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Art and Contemporaneity


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Art and Contemporaneity

Elena Giaretta (1903-1928)
2012, oil on canvas, 27×22 cm

Art and Contemporaneity

Elena Giaretta (1903-1928)

Art and Contemporaneity




Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity (Part 1)

Terry Smith
Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity (Part 2)*

Passages between Cultures

The main action of Shirin Neshat’s 2001 video Passage consists of a group of white-shirted men carrying something, probably a body, across a north African/Middle Eastern desert (fig. 4). Lacking symbols, hierarchy, and any evident ritual, their purpose—however urgent and relentless it might seem from the driving Philip Glass score that accompanies them—is as ambiguous as the state of the body they bear. The video constantly intercuts to a group of women circled closely together, wailing loudly and beating at something unseen on the stony ground between them. In the penultimate scene, the men deliver their nearly invisible burden into the space cleared by the women. Just at that moment, a fire breaks out and travels along a triangular stone wall. The camera pans to a young girl who, it suddenly seems, has been hiding there all along, a silent witness to something unfathomable. Equally, she may have been abruptly conjured into this role by the process itself. This work is typical of the kind of contemporary art that locates itself at the emotional core of a culture that seems to have nothing that is contemporary about it, yet it persists. Indeed, in parts of the world, it is ascendant. It is a culture that draws a worldly feminist artist (whose work tracks the inner worlds of exile, including the trenchant power of stereotypes) to its implacable differencing between men and women as an experience of trauma. In contrast to Barney’s baroque allegories, irony is irrelevant. Anachronism is relevant, but it is questioned. The very idea that one kind of culture, the modernizing ones, gets to decide that another is anachronistic is questioned (not least in Neshat’s activation of the aesthetics of Iranian film). Before 9/11, in a number of powerful works—Turbulent (1998), Fervor (2000), and Rapture and Possessed (both 2001)—Neshat showed that feudal structures not only persist in the cultures of the Middle East and northern Africa but also are present at the roots of all of our relationships. The last scene of Passage implies that death exists beyond gender division, as does the recurrence of life, however marked both may be by trauma. This is to show us something that is, at once, both incomprehensibly strange yet hauntingly familiar, without pretending (in however subtle or deferred ways) to possess the tools to resolve this tension in favor of one or another category of redemption. Art growing out of the complexities of contemporaneity cannot offer easy outs.[7]

Shirin Neshat, Passage. Production still from video.

fig. 4. Shirin Neshat, Passage. Production still from video.

Neshat came to prominence as a visual poet of the inscriptions of power, tradition, and institutionalized religion on the bodies of women in patriarchal cultures, notably in her photograph series The Women of Allah (1993– 97). Iranian performance artist Ghazel approaches the same subjects, but from within a very different aesthetic. In her set of three videos, Me in 2000, 2001, 2002 (fig. 5), she parodies both Islamic dress codes and the typical tropes of conceptual art by performing a number of nominated actions based on commonsense sentiments while dressed in her burka. In Everyone Dreams of Staying Young and Fresh, for example, she wraps her already fully clad body in food-preserving foil. This rather desperate hilarity stands in marked contrast to the portentous character of Neshat’s most recent epics, such as Tooba (2002) and Women without Men (2004).

The contradictions in play here achieve explicitly public political dimensions in the work of many artists. In Ayanah Moor’s 2004 wall installation, Never.Ignorant.Gettin’ Goals.Accomplished., the words of the title—an exhortation much used in encouragement manuals, including those aimed at African Americans, seeking to promote “the New Negro”—are juxtaposed with a mural-sized image taken from a magazine color photograph of Condoleezza Rice being kissed by President George W. Bush during the presentation of her as secretary of state (fig. 6). Seen one way, the words and the image are in exact complementarity, flush with the self-evident realization of equal opportunity. This looks like what the televisual opportunity was intended to be: a resplendent advertisement for the American Dream. When, however, we read the words as marching on the image, and link left to right the first letters of each word, the opposite meaning erupts. Establishment opportunism kicks us in the stomach and claws its way back in. The moral vacuity at the heart of the current administration stands naked, smirking and squirming, in the light. The illusion of simple equality is obliterated, irretrievably, by laying bare its circumstantial cost.

Moor has recently taken an oath to reject further offers to show her work in exhibitions that are framed in terms of black American identity, including those devoted to interrogating its conditions and questioning its limits. This puts the entire trajectory of her work to date at risk. This depth of impatience with categorization is becoming more common and signals a shift beyond the framework in which Neshat, for example, continues to work.

