E-FLUX JOURNAL’s influential What is Contemporary Art? was published in Berlin and New York in 2010. The arguments put forth in this well-received book, featuring high-profile critics, creates a striking contrast with a number of recent Los Angeles gallery exhibitions, raising the question about what the differences between theorists and practitioners have to tell us about contemporary art. Without setting up a reductive binarism, I see a space between makers and theorists, one that started after the eclipse of the “Pictures” generation, for whom the two realms were so intimately bound together in the 1980s. We have no unifying historical narrative for contemporary art, and no particular coherence becomes apparent in the current field if you look at the range of styles, media, subjects, and formats that appear in exhibitions at every scale and every kind of venue. Still, we have an intuitive sense of what is current, what feels like it is part of the “present”; though if pressed, we might find it hard to define exactly what it is that makes today’s works so — well, what they are.
But then, isn’t this usually the case? You can tell the decade of a textile when you find it on a rack at the flea market, but the year the garment was made it probably just looked like what everyone was wearing. One of the effects of history is that it makes sense of the disorderly clutter of lived experience and then passes that coherence off as if it were a record of what happened. Only later can you realize what was significant or characteristic of a phase of your life or that of the culture — and even that is an effect of selective remembering (well known to therapists as well as critical historians).
So the fact that the authors in the e-flux anthology express their anxiety about the difficulties of periodization through their reflections on the intractable nature of the “now,” wringing their hands over the amorphousness of “the contemporary,” its distance from the time when seemingly bounded “movements” characterized a succession of stylistic (often generational) revolutions in art production doesn’t, at first, seem surprising. They worry over the fate of the political and activist work that once seemed central to modernism, reluctantly admitting that fine art is no longer the special realm of “negativity” and resistance, but a major culture industry institutionalized by international fairs, blockbusters, annual, and biennial extravaganzas, straddling the space between entertainment and elite consumerism. Who can blame them?
Reading through these essays, however, you begin to feel that their concern taps larger cultural fears. “The contemporary” they are referencing isn’t really art, but the terrifyingly intractable era of seemingly unstoppable neoliberalism and global stresses, though they never say so. Inspired by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s reifying question, “What is the contemporary?” the authors (all figures active in the art history-criticism-curatorial circuit) produce their musings without reference to works of art. This conspicuous absence provokes questions about the authority and value of artists in such crucial conversations. Putting aesthetic works back into the discussion might make clear that what is being thought in contemporary art has something of substance to offer to what is being said about contemporary art. So let’s look at the texts and tenets of this rich critical discussion and then extend it through analysis of a handful of exhibitions or projects by artists recently on view in Los Angeles.
The publication of What is Contemporary Art?, which appeared first as two issues of e-flux journal (then was republished by Sternberg Press), generated a healthy flurry of attention. Originally a lecture series organized by Anton Vidokle at SH Contemporary in Shanghai in the fall of 2009, the anthology’s high profile has something to do with the status of the writers, but also with a desire, perhaps, to come to terms with a pervasive concern about what is no longer sustainable within our systems of belief — in the utopian aspirations, political agendas, and the vitality of artistic innovation that, presumably, has been part of modern art since romanticism.
The anxiety produced by these reflections is real, and the range of voices creates a strong intersection of observations from very specific and different places — culturally and geographically. The collection features writers from Delhi, Mexico City, Ljubljana, Jena, and Beijing along with those in London, New York, and Berlin. They are all aware of the tensions among global, national, and local identities contested through a trade-off among traditional, indigenous, and international characteristics. As the editors write in their introduction, “[We] certainly do not miss the old power centers and master narratives.” Still, for all the apparent diversity, the representative demographics, this group shares a common critical platform, for the most part schooled through the same assumptions about modernism as heroic, utopian, and now failed that inform their stance and give it more homogeneity than not. (Counter-narratives to this line have not been part of the high art history critical paradigm, narratives in which, for instance, mass media are central to rather than opposed to its aesthetic ambitions, or in which, rather than critical politics, domesticity and pleasure play a major role in its production and consumption. But that is another story.)
As to the artists and their cultural location, contributor Carol Yinghua Lu’s discussion of changed attitudes among Chinese artists towards their own potential for international status over the last quarter of a century is striking, and poignant. Once resigned to marginalization, they now aspire to all the entitlements of citizenship in the paparazzi glare of the international art world. A full generation has come of age in the shifting political climates and polar reversals in Chinese culture since the Tiananmen Square events in 1989. But does the end of provincialism come at the cost of a new kind of colonization, the march of celebrity culture into interiors (countries, neighborhoods, lives) from which it was once remote? Might the price of participation in an international discourse be adherence to a formulaic party line in which the highest praise for an artist is tagging them with the term “political” without questioning what that means?
