schnabel (emerging at the end of the 70s and start of the 80s) and Hirst and Murakami (the mid 90s) go unacknowledged and radical differences in medium and approach between Schnabel (Neo Expressionism) and others (conspicuous commission and fabrication) only cloud the issue of spectacle or scandal. What kind of spectacle is taken as authentic in Modernism, contrived in Contemporary Art? Publicity concerning the scale and price of works hardly constitutes a stylistic feature in any case. Nothing in the history of art museums indicates that these scandals are any less or less valid than earlier controversies concerning, for example, Jackson Pollock, Constantin Brancusi or Marcel Duchamp. Little, if anything, about scandal provides a useful characteristic of Modernism. If spectacles pass any quicker now, it is only because there are more institutions and more such controversial acceptances. Retro-sensationalism does not establish a useful trait for Contemporary Art because it does not look closely enough at the works nominated or long enough at spectacle in Modernism and before.

Re-Modernism fails - one is tempted to say more spectacularly - because it simply does not appreciate the continuity of tradition, the point of art history. Re-Modernism is taken as the prompt acceptance of works in light of earlier trends and the examples offered are again a perverse mix, Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra, tableau photographer Jeff Wall and German painter Gerhard Richter. Serra’s recent large-scale Minimalist works are no more than a steady development (to put it tactfully) of 60s concerns with modularity and installation or placement for industrial materials or forms and it is hard to see what more one could want from their significance, hard to know whether the book deplores the works or just their reputation. Wall’s large-format tableaux are usually distinguished from earlier trends in art photography, from urban reportage or street photography, from the ‘decisive moment’ of a yet earlier generation for example, and in contrast with commercial practices, particularly advertising. Nothing in this careful acceptance inflates or diminishes their impact or importance. Richter’s oscillation between works that take photographic blurring as inspiration and abstract works that exploit related mixing or blurring are rightly seen as a development that departs from Pop Art, converges with Abstraction and arrives at a troubling new territory, usually considered Post-Modern.

Re-Modernism does not identify a valid feature of Contemporary Art because some continuity is only to be expected if Contemporary Art is to be recognised as art. But the book does not even apply Re-modernism consistently. WICA declares video and installation as vital to Contemporary Art but video and installation also have their precedents in Modernism (as a period), gain acceptance just as much for their debt to tradition. Yet the book sees nothing retrograde or conservative in such practices, but again, cannot qualify in what ways Contemporary installation differs from Modernist installations, by say, Claes Oldenburg, Christo or Jannis Kounellis, how Contemporary video differs from that of Nam Jun Paik or Bruce Nauman, for instance. To say they are merely more Contemporary, again begs a definition of Modernism. The real issue here - and the crux of art history - is deciding how far a development consolidates or expands a style, before the style itself becomes too diffuse or unwieldy as a classification and at which point a given development is better considered a separate style. On the one hand, the art historian is typically anxious to preserve a tradition, trace its growth, on the other, sooner or later must introduce significant qualification in order to maintain coherence or convenience to tradition. It is a two-way adjustment, tradition itself calls for a little rebuilding as it accommodates new branches, or tracing a style requires a little back tracking. To acknowledge Richter’s contribution by noting its origins in Pop Art, grants Pop Art crucial projection to subsequent developments but in no way diminishes the importance of a later style, on the contrary, legitimises its standing, to some extent redefines Pop Art. WICA can see only a prolongation of Modernism in such developments [p.7, 28] but this is largely because it has such a loose grasp of Modernism and is finally indifferent to the demands of art history in the interests of pursuing social history.