These comparisons bring us through and up to the current edges of the second wide-scale answer of what constitutes truly contemporary art: that which emerges from within the conditions of contemporaneity, including the remnants of the cultures of modernity and postmodernity, but which 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. (One major recognition was that dividing the world into these worlds had been a ruinous enterprise and was failing.) 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?

Curators Stage the Debate

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. Sometimes, when the grinding between them gets too hard, they appear in raw terms. Thus Kurt Varnedoe wrote, in 2000, locating the historical significance of MoMA’s collections of recent art as manifest in a series of millennial exhibitions prior to the museum’s closure for renovation:

There is an argument to be made that the revolutions that originally produced modern art, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have not been concluded or superseded—and thus that contemporary art today can be understood as the ongoing extension and revision of those founding innovations and debates. The collection of The Museum of Modern Art is, in a very real sense, that argument. Contemporary art is collected and presented at this Museum 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.[8]

Ghazel, Me in 2003. Video still, installation at Havana Biennale.

fig. 5. Ghazel, Me in 2003. Video still, installation at Havana Biennale, 2003.

Compare this conception of what was most at stake in millennial art exhibitions to that of another curator, Okwui Enwezor, introducing the platforms that constituted Documenta 11, of which he was artistic director. After a series of discussions, held in different cities throughout 2001, and covering such topics as “Democracy Unrealized” (Vienna and Berlin), “Experiments with Truth: Transitional Justice and the Processes of Truth and Reconciliation” (New Delhi), “Creolite´ and Creolization” (St. Lucia), and “Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos” (Lagos), the exhibition opened in Kassel, Germany, in 2002.

The collected result in the form of a series of volumes and exhibitions is placed at the dialectical intersection of contemporary art and culture. Such an intersection equally marks the limits out of which the postcolonial, post– cold war, postideological, transnational, deterritorialized, diasporic, global world has been written. This dialectical enterprise attempts to establish imaginative and concrete links within the various projects of modernity. Their impact, as well as their material and symbolic ordering, is woven through procedures of translation, interpretation, subversion, hybridization, creolization, displacement, and reassemblage. What emerges in this transformation in different parts of the world produces a critical ordering of intellectual and artistic networks of the globalizing world. The exhibition as a diagnostic toolbox actively seeks to stage the relationships, conjunctions, and disjunctions between different realities: between artists, institutions, disciplines, genres, generations, processes, forms, media, activities. In short, between identity and subjectification. Linking together the first four platforms, 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. Thus, the exhibition project of the fifth platform was less a receptacle of commodity objects than a container for a plurality of voices, a material reflection on a series of disparate and interconnected actions and processes.[9]

Seeking a middle path between these two contending forces—one a tiring juggernaut, the other a swarming of attack vehicles—has become common. A recent Hamburger Kunstverein exhibition, Formalismus, was conceived, in the words of Berlin critic Diedrich Diederichsen, as “a reexamination of the basic ideas of modernism in light of the very contemporary cognizance that every detail of presentation and production is already contaminated by specific histories.”[10] Translating this into art discursive polemics, this amounts to a rereading of residual modernist formalism through the repeating, remixing lens of relational aesthetics, in the not-so-secret hope of surprising with an object-focussed art more integral, more powerful than both popular, everyday-life recycling practices and “a world choked with referentiality.”[11]

Ayanah Moor, Never.Ignorant.Gettin’ Goals.Accomplished.

fig. 6. Ayanah Moor, Never.Ignorant.Gettin’ Goals.Accomplished. Installation, 2004.

Grounding one set of values, these days, usually means doing so in relation to other sets. Diederichsen understands the relationship between what I have described as the two big answers this way:

Theoretical ambitions notwithstanding, the exhibition offered a sophisticated overview of art today. The work provided an alternative to certain regressive and particularistic tendencies: on the one hand, the return to the normality of painting and spectacular images in keeping with the logic of the art market; on the other, the recourse to an art that is satisfied with constructing global networks of semi-politicized creative subcultures.[12]

From where he stands, both of the big answers are reductive options, and each is as empty as the other. To him, the only way forward is between them, via “dialectical synthesis.” His approach is certainly synthetic, but it is dialectical only in the simplest, static sense. A more complex sense of dialectical fury was a key to Enwezor’s conception of Documenta 11. For me, the “dialectic” is between three terms (only two of which I have set out so far) that are tied to each other, uncomfortably but of necessity, as contraries that are only partially synthesizable, that are highly generative but only as supplements of their mismatching—that are, in a word, antinomies.

