There is a good deal of confusion, it seems about just what contemporary art means. For example, a cartoon shows two people in a museum and one says to the other, “How can this be contemporary if it’s forty years old.” We have institutions like The Museum of Modern Art in New York City that shows contemporary art, in part. On the other hand, we have the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago that shows art “from the 1920’s to the present” including modern art. So wait a minute, are we talking contemporary or modern or are they synonymous? Colloquially, things are and have been for a while a bit of a mess. Modern is often used to indicate art done in a contemporary style. “Oh that’s too modern for my taste,” say the uneducated. On the other hand something contemporary is said to be anything done contemporaneously; work done in the 1940’s was contemporary for it’s time, so it is suggested the word has no real meaning.
Without stretching semantics and logic too far I think it’s time this get nailed down. I’ll go through a description in a sort of chronological manner as related to visual art and in a fairly Eurocentric manner since this is where the confusion seems to be centered, and because of the influence this sort of timeline has historically exerted on considerations of art done in other parts of the world. Note too that I’m not situating the artistic movements within these larger thematics as that’s not the question at hand.
Modern art relates to a movement known as Modernism. It is said to arise from a modern condition, basically following movements in Europe such as Romanticism. This dates it to the late 1800’s although the dominant discourses of the visual arts do not characterize Modernism as starting this early, even as Oscar Wilde had already announced the death of the modern in 1891, “It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned.” (From his The Decay of Lying, Intentions). As mentioned, for the purposes of visual art the general view is that the late 1800’s is a bit early for Modernism.
More properly for visual art Modernism arose in the early 20th Century, sometime around or after “the war to end all wars.” This genesis is generally characterized by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
One thing to remember is that Modernism as a taxonomic heading was never about a strict style, rather it was a broad designation for work that privileged the individual, the here and now, the new. It followed on the heels of industrialization and a war that in a sense forced upon people a new mindset allowing that the entire world could potentially be destroyed. In turn, Modernism reflected a new self-consciousness. For anyone with an interest in pursuing this further, I wholeheartedly recommend the brilliant book The Great War and Modern Memory by the late Paul Fussell. My goal is not to get deep into this here but to agree with those who date the advent of Modernism in the visual arts as somewhere around 1920.
Modernism is said reach a high point, I guess?, with the usage of the term High Modernism generally ascribed to the 1950’s into the 1960’s. Modernism continued until either about the late 1960’s or the mid to late 1980’s depending who you want to align with. The later you want to assign the end date, the more you will find the the term Late Modernism in use.
In the late 80’s the art worlds, plural, rose up and the underpinnings of art and art analysis changed fairly dramatically in a manner that transcended any particular style. Suddenly deconstruction, the looking at narratives, systems, structures and so forth underlying discourses was fore-fronted. History, timelines, and progress were seen as constructs of power and racism, rightly so for the most part. Thus, as all this came to the mainstage after Modernism the shift was called Post-Modernism.
As he recently passed away, October 13, 2019, I must nod to Charles Jencks whose book What is Post-Modernism? of 1986 was important in describing the new condition. In the book he chronicled a shift in philosophy, in thinking, and he tackled ideas of nihilism and in his view the possibility of new belief that had emerged/was emerging in the post-Fordist society. For our purposes Jencks’ thesis was that Post-Modernism could clearly be seen as something quite different from Modernism and Late-Modernism.
I suggest we go with about the mid 1980’s for Post-Modernism. An exemplar in art would be Jeff Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr. J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) made for his first solo exhibition in 1985 at the gallery named International With Monuments. Now, Wikipedia suggests that Postmodernism arose around 1940–1950 but in the world of visual art that’s not widely accepted. Based on Koons’ show, 1985 good enough date for the start of the movement, give or take a few years.
The nihilism that seemed to be inherent in Post-Modern discourses was a sticky point for many. Meaning and value must have some relevance in society and they couldn’t go with the view that everything could be seen as contextual and subjective. And so there was pushback. At first, artists who bucked Post-Modernism and all it brought into the art world dropped statements that they were “reinvestigating Modernism,” or “reinvigorating the Modernist project.” Well, the fact of the matter is that movement keeps moving and they ended up left behind.
Let’s let the amazing writer Elias Canetti have the last word on this: “A ‘modern’ man has nothing to add to modernism, if only because he has nothing to oppose it with. The well-adapted drop off the dead limb of time like lice.” (From his The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments).
It’s generally accepted that Post-Modernism sort of diminished about 2000 and for a few years everything in the visual art world seemed in limbo as the hangover of Y2K binge wore off.
