contemporary art/photography: a note

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The debate over modernism/postmodernism in photography continues at haphazart! Contemporary Abstracts group on Flickr. Some middle ground has been opened up so that we can begin to consider consider contemporary at photography, such as this untitled picture by polah2006 on Flickr.

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What can we say about contemporary art and photography?  What is contemporary art now? Is it possible to generalize about it?  Or is just what  is happening now?  Terry Smith in Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity says that the attempts at generalization about contemporary art:

highlight the currency of one or another aspect of current practice: new media, digital imagery, immersive cinema, national identifications, new internationalism, disidentification, neomodernism, relational aesthetics, postproduction art, remix cultures. The list keeps extending. Apologists stress the pivotal connectedness of their favored approach to at least one significant aspect of contemporary experience, but usually deny any claims to universality, sighing with relief that the bad old days of exclusionary dominance are over.
Despite this, he says, two big answers have come to figure forth about contemporary art amidst the multitude of smaller ones in the major world art distribution centers.
Smith says that the first powerful answer to the question of the nature of art in these times is this:
contemporary art, as a movement, has be- come the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes. In its most institutionalized forms--from the triumphalist overreach of the Guggenheim Museum's global franchising through the Old Master elegance of the installations at Dia: Beacon to the confused gesturing in the contemporary galleries when the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reopened in 2004--it is the latest phase in the century-and-a-half- long story of modern art in Europe and its cultural colonies, a continuation of the modernist lineage, warily selected not least in an attempt to preserve this cultural balance of power. Official contemporary art resonates with the vivid confidence and the comforting occlusion that comes with it, taking itself to be the high cultural style of its time.
Another name is late modern. Contemporary art is collected and presented (by MOMA) as part of modern art--as belonging within, responding to, and expanding upon the framework of initiatives and challenges established by the earlier history of progressive art since the dawn of the twentieth century. Smith says that the second wide-scale answer of what constitutes truly contemporary art is that which emerges which emerges from within the conditions of contemporaneity, including the remnants of the cultures of modernity and postmodernity. This:
projects itself through and around these, as an art of that which actually is in the world, of what it is to be in the world, and of that which is to come. Its impulses are specific yet worldly, even multitudinous, inclusive yet oppositional and anti-institutional, concrete but also various, mobile, and open-ended. In 2002, after two decades in which it propelled the Biennale circuit, this kind of art swarmed the precincts of contemporary art, unmistakably and irretrievably, via the platforms of Documenta 11. For the first time in a major international survey exhibition, art from second, third, and fourth worlds, and that concerned with traffic between these and the first world, took up most of the spaces and set the agenda .... Confused curatorial retreat and a fierce rearguard action--fought in the name of the rights of the spectator--has halted this advance, but for who knows how long?
This postcolonial postnational art is woven through procedures of translation, interpretation, subversion, hybridization, creolization, displacement, and reassemblage. Smith adds that the debate over Documenta 11 brought to the surface certain value antipathies that have been looming since around 1980 and have been at the baseline of artworld discourse for at least half a decade.The Kassel exhibition counterposed the supposed purity and autonomy of the art object against a rethinking of modernity based on ideas of transculturality and extraterritoriality.

Is there something in between these two currents? Smith says that while the two big picture approaches have an undeniably powerful currency and are accurate accounts as far as they go:
neither of them fully addresses the changes in actual artistic practices that have, for arguably three decades now, marked out more and more artistic production as distinctively contemporary--as opposed to that which continues to be made in modernist, or even postmodern, modes.Here is my proposal. I believe that the question, What is contemporary art now? requires a response consisting neither of discerning a middle path between two of the big answers sketched above nor of setting them into either/or confrontation. Rather, it involves taking the three answers together as each containing differing kinds, and degrees of present-making power.
He argues that contemporaty art is one committed to an art that turns on long-term, exemplary projects that discern the antinomies of the world as it is, that display the workings of globality and locality, and that imagine ways of living ethically within them. They remain framed by the ruins of the modernist project, but they treat the modernist ruins:
as echoes, as hollow resonances, and get on with their search for an aesthetics and ethics that might be viable in the aftermath ... Their wide-ranging concerns on questions of time, place, mediation, and mood. They make visible our sense that these fundamental, familiar constituents of being are becoming, each day, steadily more strange.

2 Comments

Interesting and thought-provoking article. It highlights the extraordianry difficulty of defining contemporary praxis. It seems that one inevitably ends up with rather vague notions and even those offered here in the latter paragraph seem selective, edited or incomplete....i.e. ...'wide-ranging concerns on questions of time, place, mediation, and mood. Judging from some recent exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery in London that featured Chinese and Middle Eastern contemporary artists, and the British Museum's African section that includes works of contemporary African artists...and, of course, the Documenta 11 debates...one could easily add to that list. For one, a lot of artists address conflict areas be they relating to gender and sexuality, to political oppression, to cultural conflicts between westernisation / traditions, war conflicts, poverty vs. consumerism, cultural stereotyping, migrations/ misplacement, etc....these are not merely questions of 'mediation' even if the works are sophisticated enough to be open to multiple interpretations.

Great to see an example of Leonie's luminous recent venture into representative/ figurative images here.

Krystina,
once we step out the horizons of modernism---as many have even when producing abstract images--- then contemporary art and photography looks to be chaotic and all over the place. It is far more than postmodern photography But so much is going on that it is very difficult to make sense of it.

But it can be done. I tried to do so in the next post using the work of Terry Smith on contemporary art.

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This page contains a single entry by Gary Sauer-Thompson published on March 11, 2009 5:01 PM.

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