Problems and a Proposal

A further step needs to be taken. 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. The “contemporary art” juggernaut operates primarily in terms of frameworks— managerial, curatorial, corporate, historical, commercial, educational — imposed by art institutions, themselves a key part of a now pervasive, beguilingly distractive but at bottom hollow cultural industry. The guerrilla swarming of the others is marked by acknowledgment of the psychic, social, cultural, and political settings in which art is made, of the demands that these conditions make upon practice, and the extent to which they provide the content of much contemporary art and establish its circuitry of communication. (It will be obvious already that the second incorporates the first; I separate them here to highlight an important tension within contemporary art, one to which I shall keep returning.) A third, and better, answer would be one in which the smaller-scale strategies listed in my opening paragraph, along with many others, are understood not as mere artworld stylistics but as symptoms of a limited number of powerful, shared tendencies that are themselves the outcome, not of a persistent modernist formalism, but of the great changes of the 1960s and 1970s, the paradigm shifters internal to art itself, and those of a world reshaped by rapid decolonization and incipient globalization. This is the domain across which something strange, almost impossible, occurs, and has been occurring for decades. We might call it dialectical supplementarity or, better, antinomic exchange. It is just this quality, let me suggest, that infuses truly contemporary art and is the key to its contemporaneity.

Before exploring this idea in any depth, some conceptual issues need to be cleared, some obvious objections met. On the face of it, calling the art of our day contemporary tells us nothing other than the banal fact that it is being made now. It is something that could have been said at any time, and, in the past at least, the contemporaneous qualities of an artwork— however initially attractive—were usually the least interesting things about it. To periodize the ephemeral as contemporary art might be to repeat the mistake made when the same was done with modern art, only more so, because the word contemporary—in its ordinary usages—is even less resonant than the word modern. Contemporary art seems a vacuous placeholder, but for what? Is there something there that cannot name itself—or not yet? Or is it simply a fancy name for the most refined of those objects that serve spectacle society by inducing in their beholders the preferred state of attenuated distraction? Similarly, it is fair to ask, What is contemporaneity other than a pointer (empty as a signifier, overfull as a signified) to whatever it is that is occurring in all of the world right now? How could such a term match, let alone supplant, modernity and postmodernity as a descriptor of the state of things?

In logic, these objections fail because they could, themselves, be made at any time. They are posed, however, in more pragmatic realms: studios, desktops, galleries, marketplaces. The interesting question is whether or not there is something distinctive about the present conjunction of forces in such realms that attracts this kind of paradox. Donald Kuspit, for one, senses that there is. In a recent article on “The Contemporary and the Historical” he unleashes most of the standard objections against efforts to see structure in the present chaos, yet acknowledges that something has changed:

There has always been more contemporary than historical art - or, to put it more broadly, there has always been more contemporaneity than historicity - but this fact only became emphatically explicit in modernity.

Art history’s attempt to control contemporaneity - and with that the temporal flow of art events - by stripping certain art events of their idiosyncracy and incidentalness in the name of some absolute system of value, was overwhelmed by the abundance of contemporary art evidence that proposed alternative and often radically contrary ideas of value.[13]

He does not specify precisely when this change occurred, but his examples all have it being introduced in the 1960s, when “the turbulent pluralism of modern art . . . increased exponentially in the postmodern situation” (“CH”). He takes this to be the naturally, or at least historically, evolved state of contemporary art production, and so he attacks artists, critics, curators, and historians who would try to second-guess art history by preferring “the happy few or One and Only truly and absolutely significant artist” (“CH”). The responsible role for criticism in this context is, he believes, to keep advancing a “pluralism of critical interpretations” of current, recent, and past art in order to “keep it in contemporary play.” For Kuspit, “the power of the contemporary comes from the insecurity of being ephemeral,” so that nominating particular artworks, or works by select artists, as today’s art for the future is to reduce them to “sterile homogeneity”—to kill off precisely that power to persist and to attract future critical interest (“CH”). In the current context, which he sees quite accurately as dominated, on the one hand, by a Malthusian overproduction of artists and, on the other, by the exclusivist superficiality of extraordinary auction prices and media-sensationalist celebrity, any form of interpretive generalization will be self-defeating at best, at worst complicit. When this is put alongside the incommensurate particularity and radical incompleteness that is natural to the contemporary, the only option for criticism is, he believes, the making of “an interpretive case for a particular art’s interestingness by tracking its environmental development in the context of the observer-interpreter’s phenomenological articulation of his or her complex experience of it” (“CH”). Criticism, then, not history. Or history as accreted criticism.