This indifference also registers in the sweeping assertion that ‘nothing has succeeded Minimalism and Conceptualism as art styles’ [p.245], blithely ignoring Photo-Realism, Pattern and Decoration (P&D), Bad Painting, New Image Painting, Neo-Geo, Neo Expressionism, its German counterpart – Die Neue Wilden – the Italian, Transavantgarde, later refinements such as New Image Glasgow Painting, Hypermannerism and the Berlin-Braunsweig Group, to name a few. While some of these may seem minor or peripheral to the art historian devoted to New York orthodoxy, in a history stressing a global framework and ‘co-temporal’ currents, it is an embarrassing admission, a damaging omission. Significantly, most of these styles focus on painting which plays little part in Contemporary Art, beyond Schnabel or Richter’s troubling reminders of Modernism, perhaps Marlene Dumas' feminist and Post-Colonial credentials [p. 236] and Australian Aboriginal abstraction. But this to exclude the contributions of figures such as Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Brice Marden, Jonathan Lasker, Lari Pittman and Philip Taaffe. Presumably, they too merely echo Modernism, where Modernism is lazily conceived. Indeed, even Neo Expressionism, in spite of its name, is far from just a revival, introducing a more radical concern with allegory, metaphor and parody, a style less concerned with primitivism and myth than satire and graffiti. Elsewhere, the only mention of Luc Tuymans or Neo Rauch arises in discussion of museum themes and marketing. Again, this only demonstrates the inadequacy of WICA as art history, the flaws to Contemporary Art as a movement.

WICA is more concerned with the politics of biennales and the purported rising influence of non-western and oppressed nations upon a global art world. It is described as a Post-Colonial Turn. Most nations have been colonised at some stage, obviously, but only the more recent are eligible for this. While such regular art surveys are unquestionably a feature of today’s art world, whether they do more than export the fashions of the centre to peripheries remains moot. Granting local versions of established styles some new merit on the strength of political or cultural content is strictly no longer the concern of art history. But where art history is confused with these judgements, some scrutiny is warranted. The book initially declares a disinterest in styles for the Post-Colonial Turn [p.7] (always a concern in a work aspiring to art history) but later, in response to criticism of the didacticism and vulgarity of much Post-Colonial work, it claims a ‘new aesthetic’ is being forged, in which careful metaphor is rejected in favour of a more direct immersion in ‘the fresh beauties of animality’ [pp. 184-5]. Where critics censure crass propaganda, WICA appeals to a vivid immediacy, and elsewhere endorses a mystification of exotic cultures [p.186] as natural or ‘unmediated’ [p.157]. These are foolish myths. Actually, the preference for explicit political content in Post-Colonial works looks strikingly like a mirror image of Retro-sensationalism. Where Hirst or Koons brazenly extol management, commission and investment and are deemed hopelessly conservative, Post-Colonial artists bluntly endorse local resources, independence and egalitarianism and are seen as doggedly progressive. In both cases the work is rightly deplored as superficial, entirely dependent upon initial impact or ‘instantaneity’ [p.197]. But in the latter case, WICA accepts it as politically desirable, a dutiful reflection upon their Hegelian ‘world picture’. But on art historical terms, it is simply hypocrisy.

The problem is WICA gets ahead of itself, an old problem in art history, and fatally overreaches. It wants its ‘world picture’ reflected in art, as if art, by definition, could do otherwise, or were not part of the world. And when art does not reflect the official world picture, it cannot accept it as art or that there is not one true world picture. This attitude is flagged in remarks like ‘art that does not address the challenges of contemporaneity falls into irrelevance’ [p.225] and of course, ‘contemporaneity’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it is more than an acceptance of the great ‘unfolding’ of ‘the world’s history’ [p.4] where it pre-empts standards for art and interpretation in a bid to obtain a suitable reflection of the prescribed world. In the chapter, Art, Truth, and Politics, the distinction between art and politics is characterised more or less as the aesthete’s aversion to pedestrian social agendas versus the social worker’s suspicion of obscure artiness. Ultimately, art is not politics; politics is not art. The book acknowledges the problem but can only wish it away as somehow ‘inappropriate’ – although inconvenient might be more to the point – a nagging qualm that ‘blinkers’ both sides to the greater glory of Contemporary Art [p.237]. Illustrated examples are taken as ‘true’ in their form or ‘surfaces’, as well as their deeper implications, their profound world picture. But for many, the experience of such works is typically heavy-handed and predictable, no matter how laudable the sentiments. The fact is WICA can only accept such attractive surfaces where they easily allude to the deeper world picture, or where the world picture is shallow enough to be grasped from a friendly surface. But for even the most contemporary of aesthetes, it is precisely the difficulty or complexity - even the delicacy, the richness and strangeness - of cultural reference, that recommends a work as art, and such short cuts, no matter how pragmatic or political, consign it to mere communication, advertising or record. WICA again, wants it both ways, here as art and as politics, and once more the compromise satisfies neither.