So we landed on Post-Postmodernism, which never resonated on a large scale, mainly because it was often framed as another way of attempting to get back to some sort of Real, or Truth, or Faith, or anything but nihilism and contextualism. So while not particularly influential it’s there.
What really happened is that following Post-Modernism the world opened up in a more visible manner. The zillion people who had been disenfranchised and marginalized from dominant and hegemonic art world conversations showed up knocking at the door. Systems and structures of power were put under particular scrutiny, some opening up and dismantling occurred as a result, but the big institutions reacted for the most part by entrenching — in any case networks of huge amounts of money had to be be protected. For others it all felt too sudden yet, a) the global diversity of artists and their art had been there all along, and b) the struggles of these to achieve greater visibility had been a long time coming.
We’d reached a point of, to use the words of the brilliant philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, “anything goes.” If you want to follow up on this read his Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. It’s fantastic, and then recognize those who rail against Feyerabend’s work are primarily stuck on scientific bias for laws and truth to which art does not have to correspond.
We in the art world have a word for anything goes, it’s called Pluralism. Pluralism means that we have many centers, centers of power, centers of creation, etc and that all may be equally correct and valid. It means that now, any and every type of art, style, media, ways and means, criteria, are available for use with no one way privileged as correct. (Obviously the people most connected to the commodification of art frequently disagree). Pluralism in this sense could be seen as another form of nihilism, although Pluralism is not saying everything has no value, rather the opposite, that everything has value, almost at times down to the individual level. And to remind us, Pluralism in its broadest sense, sans terminology, in terms of artists doing everything everywhere, has gone on since day one of art making. Now that it’s become officially named, now that we’ve tasted the blood of Pluralism we won’t stop seeking it, doing it, recognizing it, performing it.
As a result, if you think this means there won’t be any more of the good old days characterized by single major movements that seem to be the only thing people did, you’re right. If we think back, it’s not that the entire world was under the spell of Impressionism, it’s that a few European generally male artists were selected in service of someone’s view of history and timeline, and we might follow the money here, in part because we know the majority of major Impressionist painters didn’t do a lick of real world work in their life, but had the luxury of just being able to paint all day. But we’ll just set that over there in the corner with the dead flies and move on.
Accelerationism et al.
Pluralism remains to tinge any future and yet art worlds shift as society shifts. New ideas appear and are reflected. People have attempted to come up with some term that characterizes what they see as the contemporary climate and the speculative future. Recent and current terms have included Post-Capitalism, or Hyper-Capitalism, and Hypermodern (See the work of philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky for the latter two). Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman began in the 1990’s to characterize Post-Modernism with the term “liquid.” He recognized that everything was changing. Normative master narratives and dominant paradigms no longer a) provided believable justification and b) answered the questions raised. Structures often did not result in intended outcomes.
Another attempt to get at the state of things was Accelerationism, promoted by philosophers such as Nick Land, Mark Fisher, Nick Srnicek, and Alex Williams, and I might add here Amanda Beech who is putting her own spin onto these discussions especially with respect to structures of art and it’s relationship to money and power. The general considerations of the Accelerationist thinkers have been around hypercommodification, hypercapitalist agendas, and what happens to them if they intensify, almost to the point of self-destruction (often seen as a good outcome in which society realigns to, in part, a greater ethical condition.)
So where do we end up. Yes, the beginning is near and the future is past. I find it immensely rewarding to grapple with the condition, what condition, this condition, the here and now condition as it emerges or is positioned in all its unclear, messy, contradictory, involvement with reality that contemporary thinkers are futilely, they know this too, attempting to formulate into concepts. If anything, this is contemporary. If anything, this contemporary is a blend of philosophy, political philosophy, and art tinged by a hint of futurology.
So to be clear, contemporary is anything and everything happening now. A contemporary artist is an artist living now and working now, but it’s more than this because an artist can easily redo Modernism, redo Matisse, redo old dead stuff from the past (I’m sort of referencing artist Urs Fischer who said he makes “stuff.”) However, an artist who is contemporary is NOT redoing the past. Or, if they are, it’s all meta, meaning they are purposefully interrogating that past from a perspective of distance and criticality that brings with it a dominant self-awareness. So in a large picture sense, contemporary is not redoing that which occurred before even if superficially spun as galvanism to make the frog legs of a dead movement jump a bit. Now, I’m a bit wary about defining contemporary in the negative, so this idea of what the contemporary looks like, what are markers we find with the contemporary will be the subject of another article.