A few consistent themes weave through the anthology. The first, already mentioned, is that we have no common historical grid on which to locate “contemporary art.” Whether we see it as the successor to mid-20th-century modernism, as what comes after the now fully periodized pop, minimalist, and conceptualist movements, or as whatever follows postmodernism doesn’t matter. By definition the present is that elusive condition that can’t be defined except as what we are doing — a theme that is cycled and recycled through these pieces without, of course, any resolution. Critical dismantling of the modern enterprise is an old project, and the extended discussion of successive moments in art history seems a bit retro as a starting point for discussion, a kind of dodge of the real issues that drive this book.
Of these, the most persistent is the demise of the political efficacy of art and the reduced impact of activist artistic work. “Never, since the advent of historical relativism at the end of the 18th century has the art of the day had a less contentious social reception,” writes Cuauhtémoc Medina. He goes on to characterize contemporary art as “aristocratic populism” in which “a temporal rift between radical aesthetics and social mores no longer exists.” His formulation of “Eleven Theses” describe a condition in which “cultural industries grow up around the former citadel of negativity” and “fine art is replaced by something that already occupies an intermediary region between elite entertainment and mass culture.” Nostalgia creates bad history. Did fine art ever really perform its negativity with real political effect? What percentage of art made, consumed, enjoyed, exhibited, even written about by contemporaries, was edgy and revolutionary? That a modern history of art focused on these works distorts the historical past in ways that serve a particular critical reading to which we may be favorably inclined. But the percentage of cultural bandwidth occupied by radical work has always been smaller than that of entertainment, even if the scale has changed. And “radical” or “subversive” attached as attributes to works of art are not necessarily indicators of political impact.
The Russian futurists, Dada Cabaret, shock effect of Marinetti’s manifesto, surrealist cinema, the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett were indisputably “negative” in the sense that Theodor Adorno advocated (resistant and difficult) — but they were also largely staged within the systems of cultural production that are the esoteric aesthetic arm of an extant culture industry in Western culture. The double bind is inescapable — for work to register within the contexts where cultural value is produced, it has to have an already at least partially complicit relation with these conditions.
But to a great extent, these critics are engaged with an analysis of the failings of contemporary culture, for which art provides a crucial case, rather than tracking the condition of art — and this is the missed opportunity the second part of my essay confronts. The contributors note changes in the political climate across the decades; these become the explanatory frameworks for our current condition in aesthetic, political, and cultural realms. Thus Medina refers to 1968, and other writers cite milestones that mark the gradual change brought by broadly significant cultural events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the pernicious neoliberalism that has seeped into common culture, and the various cycles of repression that have marked Chinese, Russian, and other regimes. Against such a background, Martha Rosler rehearses the familiar history of avant-garde movements and agendas, succinctly outlining the repeated rise and fall of utopian optimism, activism, and defeat in her inquiry into the ways art first came to be “characterized by a critical dimension.” The move to abandon “critique” (that of the critic as well as the artist) as a futile and often fully pretentious stance is reinforced by her citation of the work of the collective group Resistantbul Commissariat of Culture: “We have to stop pretending that the popularity of politically engaged art within museums and markets over the last few years has anything to do with really changing the world.” Indeed.
Still, the writers here labor under a shadow and within a paradigm. Ever since Timothy J. Clark’s mournful Farewell to an Idea echoed the sentiments of the late, truly great, art historian Meyer Schapiro’s statement that his life’s greatest regret was “the failure of socialism,” the collective sense of loss with regard to modernism’s optimism has threaded through the critical discourse on contemporary art. Even if we share the sentiment, and despair what it produces, we need not agree with the historical analyses on which it was construed. Most of the authors in What is Contemporary Art? had a common art historical training, echoed by Rosler’s (and others) outline of the tenets and terms of the avant-garde from the early 20th century onward. Where are the struggles and barricades of yesteryear?
But modernism was not only and exclusively the avant-garde, nor is the history of modern art really filled with tales of political change and transformation — except of the aesthetic domain. We may want to lay claim to dissidents in the name of (or as practitioners of) aesthetics, but the tanks roll on undeterred. It’s not that noise from the white cube or performance space doesn’t matter, just that it really does not matter very much, even when posed in a community setting. (See Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells for a mordant analysis of the claims of relational and public activist art.) Ai Weiwei’s smart and funny obscene finger gestures may point at the White House and at the site of a martyrdom, but it’s the real trouble he gets into that makes him effective as an activist, ensnares him in the system he is keen to expose and dismantle so courageously. That kind of strategic intervention in the machinations of power is rare for all kinds of reasons.
