Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Contemporary Art: Kill and Go

Visitor at Johannesburg Art Fair 2009. Image by Cobi Labuscagne

In the late 80’s I was nosing around a gallery in Dallas which at that time was making a play against more established Houston as the art capital of the South West USA. Several Dallas galleries had tied into Cologne – then the hot bed of commercially recognized Avant-Garde - presumably trying to transcend JR Ewing stereotypes and pictures of cowboys on horses.

I stopped at a beautiful work. The artist had drilled hundreds of matches into a wall, and then lit them to make a drawing of smoky black lines. The well-dressed guy next to me, similarly transfixed, suddenly got angry and said: “How in the hell am I meant to buy this for my house?” The role of galleries after all was to turn fascination into possession. I told him he should speak to the gallery owner. It seemed to me he could either buy the whole wall, or commission the artist to do another one in his house. He said: “That’s interesting; so art is kind of like the construction industry now?” “Sure”, I said, “you don’t have to take home the bathtub in the showroom, just order one and have the plumber fit it; nowadays art is more like the Sistine Chapel than Dutch easel painting - artists make house calls”.

In the late 60’s Harold Rosenberg wrote that the alienation of the artist happened not because the artist couldn’t be understood by anyone, but rather because, through the disseminations of Academia and Advertising, art could be understood by everyone, but not necessarily in the way an artist might understand his or her own work. Dissemination caused a gap between the artist and the work, much as Freud was not a Freudian, or Marx, a Marxist.

In the sense that art had begun to precede itself as speculative information, Rosenberg’s essay probably marked something like a beginning of what we now call Contemporary Art, as opposed to Art or Modern Art which implied an expectation of the thing in front of your eyes as an experience - what you see is what you get, like it or lump it, “looks like an explosion in a shingles factory”, hang out or move on, kind of thing.

This tendency roughly corresponded with the US State Department assertion in the 70’s that since they could understand history, they could therefore shape history and this would be the end of history itself. Shortly after this universities began to replace art history with art theory as a way of determining output in which academics would play a crucial role.

As a result Contemporary Art operates more like a referencing or indexing system, usually to stronger time-based forms like film, theatre, literature or more ambiguously architecture – the 9-second film loop; the hint of a scene performed; the homily in neon; the landscape-or-urban-art work-space, etc.

Time-based forms have tended to remain more resistant to this tendency because of their make-or-break connection with a reader or an audience. In time-based forms the audience agrees a priori to surrender to the time of the work – often by buying a ticket - so the artist usually feels obliged to live up to the commitment and try to make it worthwhile.

Contemporary Art is generally befuddled by ideas of whom exactly its audience is, or who looks at it other than people with glasses of wine nattering at openings. Art criticism and theory have generally discouraged the idea that a history of compelling and changing beauty was reason enough to both want to make a work and want to look at it. Ideas like “the gaze” and “objectification” went further to suggest that visual art was an historically immoral activity that needed to be under some kind of ideological supervision - an interesting word come to think of it, like superego.

Probably trying to overcome these immoral feelings, Contemporary Art is now also a referencing system to well-trodden social issues, as if these issues rendered art and the artist more meaningful if filled with remorse. The artist gets redemption from immoral pursuits if he or she acknowledges, say, the problems facing health departments or in the case of Africa, whole countries – a bit like a social service sentence - even though art is ineffectual in curing societal ailments and no longer an effective means of mass communication.

Paradoxically, in the hands of Western European and American supervisors saving “other continents” from the immorality of art, Contemporary Art has embarked on the most strident set of classifications based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, since the Nazis. Attention has swayed completely from the art object or art action, in order to objectify artists themselves as the “rescued”.

Certainly art deals with all kinds of things including catastrophes. In the 19th Century novel a character might die from prevalent TB, but TB was contextual in the narrative, not the prime reason for writing the book. But things fall apart and other centers seem to hold.
Last year I remarked to an artist friend in Amsterdam, that art was the cheapest way of doing nothing about real problems, as many European “other world” funding agencies know too well. To give money to help “develop African art and culture” as a liberal-lefty ideological gesture is a lot easier, say, than persuading European farmers to drop barriers on African agricultural produce.

The European Left wing is under siege enough without taking on the really difficult issues of the uneven global playing field. Fortunately for the liberal-lefties who seem to have fled to softer Ministries like Art and Culture or their sub-sections in Foreign Affairs, the idea of patronage is so endemic to art that art avoids the scrutiny applied to trade and economics. You don’t see William Kentridge’s work having quotas applied because it uses up too much Western art money and causes a trade deficit that might put Western artists out of work. Well, not yet you don’t; but the Europeans have a strange self-interested way of acting in crises, as we know from the 1930’s.
Central to Contemporary Art for the last 20 years have been the new breed of quasi-academic curators – intermediaries or brokers who made themselves indispensable in the proposition that the new value of art, intellectually and monetarily, is achieved through dissemination – art conducted through words - rather than direct confrontation with art itself by both the artist and the public.

Contemporary Art operates in a very similar way to speculative capitalist investment. It has value by being given value. Value is not intrinsic; it is a marketing process in which the value pundits play the most important role. The art object is more like a chip at a Casino – a token to show the buyers have become Playas-with-Value, a bourgeois thrill in itself. Curators, like croupiers, create the atmosphere of expectation, the lights focused on the game and the hushed talk that goes with importance.

The debate about whether photography has earned value enough to be included as Contemporary Art is ridiculous. Of course not. Photography as a form absorbed Contemporary Art as one of its many sub-species quite some time ago. Photography is still a complex form that needs little explanation. Like 19th Century painting, it includes everything from family snap shots, to news and magazine pictures, to tough formal and subjective ideas. Serious writers on many topics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have turned their attention to photography, as good writers tend to turn their attention to difficult and lifelike things. Contemporary Art attracts trade writers stirring the same pot of words.

At the Havana Biennale in 2003 Paris-based curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, declared that documentary photography – from the “other world” of course – was the “new modernism”. He seemed to be saying that the primacy of the Contemporary Art curator was so firmly established that he could redeploy African photography much as Picasso had appropriated African masks, as raw elements in a Casablanca-like arrangement in which the curator did the thinking for artists too dumbstruck or grateful to do their own.

It’s foolish to believe that because of Contemporary Art, art could transcend the expectation of resemblances, objectifications, imaginations and ideas that lay at the very core of its being, skill and history, no matter what theorists, curators or funding agencies say. Photography has continued to engage these expectations - as a more convincing lie - so a lot of contemporary artists with something to say have taken to photography to contribute to the field of its vision, just as good performance artists like Laurie Anderson eventually became rock stars.

If photography now engenders the expectation of resemblances and implied or explicit visual narratives in art, then, in the last 20 or more years, architecture has continued the material, spatial and conceptual experiment that was the leitmotiv of Modern Art. Paradoxically, in museums for Contemporary Art, architecture found a project for its own astonishing and visible development – not as the presence of absence, but more like the presence making up for absence.

By Rodney Place

1 comment:

kousalya said...

congrats! keep up the good work/this is a great presentation.
Contemporary Art

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