Thursday, September 9, 2010

Defining "contemporary": class readings for the week of 9/7/2010

      The readings from this week that made an attempt at explaining the term "contemporary" are as follows: "Questionnaire on The Contemporary, October 130 Fall 2009" by Alexander Alberro, "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity" by Terry Smith, and reviews (by Leesham and Wright) of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried and The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay.

      My visualization for these readings expresses how the term "contemporary" came to be and what it encompasses, according to these authors and these readings.

      "Contemporary" in the case of these readings is a time period and a style of art. It is a vague term, yet has many characteristics. I will start with The Questionnaire on "The Contemporary" and what Albero had to say.

      The first page of The Questionnaire makes some interesting points with Hal Foster, apparently one of the editors. According to him, Contemporary art is not by any means new, but what is new is the fact that it seems to evade a solid definition, “critical judgment,” and historical background, and it also seems to be lacking in the conceptual area in some cases. It seems to “freefloat” throughout time yet at the same time, classes, institutions, museum departments, etc. have all become devoted to contemporary art. After this first page begins the start of what Alberro has to say about this topic, but the prior introduction makes quite an impact on the reader.

      In the fine art field, “contemporary” is the term used to define the period of time since 1989 to now where many changes have taken place, such as the collapse of the soviet union, and huge technological advances making this a digital age. But again, it is more than a period of time; it is also what we call the art made during this time. There is a socio-political context and reasoning for contemporary art and exhibition practices becoming so important, according to Alberro, besides the fact that we just happen to be living in the contemporary age. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the way that “art addresses its spectator” (meaning art suddenly being classified as contemporary, according to Alberro) has changed because of several reasons.      

      First off would be the twofold movement - where the continuity of the flowing and passage of time from past to present, modern to contemporary, etc. is suddenly broken by force to push “the contemporary” into its own time period. Suddenly the contemporary is noticed as its own time, being separated from the rest of the passage of time before that. Thinking of the contemporary as a period of time helps us to think about what is happening during that time that may be impacting the art. We think about the events.

      One of the events (as well as one of the reasons that art is being classified as contemporary) is political, social, and economic - globalization, which is a labeling of the present, saying the world is more connected than ever. We can see that globalization plays a large part in the art world for a few reasons.
1. Global integration is represented in many works as a theme or symbolically.
2. There is an increase in global exhibitions that are temporary (traveling ones) which not only enables many people to see the art but extends Western art to the East.
3. New collecting practices take place; people purchase art for different reasons now than before. Before, people wanted culturally diverse goods that are certainly valuable; now, according to Alberro, it’s out of “sheer speculation” in which the collector is playing a guessing game, thinking that perhaps the art they’re buying will become valuable, increase in value or is already extremely valuable as is, but they’re not entirely sure.
4. Because of the prominence of globalization, some artists create art just to counter it. (Some examples of artists given are Khaled Hafez and Yto Barrada.)
2. The technological advancement has played a huge role in this time period in the art world. Because of how so many things have gone from analog or traditional to digital, things like digital photography, digital animation, film and video installations and digital art done on a computer have replaced the kind of art one would  normally imagine to be in a gallery, like an oil painting.
The internet has also enabled us to view and spread works of art in a new and different way, a different experience then going to a gallery yourself to see it.

      Another reason the way that “art addresses its spectator” has changed is because the context of contemporary art makes us rethink what is avant-garde (new and experimental). We have to think about how this art can truly impact our lives.

      Finally, there is a shift of the importance from the meaning of the art to how aesthetically pleasing it is; it is often said by contemporary artists that the meaning is important and does not need to be understood, but the work should just be experienced.

      All of these ideas seem to somehow repeat themselves in the next two readings.

      In Terry Smith's "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity," according to Smith, no one has really come up with a definite generalization of what contemporary art is except that it is work currently being made. However, artists that call themselves contemporary artists as well as organizations that support them try to have a narrow definition of it that is open and closed at the same time; vague definitions that talk about the usage of current practices within the art, such as digital technology. Again, the digital age is taking a large role in the definition of contemporary art and the time period.
      Smith has come up with two types of contemporary - contemporary as the new modern, and contemporary as passage between cultures.
      With contemporary as the new modern. Smith uses particular, specific examples of works of art to express what he means by this. Just reading about the art and trying to define this term is difficult, but its as though contemporary art is trying to keep the style art from the modern period (1850-1960s). It is considered to be “the high cultural style of its time”. As for contemporary as passage between cultures, it is art that is emotionally attached to a culture that has nothing contemporary about it; it draws in viewers from other cultures and basically shows the bond between two cultures. It is art that can resonate with someone from a different culture than the one that made it.
      These two strands of contemporary are parallel with some curatorial practices best explained with two galleries mentioned by Smith - DIA:Beacon and Documenta11. DIA:Beacon encompasses the preconceptions of what a gallery should look like; clear-cut, plain; all the art in the gallery is continuous, not separated, to signify that “art has no history,” it is always alive and new. Documenta11 links the first four  platforms of the gallery together, and tries to show the relationships and even disjunctions between the artists and works of art, interconnecting them instead of showing a piece of art as pure and standalone.
      Contemporary as the new modern (linked with galleries like DIA:Beacon) vs. contemporary as passage between cultures (linked with galleries like Documenta11) is described as tiring juggernauts vs. a swarming of attack vehicles - a tiring juggernaut being repetitious and expected, being “managerial, curatorial, corporate, historical, commercial, educational - imposed by art institution” (Smith p. 695) and a swarming of attack vehicles being art that is aware of its “psychic, social, cultural, and political” settings. (Smith 695). It is normal, logical, expected art vs. a network of art with some other kind of agenda (like political undertones).