We want to tread carefully here, however. Asking, “How radical was the avant-garde?” can be a convenient way to erase the commitments of serious artists across generations of engagement — just as asking “What happened to the utopian dream?” promotes a false sense that modern art was somehow on the path to bring it about. Collective regret, disappointment, fall from faith, and shaken belief are all merited in our time. The difficulty of imagining a world in which artists effect a utopian transformation still has to be reconciled, however, with the reality of what art does that is transformational — which is to contribute to a collective discourse through imaginative work that reconfigures our understanding of what we imagine the real to be. This may be merely a rehash of Louis Althusser, linked to an earnest belief in the romantic ideology, but the alternatives are fairly unsavory: give in to unqualified entrepreneurialism, live mourning an idealized past, or play an endless game of theoretically formulated deferral as if it were not possible to derive any specific insight from actual works. This is where I disagree with my colleagues most profoundly.
None of the authors in this collection are ready, fortunately, to give up entirely on the potential of art to perform some unique role in the culture. Jorge Heiser introduces his excellent discussion of the movements of the 1960s (the “last period” in which defined movements existed) by contrasting “the often blunt commodification of art” and “the extremely heterogeneous, fragile practice of creating art.” Heiser reconciles his narrative of the fall of art, shared by his fellow authors, with a useful suggestion that the “diagnosis of a ‘corruption’ of art by its conditions in capitalist society is to be taken as a starting point, not as the reason to bewail a final stage.” Well positioned as they are to observe the museum-art fair-biennial phenomena — where “institutional critique” has been a popular trend in art practice, as well as critical writing — these critics flesh out this theme with vigor. Observations about complicity with markets, complexity of celebrity production, and contradictions that abound in the capitalization of art production and/or its own generation of profit margins are hardly news. I explored these phenomena at length in Sweet Dreams, for instance, published seven years ago. But the reflections here show signs (at last) of broad-based coming to terms within the field.
The refrain of “what is the contemporary” wears thin. Boris Groys explores the problematic character of a “presence of the present” that is at once “uncorrupted by past traditions or strategies aiming at success in the future.” This limbo of amnesiac suspension has metaphysical dimensions, and here the texts risk an attack of sophomoric vapors. In ironic use of the words “Comrades of Time” in his title, Groys keeps Russian-Soviet references in view, even as he links the problematics of periodizing the present to the Sisyphean “aimless senseless task” of “non-productive practice” as “a prototype for contemporary time-based art” — which he suggests is resistant to the creation of any “final product” that might have value in the economic sense.
The celebration of repetitive work, outside the systems of production, is echoed in the Raqs Media Collective’s promotion of forgetting and the impossibility of forgetting at the same time. The basic equivocation about being in and of a time and not wanting to or believing one can characterize it comes up over and over again, not always with major insight. Hans Ulrich Obrist, linking the term “contemporary” to its original medieval formulation, says it may “imply a before and an after,” but the impossibility of figuring all this out merely results in “interminable wrangling.” Indeed. The sense of futility is palpable, alongside a Beckettian persistence: can’t go on, will go on. The continuously acknowledged failure to grasp, define, delimit, even grok “the contemporary” is the overarching, frankly tedious, leitmotif and theme of too many of these texts.
But as mentioned at the outset, the lacuna at the center of this book, and present in almost every one of these essays, is the direct engagement with contemporary works of art. This absence turns out to be justified, ostensibly, by an intellectual pedigree sketched as indisputable in the anthology. Dieter Roelstraete, in his essay subtitled “The View from Jena,” makes clear that German idealist philosophy had no use for the particularities of actual works of art in formulating a philosophical value for aesthetics. The aesthetic was by necessity an abstract category whose purpose was to secure a particular kind of knowledge for philosophy — to serve, even, as its quintessential distinguishing feature. It provided to philosophy “a precisely delineated [...] concept that is absolutely distinct from the general notion of culture.”
Philosophy needed aesthetics as its paradigmatic formulation, but neither Immanuel Kant nor Fredrich W. Hegel, Roelstraete notes, made any “references to actual artworks produced in their lifetime.” The drive to make a connection between “the supersensible” and “the concept of freedom that contains practicality” (Kant) or to push “beyond representation” towards “absolute spirit” (Hegel) would “turn into a mere ghost if it were not for its having passed through the moment of the aesthetic, its phenomenal appearance in art, ‘the sensory appearance of the Idea.’” But this abstraction into idea, even in its full recognition of “real events,” is a far cry from direct involvement with objects and their wonderfully messy, real specificity. That messiness, that entanglement with the grounds from which art figures forth by remaking experience into form, is what makes artwork interesting in ways that philosophy is not. Let’s see why.