Given these commitments, it is hardly surprising that discussion of assemblage and video is soon reduced to just their content and content understood as ‘the ontology of the present’ [p.225], which, in spite of Frederic Jameson’s lofty phrase, amounts to just a timely world picture, critical of oppressive institutions, but stopping short of biennales. What is surprising is that the book sees no impoverishment to forms in this vault to cultural policy. It is not that the works necessarily lack subtlety or ambiguity, but that WICA simply has no patience with such ‘aesthetic’ interpretation. It is strictly a nicety to the ‘unfolding’, and commensurably simplistic world picture. Similarly, it is a little puzzling to find talk of ‘already-mediated imagery’ [p.225] – as if there were another kind. What the passage ought to be describing is quotation between media and contexts (a special class of reference), but the implication in its phrasing is that there is a world preceding its media, that there is media not ‘already always’ owned by this world. For the diligent art historian, this has been comprehensively established since E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, but as noted, WICA’s inclinations lie elsewhere, and content free of form, forms awaiting content in the great unfolding of history are another convenient myth.

The same carelessness finds common cause with Nicolas Bourriaud’s noted advocacy for installation and site-specific works, Relational Aesthetics. Relational Aesthetics at least recognises the need for a distinction to be drawn between Modernist installation and Post Modernist or Contemporary versions, but scarcely pursues it with any rigour. WICA quotes the passage: ‘While the exhibition site constituted a medium in and of itself for Conceptual artists, it has today become a place of production like any other’ [p.90] Setting aside the fact that Conceptual artists never displayed exhibition sites ‘in and of themselves’ (some addition or alteration was always needed) what, in any case, is the difference between a ‘medium’ and a ‘place of production’? A medium conveys information and is surely a part of ‘the place of production’ of meaning. If the sense is that the exhibition site is now more like a studio, in which the work is assembled, this would not be sufficient either, for Modernist installations such as those of Arman (Le Plein, 1960) or ‘scatter pieces' by Carl Andre, Richard Serra or Robert Morris, were also assembled on site, while many Contemporary installations require additional fabrication ‘off-site’. The problem is Relational Aesthetics is not really interested in form either, or rather, is only interested in it on a sociological level. But in its haste to survey the scope of later installation it too overreaches. A second passage quoted in WICA declares: ‘Every artist whose work stems from relational aesthetics has a world of forms, a set of problems and a trajectory which are all his own. They are not connected together by any style, theme, or iconography’ [p.262]. This is frankly naïve. The fact that later installation draws on the precedent of earlier installation necessarily determines forms, problems and a trajectory to some extent. The fact that such artists embrace social interaction ensures that the work is never entirely their ‘own’ and there are no forms, problems or trajectory that do not inherit a style, theme and iconography. Indeed, Relational Aesthetics virtually concedes the stylistic debt in the closing sentence to the quote by drawing a parallel between the so-called ‘relational sphere’ of materials: ‘which is to today’s art what mass production was to Pop Art and Minimal Art’ [p.262]. There would be some point to examining more closely what parts or kinds of mass production were used in these styles and what licence this then grants later works, especially installations, and this is properly the job of the art historian, but neither WICA nor Relational Aesthetics are particularly interested in the spadework, their ambitions really lie with social science and an altogether more idealistic agenda.

WICA’s account of the emergence of Contemporary video is even more expansive, even less convincing [pp.193-215]. Commencing with sundry musings on the time taken in looking at works, it proposes a relativism of time – Modernist time, Post-Colonial time, Greenwich meantime. Typically, the terms are too gross to gain any purchase, or to justify prominence for video in Contemporary Art, although video undeniably plays a part in recent art. WICA’s argument for multiple temporalities as distinctive, ignores the cinema’s many contributions, from Intolerance to Last Year at Marienbad and the cinema’s crucial place in Modernism as well as traditional concerns with multiple temporality (surveyed in, for example, Nelson Goodman, 1984, pp. 108-122). The closing remarks to the chapter that misguidedly appeal to Albert Einstein are again, wide of the mark: ‘One hundred years after Einstein’s breakthrough understanding that the world’s time is, at its extremities, multiple, relative and fungible, contemporary artists are showing that these strange aberrations now characterise what has become the contemporary world’s ‘normal’ experience of time’ [p.215]. But this radical relativism ignores the fact that it is only at a sub-atomic or macro-cosmic level that unitary time and space collapse – for the vast stretch in between, in which worlds operate, it remains reliably one-way and singular – even when allowing multiple calendars, various location. Nothing in Einstein’s discovery sanctions the concern with slow motion seen as conspicuously Contemporary, little in relativity explains the vital link between Video and Performance Art.

