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What is contemporary art

What Is Contemporary Art?

by Terry Smith
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2009
344 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $75.00, paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-226-76430-6; ISBN: 978-0-226-76431-3.

Reviewed by Lara Schrijver
Department of Architecture / section Building Typology
Delft University of Technology
The Netherlands


Terry Smith, professor of contemporary art history and theory at the University of Pittsburgh, takes on a huge question in What is Contemporary Art? Quoting Hal Foster on the first page, he notes that a typical statement on art is: “How do you take in the global art world today? Even finding the terms of reference is impossible today” (p.1). In the face of this fatalism, Smith argues that it is necessary to theorize contemporary art in the wake of the many modernisms of the past two centuries. His ideas are distilled from material gathered the world over, from Australian aboriginal art fairs to Matthew Barney at the Guggenheim, from the minimalist contemplation of Naoshima Island in Japan to the postcolonial work of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. Within the breadth of this approach, the main focus remains an attempt to understand contemporary art and the cultural conditions it is embedded within. Arguing that the labels ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity’ are no longer adequate to capture the specific features of contemporaneity, Smith proposes that we may well be facing an altered playing field. In the end, this will lead to perhaps his most provocative conclusion: that contemporary currents in art are not symptoms of the conditions of our time, but rather “the actual kinds of art that these conditions have generated” (p.269).

In the first chapter, Smith sets the stage with a critical assessment of the 2004 Museum of Modern Art renovation by Yoshio Taniguchi. With a sidebar to the history of contemporary art and the Musée des Artistes Vivants in particular, Smith picks apart the institutional prejudice that MoMA has maintained towards contemporary art, primarily absorbing the products that engage with or respond to the traditional issues of high modernism. He notes a preference for the question ‘what is art?’ and the three strands of modern art that address it: modernism, surrealism, and avant-gardism (p.34).

Contemporary art poses fundamentally other questions. The chapters of the book are thus organized by themes central to contemporary art: museums (addressing the institutionalization of contemporary art, and the architecture that accompanies it); spectacles (the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the work of Matthew Barney); markets (global art markets and local art fairs); ‘countercurrents’ (postcolonial work in the broadest sense). All can more or less be gathered under the title ‘contemporaneity’, which leads us to his conclusions. Within each chapter, the specific cases resonate with the overarching theme. The section on museums as a whole, for example, addresses the architectural framing of contemporary art as part of the history of modern and contemporary art. Artworks increasingly test the boundaries of the traditional museum, while in the case of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the exhibition space itself becomes the spectacle.

The descriptions in each chapter are elaborate and precise, taking the reader along on a careful view of installations and museum extensions. Smith’s knowledge of the art world is not limited by a narrowly academic view, but gathers many different developments, which helps him to approach existing insights (on patronage, for example) in novel ways. These individual studies are thus not limited to mere illustration of a theoretical position, but rather add to the complex tapestry of ideas and objects. Smith may be seeking out the logic underlying contemporary art, but he also allows for individual description and specificity.

This is a systematic exploration of ‘contemporary’ that goes beyond the original conception of art that is ‘of its time’. It also asks: what is the nature of our time? Smith contends that the global condition contemporaine in art is defined by four concerns, which he briefly notes as ‘time, place, mediation, and mood’ (p.196). Evocative as these labels are, they become more interesting as they are defined more precisely through, for example ‘freedom within mediation’ or ‘self and strangeness’  (p.235). The first describes a brave new world of self-definition in both physical reality and the virtual realms of the many available media, while the second posits that the postcolonial ‘other’ is also part of the contemporary self. At the same time, these positions are founded on a pervasiveness of economic thinking in our culture, for which Smith has coined the phrase ‘iconomy’.

If anything, the book as a whole is too rich to be concluded with a brief chapter drawing together the lines of earlier chapters. A first proposal to theorize this ‘contemporary art’ is careful not to be overly definitive. Yet this book does make a number of themes explicit. Smith posits three major currents of the contemporary – the aesthetic of globalization, the postcolonial turn, and a generational change that embraces the present and its image economy (pp.264-268). At the same time, his fundamental contribution is to reveal more significance in the products of art than in current theorizations. His role, in this sense, is to show the importance of the practice itself, to identify in current work the “de facto suggestions as to what a work of contemporary art might be in circumstances such as these” (p263). With this, Smith opens the discussion more than offering a definitive answer.

In the end, the notion of defining ‘contemporary art’ may prove to be as elusive as defining ‘modern art’. Yet that does not imply we should not try. Each moment not only encompasses small and specific questions on art and technique, but also engages with underlying issues of cultural definition. It is these broad questions that should be revisited again and again, not to finally reveal an uncontested truth, but rather in order to add new shades of truth and definition to our constantly shifting sense of what it means to be human.

Last Updated 8 March, 2010

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