Start with Robert Russell’s installation of an incomplete grid of canvases, portraying faces belonging to men with the same name as the artist. Culled from a Google image search, the portraits are at once a wry witness to the insecurity of identity and a comment on the ways current engagements with networked technology shift the scale of age-old philosophical conundrums. The privilege of naming belonged to Adam, in biblical lore, and the slippery connection between a moniker and a face (or a name and an entity) has been the subject of philosophizing in the West from the work of Plato in the Phaedrus to the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein (that rose), through modern theorists of the relation of text to image. But although Russell’s paintings might reference these profundities, they are also skimming the surface of daily banalities — the Google search is this era’s cliché substitute for an earlier generation’s consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the go-to first authority in any quest. But consulting the oracle of Google has a free-range haphazardness that was never part of encountering the venerable OED. When we click on “Search” we have the slot machine gambler’s satisfaction of watching the results line up in the rows of eclectic display, not an erudite selection of well-researched and vetted information.
And this is obviously related: we no longer seek our identity inwardly. As Boris Groys had noted in “Comrades of Time,” the vita contemplativa is a thing of the past. But instead of the vita activa that Groys suggests has taken its place, we see here that a vita coniunctum, a life-as-networked connections, produces identity through the social life of constant information exchange. Thus the installation is not just a study of other Robert Russell faces, not just a case study of distributed heterogeneous identity. The work stems from the networked condition of data and the mediation of image/text through algorithmic processing. With easy access to the population base as database that can be searched in response to a query, the question of likeness disappears within the simulacral field in which reference plays only an associative, not an authenticating, role.
Whether any actual Robert Russells exist matters far less than that the search terms bring this set of images into view as a collection whose relation is arbitrary and determined at the same time, made as a collection by virtue of some tags and metadata in alphanumeric code that enables the search engine to extract them from the infinitude (or at least, plenitude) of headshots of men that exist online. These are not paintings of men, or of photographs of their faces, or even photographs of portraits remade into paintings. These are renderings of a pixilated field of search results on a screen, radically remediated half a dozen times — from person to photo to scan and/or digital file to browser-enabled image to screen display. They are images of images of images in an iterative regress, not so much simulacral as systemic.
The issue posed by Russell’s project is that of the status of images in current culture, the terms on which we recognize and process information-as-image according to codes that disappear through their familiarity. Just as Technicolor and old black-and-white snapshots of an earlier era speak through the semiotics of their production, identifying the terms of “realism” that now appear as quaint as miniature portraits enameled in lockets, so the onscreen images that pass for “natural” will quickly assume a historicity that is not quite graspable in this moment. Russell shows this by rendering media as well as imagery. Our history consists in part in the history of forms with which we represent it. We just can’t see the specific properties of the present until it passes, until it shifts enough out of phase to offer a parallax view, some distance, the reifying effect of then in relation to now. But we can get hold of what is current by noting those particular ways of imaging that could not have been thought in another era. Russell’s project embodies this moment’s particularity through what it takes for granted as much as through what it exposes deliberately and calls to attention.
The incidental and apparent are what turn out to be most dramatically specific to the moment — as Charles Baudelaire knew full well when writing “The Painter of Modern Life” (1860), using Constantin Guys, the fashion illustrator, as his quintessential artist. He knew a host of painters and photographers of high repute (Edouard Manet was a close friend and companion at the time, Nadar produced the iconic portrait of the poet). But Baudelaire described the fleeting codes of visuality characteristic of modernity — “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” — by referencing Guys’s sketches of this year’s flounce and bustle shape, because they were indicative of the very ephemerality of consensual knowledge shared through visual media. Fashion is always specific and thus becomes characteristic — the ubiquitous black leggings of our times will be seen as so 2010s — but the media of communicative exchange will age just as dramatically. Russell’s paintings provide a take as particular to our “now” as Guys’s illustrations were to his, because both were produced in the systems of media and image exchange of which they were a part. Seen that way, fine art is part of the cultural eco-system, not an expression of something, but an active participant in networks of symbolic exchange.
Artists still manage (in spite of their MFA training and the orthodoxy of the academy) to surprise us with invention. (Critics more rarely.) This, above all, is the fact that creates a space for insight in the culture at large. The critical apprehension of “the contemporary” feels anemic unless it engages with the vitality of artistic practice, with artist’s thought, as a few other quickly sketched examples show. Jonathan Cecil’s The Faces of Los Angeles (2011) makes use of face recognition software to process the landscapes of the city through aerial views. The work raises a range of compelling issues about how we think about what knowledge is, what visuality does when processed through computational modes, and how figures of identity are configured and emergent rather than essential givens within systems of legibility, human and machinic. The piece contrasts with Russell’s, inverting the notion of “face” as an a priori entity.