Far more to the point would be to consider the importance of spatial circumstance to Video Art, the impact of screen content upon awareness of surrounding décor and accompanying mood, conversely, the influence of setting upon awareness of screen content. These are interests that have bonded video and installation together for some time, determining number and placement of screens, obstacles or furniture to viewer (number or absence of viewers), qualities or settings to picture and sound, and all or some are demonstrated in work ranging from artists such as Matthew Barney through to Shirin Neshat. Consideration of these formal aspects allows the art historian to trace developments in technology, more elaborate settings, more elaborate recordings, whether quoting factual or fictive sources, whether constructing more elaborate metaphor and other reference in screen work. Convenient classes by this are called styles. But where the art historian is instead content to launch into dubious metaphysics of being and time, meaning is pre-empted when not forestalled, delicacy and discernment sacrificed for political expediency and art history exchanged for social programme. But this refusal to properly secure the present to the past, and make art history, only prolongs the pain, confuses the task.

The trouble is WICA cannot resist the siren call of the future, the historicism that lurks in its craving for ‘historical currents’ [p.246] the need to predict and pre-empt ‘long-term’[p.252] future value, (‘the future is already with is’ [p.263]) the fear that a canon is too conservative for ‘historical forces’ [p.253]. This regression to Hegelian idealism is wholly untoward, the appeal to thoroughly discredited ‘dialectics’ [p. 262, p.268] frankly embarrassing. WICA’s tortured meaning to the name Contemporary, that cannot save it from banality and standard usage, its incoherent justification for a movement on art historical terms, its dread of tradition and flight to the future, its blindness to significant changes in painting, beyond political correctness, its impatience and insensitivity to style and interpretation, its stunted and stumbling account of installation and video, all demonstrate the poverty to its historicism, the paucity of the undertaking. There is quite simply nothing to recommend this book beyond a cautionary tale of a generation of art historians distracted by philosophy, hostage to the dogma of their youth and security of tenure, that then turn around and complain that there are no styles to art of the past twenty years, as if styles were self-evident or meant to announce themselves, and that it is all too much.

It is a deeply depressing read. Ultimately, it is a hymn to subsidised institutions and a clique of cultural commissars, conducting their global network of biennales, enforcing a spurious consensus in tastes, conformity in ideology and pretending that the market and crass profit are merely the trappings of tradition and have nothing to do with their higher calling. It is a vain conceit. But where WICA picks and chooses between Documentas and Biennales to engineer evidence for the prevalence of Post-Colonialism or the dominance of video, it is simply dishonest, and where Contemporary Art is only to be confirmed by a contemporaneous and co-temporal instance of contemporaneity, we have a cosy circle, not so much vicious as complacent, not so much lazy as self-indulgent. Thus WICA’s perverse abbreviation of the term Young British Artists as yBas, when the group is properly abbreviated as YBA (see Oxford University Press, MOMA NY and The Tate) respects neither standard usage nor rule for acronyms, but flags a petty self-exciter at a safe remove. Similarly, the term ‘politically correct’ is reversed [p.234] without adding more than silly affectation and when review of rival histories proves a bit of a chore, the critical array is reduced, not just to authors, but quickly to only the publishing houses Taschen and Blackwell [p.258]. A footnote adds two more. But each short cut adds to the impression of a project stretched beyond competence, bored with the devilish details, smug in its standing. It is not a book that will be read widely and it is not a book that deserves to be.

Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, 344 pp. ISBN: 13-978-0-226-76431-3.
E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, Phaidon, 1960 386 pp, ISBN: 0-7148-1756-2
Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel, 1998, 125 pp. ISBN-10: 2840660601
Nelson Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, Harvard University Press, 1984, 210 pp. ISBN: 0-674-63126-9