What is Contemporary Art?


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GFP Bunny“, Eduardo Kac

What is contemporary art? It is art that is being made in our time, which coexists with us. That is, with cell phones, blogging, biotechnology, Barak Obama, Beyonce, the death of Michael Jackson, pharmaceutical drugs, Iranian protesters, terrorism, iTunes and Amazon dot com, text and twittering, movies, armies and combat veterans fighting to live another day. If you are a visual artist, contemporary art is what you do.

Is the art being made now different than at any other time in history? Is there anything about the production of art today that would clearly mark it as the art of the twenty-first century, and not the twentieth, the nineteenth, or any previous century?

But there is another part to the question: what does it mean to make art in one’s time? Does it happen naturally or does the artist have to make an effort? Can an artist make work which is out of sync with his time? Are the conditions of making art in one’s time constant throughout the ages?

There are techniques and technologies today that did not exist a few years ago. For example, Eduardo Kac’s “GFP Bunny“—an albino rabbit genetically modified to glow under a specific light—is unique to our time, since it would have been inconceivable at any other time. There are also matters of content—persons and events—that are unique to our time. But are these matters of the moment also matters of the utmost importance? Or will they take their place in the historical record, the way the French Revolution and King Carlos IV informed the art of Goya?

Some of these techniques and events may turn out to be more important than others, but I suspect that for the most part we are dealing with incidental contemporary matters. In the case of Kac’s altered rabbit, we have, according to the artist, a three-pronged work: the rabbit itself, the dialogue generated by its creation, and the “social integration of the rabbit” (Kac’s words).

Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been doing this sort of thing for years. Their current project, “Over the River” proposes massive translucent sheets to be suspended above the Colorado River. As usual there is public outcry over this intrusion onto the land. The “social integration” of the glowing bunny apparently involves the artist giving it a home and issuing whatever photographic documents or statements are necessary to answer his critics. This belongs to the genre of social art developed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who, in turn, did not arise out of a vacuum. All art is developed from a combination of the artist’s current conditions and history. What makes it contemporary? And what makes our contemporary art unique? I offer this: the artists of our time don’t care very much, compared with the artists of the previous century, about the attempt to do what has never been done. That is one of the features of our contemporary art.

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Voids: A Retrospective, Pompidou Centre in Paris

When one takes a quick look around the first thing one notices is the vast array of different approaches and techniques in art production, a mind-boggling smorgasbord of them, and one is tempted to say, this is different. Painting is alive and well and any style or technique is valid. The art of assemblage is humming along, and what was once a sidebar known as “video art” is now seen in the baroque work of Matthew Barney—for that matter even mainstream films can be as highbrow as anything else; just take a look at David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

As Aurelio Madrid has pointed out on these pages, conceptual art is alive and well in the art of Stephen Prina, whose Manet project is an example of formalizing the game of reprocessing art history. An artist himself, Madrid’s photostream suggests that he is comfortable working in an illustrative mode as well as with modern forms.

The whole meaning of what is passé has been made complex in our time. Everything and anything is being done in the name of art, even nothing. Consider “Voids, A Retrospective” at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, held earlier this year. It is a retrospective on the art of nothing, consisting of nine empty rooms and a catalogue which I have no doubt is a serious read. It’s no joke. It’s a retrospective. That which was worth doing once is worthy of being repeated in today’s world, even nothing. We live in a world of replication and reprocessing. It seems nothing is valid in our time unless it is something repeated. Is this new? No. Duchamp and Warhol anticipated us. But was there ever another time when so many very different activities were undertaken in the name of art? Certainly all throughout the ages people have engaged in all sorts of handcrafts but never before have so many (along with so many other things) been embraced under the umbrella of art. If anything marks our version of the contemporary (apart from the incidentals of contemporary living) it is its lack of a style, a theme, an easily graspable mode of production or aesthetic.

This is not the “pluralism” of the late twentieth century. We are no longer in the realm of the Ism. The age of the Ism, which ruled the entire twentieth century, is over. We saw its last incarnation in the neo-expressionism, graffiti art, transavantgarde and other Isms of the 1980’s. It is not the forms of art represented by the Isms that distinguish that age (which covered at least one hundred years), it is the attitude—the anxious, restless itch to do the next new thing, to progress, advance, and, perhaps, to pay just a little too much attention to critics. Throughout the twentieth century art and the discourse on art were so interwoven that one is unsure which was driving the other. The public discourse involved in the work of Christo and Kac is an outgrowth or at least the persistence of this theme, which is rooted in conceptual art. But today’s contemporary artist does not need an Ism. She pushes that plate away. She has had enough, thank you.

Does this mean that R. Mutt has won? Is a thing—anything—art simply because someone says it is? Maybe. But that also means that artists can pick and choose what they want from art history, like dipping into DeKooning’s bowl of alphabet soup, and disregard, without malice, what they don’t want. As a result, there is just as much of what Duchamp eschewed as “retinal” art as there is of the intellectual kind (probably more) and I, for one, think that’s a good thing. Personally, I feel no compulsion to repeat Duchamp’s acts, and I think this year’s Void retrospective is a perfect example of what Jasper Johns observed many years ago: critics don’t see with their eyes, they see with their mouths. It’s sad to think that there exist people who require a formal occasion via invitation by John Cage, Yves Klein or some academic preamble by a critic, to recognize the value of closing their eyes and sitting still in silence for a few moments. Please try this at home—bearing in mind that some such invitations can result in a powerful experience: visiting a sanctuary or a holocaust museum, for example. In the context of fine art it is only art criticism passing itself off once again as art. We have it all, with no “anxiety of influence”, just the joy and drollery of having it all.

This is the position of the contemporary artist: his eyes are open. He engages the world within his reach with whatever intelligence and skills he has, with whatever means are at hand. He has to make an effort to do this, and yet it comes naturally. If these conditions are met, an artist of modest skills and means cannot be irrelevant, although the degree of relevance will vary greatly. And this has always been the position of the contemporary artist. What distinguishes today’s contemporary artist is a paradox. All of these differences in approach and method don’t simply point to chaos; ultimately, they point to similarities in both space and time. For today’s contemporary artist the question, ‘How am I different than anyone who has ever lived?’ is not nearly as interesting as this one: How am I similar to people of all places and times?—to the one throwing paint onto an eighteen foot canvas in a SoHo loft, to the one chiseling superhuman muscles out of marble, to the molder of clay and weaver of baskets, to the one who, after crawling on his belly through impossibly tiny tunnels and crevices, takes up pigment by torchlight and paints a galloping deer on the cave wall.

mkMark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art. His poetry is forthcoming in the July 4th issue of Unlikely Stories and he is the author of the blog, The Bricoleur.