Kuspit is right about the dangers of generalization in a situation where the shots are being called by inimical institutional, media, and market forces. But singularizing particularity, however shrouded in objections to the larger forces, is no solution. An engaged, implicated relativism is more difficult, but more responsible. 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. We should treat them as antinomies—that is, as statements about reality that, when linked, are contradictions incapable of mutual resolution without the obliteration of all but one, yet each of which remains true in itself.[14] We should recognize the energy of their profound contention. Every situation that is truly contemporary is an outcome of the friction between them. Working within but also against this general condition, art supplies provisional syntheses, provides pauses in the overall rush into the unsynthesizable, showing its flows as if in section or as glimpses frozen into objects intended for passersby, modelling the minutiae of the world’s processes as supplements deposited in their wake. These are the kinds of time that art is taking these days, this is how it uncovers images, these are the ways in which it arrives at made things, and why it sets up settings.[15]

Dislocation and Situatedness

When I think of artists whose work has, over the past few years, tapped closest into the demands of contemporaneity, I recognize that all of them are 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: Turkey Tolson Tjuppurrula’s painted meditations on peace, Rover Thomas’s ancient dreaming in the present, Emily Kngwarreye’s withheld exposures of her earthworlds, Gordon Bennett’s black/white Australian history paintings, the revelatory hoardings of Georges Adéagbo, Hans Haacke’s persistent criticality, the war architecture of Lebbeus Woods, Doris Salcedo’s registrations of enforced disappearance, Richard Pettibon, Tania Bruguera, and Jorge Macchi on the vicissitudes of public speech, Allan Sekula’s tracking of global maritime flows, Mark Lombardi’s delicate diagrams of the criminality of international economies, Zoe Leonard’s records of economic place making, Fiona Hall’s meditations on cultural currency, Wenda Gu’s united nations project, Thomas Hirschhorn’s antimonuments, William Kentridge tapping his country’s racial unconscious, Chantal Ackerman charting border crossings, the arch commentary of the Atlas Group, the communal cultural work of groups such as Huit Fachette and Wochenkausur, Felix Gonzales-Torres’s reflections on personal loss, Cindy Sherman, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Ilona Németh, and Marlene Dumas figuring the misshaping of women by societies, Isaac Julien the circuitry of desire, and Mary Kelly the traumas of motherhood, Jean-Pierre Bruyere’s photographic and iCinema allegories of the life worlds of young children in the cities of the Congo, the masquerades of Tracey Moffatt and Ayanah Moor aimed at subverting the racial identity categories imposed on them— these are just some examples of significant art being made all over the world. Accusations of sensationalism, esoteric irrelevance, and bad faith do not apply. It is an impressive body of work, and it’s growing.

Nor would I wish to divide current practitioners into two camps, baldly opposed. While the contemporary artists listed earlier remain framed by the ruins of the modernist project, their work gains much of its subliminal power from an engagement, however filtered, with the demands of contemporaneity. Similarly, those artists just listed cannot avoid these same modernist ruins; the difference is that they treat them as echoes, as hollow resonances, and get on with their search for an aesthetics and ethics that might be viable in the aftermath. There are, as well, many other artists who operate between these tendencies, not to resolve them, but to extend their premises outward: the plethora of artist’s museums, not least the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Los Angeles, Rachael Whiteread’s cast voids, Richard Wilson’s various installations of 20/50, Bill Viola’s efforts to reinspire spirituality, Ilya Kabakov’s ideological memory capsules, the resonant photo tableaux of Tracey Moffatt, Jeff Wall, and Bill Henson, the inventive recycling of Pierre Huyghe and Douglas Gordon among many others, Eduardo Kac and Patricia Piccinini’s startling evocations of cloning, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s open invitations, the coy meditations on everyday life of Rivane Neuenschwander, the sharp parodies of the international art system by Andrea Fraser, Tanja Ostojic, and Martín Shastre, the chameleon public sphere politics of the Yes Men and increasing numbers of collectives, such as Bijari, contra filé, and La Baulera.

Slight gestures, feral strategies, mild subversions, small steps. To which purposes and in the names of which values? These questions can still be posed and be answered (although an extended consideration must be deferred). In brief, it seems to me that at least four themes course through the heterogeneity that is natural to contemporaneity. All of the artists mentioned, and the thousands more of whom they are representatives, focus 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. Nowadays, the list looks more like: (alter)temporality, (dis)location, transformativity within the hyperreal, and the altercation of affect/effectivity. Within this contemporaneity, they seek sustainable modes of survival, cooperation, and growth.