      Still, that does not give any better of a definition of contemporary. Smith’s proposal of what to do about the question of “what is contemporary art” starts with realizing that we should perhaps find a better way to categorize the art of today besides calling it “contemporary”; it isn’t much different than calling the art of the 1850s-1960s “modern”. Ultimately, contemporary art should be categorized as such if it focuses on the artist’s concerns of time, place, mediation and mood.

      And of course, not to forget contemporaneity - a “pointer to whatever is occurring in the world right now” according to Smith; it is something relative to the present time. More than that, it makes present times be looked at as “modern” regardless of what time period and year is actually taking place. It encompasses all time and all people, not just “us” (whoever may be reading this). It is also temporary, never lasting forever. Therefore you could determine the contemporaneity of a work of art by looking at the year it was made in and what was going on in the world at the time.

      As for the reviews, they incorporate aspects from both of the previous readings. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before by Michael Fried and The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay were reviewed by Noam Leshem and Lauren A. Wright. According to these review authors, these books take a stab at answering the questions: “what does it mean to look at a photo and what is our role as spectators and how do we perform it?”

      Fried talks about these questions in terms of distance from the art, like Azoulay, but Azoulay mentions the distance by talking about what kind of responsibility viewers have towards images of “violence and suffering”.
      Fried mentions how viewing photography was more intimate prior to the 1970s, making the relationship between viewer and photo much different by looking at small scale prints. Since then, contemporary artists have been making work that is very large scale and creates a different kind of relationship between the work and viewer. We must also understand that recent photographers make work that aspires to be like paintings that address the viewer somehow, yet still retain their identity as a photograph. Many contemporary artists make work like this: it addresses the viewer in the sense that their subjects often seem engaged in an activity making them unaware of the viewer, yet their surroundings are obviously intentional, meant to be seen and addressed. However, it still does not allow the viewer to enter into the subject’s world. This is illustrated by Jeff Wall’s photography, for example, After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue (1999-2001).

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue

Images like this are impersonal, yet still gives the viewer information about the scene.

      Fried mostly talks about aesthetics, not really addressing the conditions of the world and the environment around the contemporary art being made. (This mention of aesthetics being more important than meaning is mentioned in "The Questionnaire.") This is possibly a problem when thinking about Azoulay’s side.
Fried seems to intentionally avoid telling us how to deal with it when we view photographs in which we could easily question the ethics of it, as if we are not required to respond to it even if it clashes with our own morals, since the photo is not truly addressing us.

      Azoulay is quite the opposite. She wants us to think about what our responsibility is as viewers towards perhaps controversial images. In fact, she even thinks that some images ARE addressing the viewers, unlike fried. (She mainly talks about images of Palestinians and women - which ties into Smith's idea of contemporary as a passage between cultures - the images referenced by Azoulay can tug at anyone's heartstrings despite their culture.) A photo like that makes itself out to be “civil space” (meaning it involves everyone - model, photographer, and viewer) in which viewers cannot be hard-hearted and passive towards the situation. But at most, the only thing viewers can really do is feel compassion for the subject, which doesn’t help much after the fact.

      Fried thinks there should be distance between art and viewer, but Azoulay thinks that is just what would prevent a viewer from taking any ethical action the photograph may call for.

      This reading makes viewers think more seriously about the way they should view a work of art, which seems to be thought about more now during this contemporary age than ever before. Even the galleries mentioned by Smith make one think about the way a work of art is even displayed and why it is so important.
      Basically, these readings make me think that contemporary artists are truly aware of the world they are in and are aware of their viewers' thoughts, and somehow manage to make art that is aesthetically pleasing and/or talks about t the current social and political things going on in the world. Still, contemporary is not really a "style" that can be defined, the way that some art can be defined as abstract, cartoon, realistic, etc.

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