Though it’s unfair to treat them so cursorily, here’s a quick annotated list of remarkable artists and their works to just give a hint of how contemporaneity is being manifested by them. Jennifer Steinkamp’s movingly beautiful models of artificial life forms, algorithmically produced trees and matrices, caught in their loops of regeneration and repetitive motion, suspend time and unravel it simultaneously. They reference an extended engagement with the pastoral while pushing the limit of grounds on which we perceive something as living or not. Brian Bress, creating his images from the “other” side of the glass (not the viewer’s), uses a framed video to flatten the space of a performance into a plane whose surface is being reshaped, cut, remade as a painterly image. Bress’s work is a wry meta-commentary on the nature of painting as flatness made with striking iconographic imagery (himself in mask and striking costume) that feels threatening and sinister in its Bert-and-Ernie-gone-postal formulation. Chris Engman’s hypnotizing video, Pursuit, tracks a piece of paper caught like an errant tumble weed in desert breezes across the parched, crackled dirt of Death Valley. (In the exhibition “The Road.”) Pointless, poetic, funny, the piece is anti-monumental and absorptive. The traditions of minimalist filmmaking and site specific land art are fully present references, but the informality of Engman’s piece and its DIY feel undercut any pretentiousness in favor of a “look at this” attitude that is fully, oddly, quirkily engaging. Alison O’Daniel’s sophisticated “Quasi Closed Captions” take up the assemblage techniques of Bruce Connor, Robert Gober, Jessica Stockholder, and others in a long tradition — back to Jean (Hans) Arp and Sophie Taeuber — but she has refined that vocabulary into a kind of exquisiteness that distinguishes her works so they remake our perception of the physical space through the formal conditions of installation.
Each of these artists is making work that articulates a specific formulation of contemporaneity. However conceptual it might be, their work is thought rendered as form, made to provide and provoke experience. Direct engagement with such work is an experience of what is contemporary about contemporary art. Perhaps, as Plato knew by outlawing poets and painters from his Republic, artists do have knowledge that threatens the authority of philosophy. Certainly the authority of contemporary art resides as much in these works and artists as in critical writings, and when they are put into dialogue, the ground shifts, and the map emerges from the territory rather than being imposed upon it. As Hu Fang, another anthology contributor, writes imagining the near future, “artists will be more engaged in life — no longer a solidified reality with an original single meaning, but as a continuous flowing process.” Artists don’t make pictures of life, but representations of the relationship we have to it.
Without doubt, we are in an era of pervasive conceptualism, though it was not always popular to say so. But the “idea” that allowed fine art to fulfill the cerebral, anti-retinal terms introduced by Marcel Duchamp (rightly considered the source for much of what was codified in conceptualism), was invoked to emphasize an art of the mind, distinct from expressive impulses but also from observational ones. Thus the conceptual “idea” was not linked to knowledge in any embodied, situated sense, but to an abstraction. Artists in the present are clearly concerned with ways of knowing, and with exposing the systems of media and remediation through which the construction of reality is produced. Christian Patterson’s complex and engaging Redheaded Peckerwood is a case in point, and deserves a full-blown analysis of ways fine art engages and extends these theoretical issues. In a recent season of undergraduate and graduate exhibitions at UCLA, I was struck by the prevalence of works using physical media materials to create complicated perceptual circumstances — images seen through slats, peepholes, produced in intervals and within framing devices, morphed by projection and looped in jump-cut sequences — not only on screens but on paper, walls, objects. The subject of these works, taken in toto, and whatever the thematic content might have been, is the condition of seeing, the productive means of perception and cognition. It could be that exposure to the technics and devices shown to them by Erkki Huhtamo, and others researching media archaeology, have some role in producing this fascination.
Ours is emphatically not an era of digital art, but of networked systems of knowledge mediation at a scale and rate unprecedented, for better and for worse, even within the modern period. Critical attention to the circulation of knowledge-as-information through mediated conditions of exchange underscores almost all current works of art, their social and cultural institutional circumstances, and their critical reception. It is this condition of knowledge production that forms a — perhaps even the — central concern of contemporary art. The examples I’ve given are a handful, but they share a fascination with knowledge and perception as a specific task for contemporary art, as its very subject and method. Just as the German philosophers knew they needed aesthetics as a special category, so we need art-making for the same reasons — to show us something we could not know otherwise.
Johanna Drucker is an art critic and theorist and Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.