The Thickening of the Present

In the ancient world, around the shores of the Mediterranean, the word modern (modernus) distinguished a mood, or mode, of fullness emergent in the otherwise ordinary passing of time and within the predictable unfolding of fashion (hodiernus, “of today”).[16] This sense that the present could be pregnant with something special about itself—manifest as a quality later called nowness—persisted until late medieval times, when contrast with what was seen to be the past, and then several past periods, became central to the meaning of modern. An early formulation was that of St. Augustine: “There are three times: a present of things past, a present of things present; and a present of future things.”[17]

In the expanded modern world, however, modern became the core of a set of terms that narrated the two-centuries-long formation of modernity in terms of novelty, pastness, and futurism, not least those of its definitive artistic currents, modern art and modernism, modern movement architecture and modern or contemporary design. Despite the vibrancy of these tendencies, the “modern” aged, as its time went on, until it became, in a paradox tolerated by most, historical. Indeed, it became the name of its own period, one that would, it was presumed, become increasingly modern, without end. Recently, however, in most ordinary usage—in English and in some but not all other European languages—it has surrendered currency to the term contemporary and its cognates. St. Augustine’s accumulation of presents has returned, uncannily, to currency.

For most of the twentieth century, and especially in the 1920s and the 1960s, when modernist attitudes prevailed, the word contemporary served, in art discourse as elsewhere, mainly as a default for modern. Boris Groys points out the main reason:

Modern art is (or, rather, was) directed towards the future. Being modern means to live in a project, to practice a work in progress. Because of this permanent movement towards the future modern art tends to overlook, to forget the present, to reduce it to a permanently self-effacing moment of transition from past to future.[18]

Nevertheless, a number of the most engaged contemporary artists are redefining what it means to live in a project and doing so in terms that acknowledge the power of the present. This shift has been occurring since the decline of modernism in the 1980s and has appeared in institutional naming— of galleries, museums, auction house departments, academic courses, and textbook titles—which, however, tend to use contemporary as a soft signifier of current plurality.

This change echoes a larger one. Modernity has not, for decades, been able to maintain its division of the world into those who live in modern times and those who, while physically present, were regarded as noncontemporaneous beings. In arguing that the global spread of information and the instantaneousness of its communication now means that the “sociotemporal world order is changing in favor of contemporaneity for all, ”Wolf Schäfer cites a passage from Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s 1961 novel Ambiguous Adventure, an exchange between the father of a young Senegalese revolutionary and a French teacher:

We have not had the same past, you and ourselves, but we shall have, strictly, the same future. The era of separate destinies has run its course. In that sense, the end of the world has indeed come for every one of us, because no one can any longer live by the simple carrying out of what he himself is.[19]

Increased opportunity of access has not, of course, meant equality of outcome— on the contrary—nor has it meant (contrary to early fears about globalization) homogeneity of choices. During the period of modernity’s dominance, the downside of what used to be called cultural imperialism was a kind of ethnic cleansing carried out by the displacement of unmodern peoples into past, slower, or frozen time. In a mediascape characterized by such contrary forces as instant communication of key decisions by political leaders and the capacity to demonstrate against them within the same news cycle, the power to force everyone forward in broadly the same direction has been lost. In many parts of the world, consciousness is concerned with taking many steps, fast, not from the old to the new but vice versa. Multiple temporalities are the rule these days, and their conceptions of historical development move in multifarious directions. Against this broad tide, fundamentalisms move in just one direction, implacably. In these conflicted circumstances, any appellation that ties a current world description entirely to modernity, in however conditional a manner, and however decked out with a modified version of postmodernity, will miss as much of the main point as do the fundamentalisms.

Are we at a threshold of large-scale meaning change, yet again? If so, it is one that has built its gateway around us through indirection and as an outcome of quite other great changes: the reduction of modernity to “the only remaining superpower,” the evaporation of postmodernism as a one generation wonder, and the isolation of postmodernity as a fate of the West (or, at least, of many parts and elements of it), but not the world. Nor does postmodernity explain enough of what is happening in what remains of the West as the world migrates to it, everyone changing as they come and go. In these circumstances, it might be time to grasp a more supple set of ways of being in time now and to shift to another set of terms. There is such a set, lying close by.

Regarding Contemporaneity

The word contemporary has always meant more than just the plain and passing present. Its etymology, we can now see, is as rich as that of modern. The term contemporary calibrates a number of distinct but related ways of being in or with time, even of being in and out of time at the same time. Indeed, for a while, during the seventeenth century in England, it seemed that cotemporary might overtake it to express this strange currency. The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary gives four major meanings. They are all relational, turning on prepositions, on being placed to, from, at, or during time. There is the strong sense of “belonging to the same time, age, or period,” the coincidental “having existed or lived from the same date, equal in age, coeval,” and the adventitious “occurring at the same moment of time, or during the same period; occupying the same definite period, contemporaneous, simultaneous.” In each of these meanings there is a distinctive sense of presentness, of being in the present, of beings who are (that are) present to each other, and to the time they happen to be in. Of course, these kinds of relationships have occurred at all times in the historical past, do so now, and will do so in the future. The second and third meanings make this clear, whereas the first points to the phenomenon of two or more people, events, ideas, or things “belonging” to the same historical time. Yet, even here, while the connectedness is stronger, while the phenomena may have some sense of being joined by their contemporaneousness, they may equally well do so, as it were, separately, standing alongside yet apart from each other, existing in simple simultaneity. They may also subsist in a complex awareness that, given human difference, their contemporaries may not stand in relation to time as they do. Finally, given the diversity of present experiences of temporality, they may feel themselves as standing, in important senses, at once within and against the times.

It is the OED’s fourth definition of contemporary that brings persons, things, ideas, and time together under a one-directional banner: “Modern; of or characteristic of the present period; especially up-to-date, ultramodern; specifically designating art of a markedly avant-garde quality, or furniture, building, decoration, etc. having modern characteristics.” In this definition, the two words have finally exchanged their core meaning: the contemporary has become the new modern. We are, following this logic, out of the modern age, or era, and in that of the contemporary.

To leap to such a conclusion would be to miss an essential quality of contemporaneousness: its immediacy, its presentness, its instantaneity, its prioritizing of the moment over the time, the instant over the epoch, of direct experience of multiplicitous complexity over the singular simplicity of distanced reflection. It is the pregnant present of the original meaning of modern, but without its subsequent contract with the future. If we were to generalize this quality (of course, against its grain) as a key to world picturing, we would see its constituent features manifest there to the virtual exclusion of other explanations. We would see, then, that contemporaneity consists precisely in the constant experience of radical disjunctures of perception, mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them. This certainly looks like the world as it is now. No longer does it feel like “our time” because “our” cannot stretch to encompass its contrariness. Nor, indeed, is it “a time” because if the modern were inclined above all to define itself as a period, and sort the past into periods, in contemporaneity periodization is impossible.[20] This suggests that the only potentially permanent thing about this state of affairs is that its impermanence may last forever. The present may become “eternal,” not in a state of wrought transfiguration, as Baudelaire had hoped, but as a kind of incessant incipience, of the kind theorized by Jacques Derrida as l’avenir, as perpetual advent, that which is, while impossible to foresee or predict, to come.[21]

“Multeity,” “altertemporality,” and inequity are not only the most striking features on any short list of the qualities of contemporaneity; they are at its volatile core. Unlike Baudelaire’s famous markers of modernité, they are not the symptoms of a deeper stability or an entry point to its achievement.[22] In the aftermath of modernity and the passing of the postmodern, they may be all that there is. This is why there is no longer any overarching explanatory totality that accurately accumulates and convincingly accounts for these proliferating differences. The particular, it seems, is now general and, perhaps, forever shall be.

Following my reservation about Kuspit’s conclusion, this is not a recommendation for stand-alone, singularizing particularism; rather, it is an appeal for radical particularism to work with and against radical generalization, to treat all the elements in the mix as antinomies. Global historians continue to do us great service by tracking the trajectories of large forces that unfold through lengthy durations. These include the social and ecological elements—localized, metropolitan, and cosmopolitan—of the successively expanding “human web” described, for example, by the McNeills.[23] Yet it is equally important to weave into these accounts recognition of the less visible workings of what de Landa names “matter-energy.”[24] Yet a paradoxical outcome of recent long-term historical explanations is their unusual degree of uncertainty with regard to the immediate future. While belief in the persistence through the present of ongoing formations is widespread, the forms in which that might occur seem less predictable. Obsession with the past and concern about the complexities of the present have tended to thicken our awareness of it at the expense of expectations about the future. Social geographers such as Jared Diamond alert us to the prospect that societies based on guns, germs, and steel are on the verge of immanent collapse if they continue to maintain present modes of thought and organization.[25] As Schäfer (rather blandly) puts it, “coming to terms with the complexity of the present time, which results from the massive parallelism of cultural contemporaneities, is obviously one of the great challenges.”[26]

New World Disarray

In public discourse, “master narratives” persist and continue to promise everything from continuing modernizing progress—freedom and democracy are the watchwords of U.S. expansion into the Middle East—to the return of spiritual leaders under the banner, for example, of jihad. Certainly the commanding, beguiling power of these simplifications builds followings in larger and larger numbers. But their partiality inevitably means that they do so in ways that divide each bloc of believers more and more from the others, with the net effect that they not only cast out “unbelievers” but undermine their own future triumph. In the hearts of their spiritual leaders, there is a dawning sense that world domination by any one set of views is impossible in human affairs, that not even their fundamentalism is applicable to all humankind, that the others will, mostly, remain Other. This sense underlies, and deeply threatens, the homogenizing thrusts of certain kinds of economic globalization, obliging it to adapt to local circumstances. It also renders provisional, and often gestural, the appeals to universal rights that have been for decades an available language for negotiation between competing interests. New forms of translation need to be found for channelling the world’s friction.

Differences that are as profound as these do not lie side by side, peacefully, nor do they sit up separately in some static array awaiting our inspection. They are actively implicated in each other, all over the place, all the time, just as every one of us lives in them, always. Their interaction is a major work of the world, of the world on us and us on the world. We are, all of us, thoroughly embedded inside these processes. Too many of them are violently bent on the erasure of the other. Some, however, seek reconciliation within a framework of respect for difference. The Australian Contemporary Aboriginal Art movement, for example, is significantly driven by this impulse.[27] All of these elements were present in events such as the 9/11 attacks on various U.S. “icons of military and economic power”—an incomplete event with continuing effects in all spheres of life.[28] While the language of universals remains current, it always arises in concrete particulars and increasingly in the form of frictional encounters.[29]

Other recent events indicate profound realignments of modernity’s great formations, as well as the emergence of what may be new ones. Among these: 9/11 as an attack within an ideological war, as a fissuring of the icon-omy, and as an occasion to reimpose social constraints within ostensible democracies; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the uncertain prospect of a U.S. emperium; the question of European polity, internally and externally; the implosive fallout of the second world and the reemergence of authoritarianism within it; in the ex-Soviet peripheries, the suddenness of unReal states and of the apparent extension of Europe; continuing conflicts in the Middle East, Central Europe, Africa, and the Pacific; the revival of leftist governments in South America; the deadly inadequacy of tribalism versus modernization as models for decolonization; the crisis of post–World War II international institutions as political and economic mediators (UN, IMF, World Bank); the accelerating concentration of wealth in a few countries and within those countries its concentration in the few; ecological time bombs everywhere and the looming threat of societal collapse; the ubiquity and diversification of specular culture; the concentration and narrowing of media versus the spread of the internet; contradictions within and between regulated and coercive economies and deregulated and criminal ones; the coexistence of multiple economies and cultures within singular state formations (most prominently, now, China); the proliferation of protest movements and alternative networks; and the distinctively different models of appropriate artistic practice, foregrounded in major survey exhibitions, such as Documenta 11 of 2002 and the fiftieth Venice Biennale in 2003, and in the subsequent disarray among curators and critics. Classic conceptions of modernity and modernism, postmodernity and postmodernism—to say nothing of the implied bonds between social formation and artistic practice carried by these terms—cannot be stretched and patched to carry this degree of spinout. And the discursive division of world art into official brands issued from the power centers and the struggling multiplicity emergent from everywhere else cannot do so either. The rich complexities of contemporaneity have set the world’s agenda since the end of the cold war, creating a nearly universal condition of permanent-seeming aftermath—Ground Zero everywhere. Yet sprinkled amidst the recursion to past and fantastical styles of security we have seen, in the artworks highlighted here, more and more insights into adaptable modes of active resistance and hopeful persistence.

Just over thirty years ago I described the international art system as still centered, however precariously and debilitatingly, on the New York artworld.[30] It is inspiring, now, to be able to see that this system, however much it strives to concentrate its power, has been transformed by a larger network of widely dispersed and variously connected sources of creative coping. A less salutary, and even more challenging, aspect of contemporaneity is the world (dis)order in which this productivity subsists.

* Terry Smith; Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity, Critical Inquiry, Summer 2006, pp. 689-707.


[7] See Shirin Neshat, ed. Lisa Corrin (exhibition catalog, Serpentine Gallery, London, and Wein Kunsthalle, Vienna, 2000), and Shirin Neshat, ed. Giorgio Verzotti (exhibition catalog, Charta and Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte, Milan, 30 Jan.–5 May 2002). The complexities of Neshat's situatedness are explored by Wendy Meryem K. Shaw, “Ambiguity and Audience in the Films of Shirin Neshat,” Third Text, no. 57 (Winter 2001–2): 43–52.
[8] Kirk Varnedoe, “Introduction,” in Modern Contemporary: Art at MoMA since 1980, ed. Varnedoe, Paola Antonelli, and Joshua Siegel (exhibition catalog, MoMA, New York, 28 Sept. 2000–30 Jan. 2001), p. 12. For a critique of MoMA's millennial exhibitions, particularly Modernstarts: People. Places. Things., see Franco Moretti, “MoMA2000: The Capitulation,” New Left Review 4, 2d ser. (July–Aug. 2000): 98–102.
[9] See Okwui Enwezor, “The Black Box,” in Documenta 11—Platform5: Exhibition (exhibition catalog, Kassel, 8 June–15 Sept. 2002), p. 55. The exhibition has attracted much partisan comment, pro and con. More useful are questions such as those raised by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, “Ordering the Universe: Documenta 11 and the Apotheosis of the Occidental Gaze,” Art Journal 64 (Spring 2005): 80–89.
[10] Diedrich Diederichsen, “Formalismus,” Artforum 29 (Mar. 2005): 231.
[11] Ibid. He alludes to Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland (1998; Dijon, 2002) and Post-Production (New York, 2002), both discussed in Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, no. 110 (Fall 2004): 51–79.
[12] Diederichsen, “Formalismus,” p. 231.
[13] Donald Kuspit, “The Contemporary and the Historical,” Artnet, 13 Apr. 2005, www.artnet. com/Magazine/features/kuspit/kuspit4-14-05.asp; hereafter abbreviated “CH.” These views are given fuller treatment in Kuspit, The End of Art (New York, 2004).
[14] I thank Okwui Enwezor for reminding me of this relation; it was crucial to the conceptualization of the symposium Modernity and Contemporaneity: Antinomies of Art and Culture after the Twentieth Century, jointly convened by us with Nancy Condee and held at the University of Pittsburgh, 4–6 November 2004, in which many of the issues raised in this essay were canvassed. See Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity and Contemporaneity, ed. Smith, Nancy Condee, and Enwezor (Durham, N.C., forthcoming).
[15] As I write these lines, my mind's eye passes across the street and through the rooms of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, where the fifty-fourth Carnegie International was shown, November 2004 to March 2005. A number of works in that show display an urge to engage with contemporaneity in the ways I have just sketched. These include Kutlug Ataman's Kuba (2004), Paul Chan's Happiness (Finally) after 35,000 Years of Civilization—after Henry Darger and Charles Fourier (2000–2003), Maurizio Cattelan's Now (2004), Francis Alÿs's The Prophet (a series begun 1992), Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's Reading Inaow for Female Corpse (2001), Fernando Bryce's Revolución (2004), a number of recent paintings by Neo Rausch, Harun Farocki's Eye/Machine II (2002), Julie Mehretu's Untitled (Stadia) (2004), Isa Genzhken's Empire/Vampire, Who Kills Death (2003), Rachael Harrison's Untitled (Perth Amboy) (2001), and Oliver Payne and Nick Relph's film, Driftwood (1999). Carnegie International curator Laura Hoptman opted for art that, she felt, dealt with “the Ultimates. . . . fundamentally human questions: the nature of life and death, the existence of God, the anatomy of belief” (Laura Hoptman, “The Essential Thirty-eight,” The Fifty-fourth Carnegie International, ed. Hoptman [exhibition catalog, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, 9 Oct. 2004–20 Mar. 2005], pp. 17, 35).
[16] See Hans Robert Jauss, “Modernity and Literary Tradition,” trans. Christian Thorne, Critical Inquiry 31 (Winter 2005): 329–64.
[17] Augustine places this sense of time, that of the “human soul,” against God's eternal time, and goes on to note that “these three do somehow exist in the mind, for otherwise I do not see them: there is present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation” (Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Hal M. Helms [Orleans, Mass., 1986], p. 246). I am indebted to Wolf Schäfer, “Global History and the Present Time,” in Wiring Prometheus: Globalization, History, and Technology, ed. Peter Lyth and Helmut Trischler (Aarhus, Denmark, 2004), p. 103, for this reminder.
[18] Boris Groys, “Topology of Contemporary Art,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture.
[19] Quoted in Schäfer, “Global History and the Present Time,” p. 120.
[20] This responds to one of the dilemmas posed by Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: An Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London, 2002).
[21] A key concept in Derrida's later work, the most relevant texts here being Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, 1994) and the interview following 9/11, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides,” trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago, 2003).
[22] Baudelaire's famous formulation—“La modernité, c'est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l'art, dont l'autre moitié est l'e´ternel et l'immuable” (“By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable”)—appears in Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1864), “The Painter of Modern Life” and Other Essays, trans. Jonathan Mayne (London, 1964), p. 12.
[23] See J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web (New York, 2003), esp. the introduction and chap. 8.
[24] Manuel de Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York, 2000), p. 21; see also pp. 227–74.
[25] See Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, 2003) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York, 2005).
[26] Schäfer, “Global History and the Present Time,” p. 110.
[27] I argue this in “Aboriginality and Postmodernity: Parallel Lives,” the concluding chapter of Smith, Transformations in Australian Art, 2 vols. (Sydney, 2002), 2: 144–67.
[28] Osama bin Laden, interview with Hamid Mir, The Observer, 11 Nov. 2001, p. 3.
[29] See Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, N.J., 2005).
[30] See Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Artforum 13 (Sept. 1974): 54–59.