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OBJECT The Contemporary
Distance is not a safety zone but a field of tension. It is manifested not in relaxing the claim of ideas of truth, but in delicacy and fragility of thinking. ... The distance of thought from reality is itself nothing but the precipitate of history in concepts.
— Theodor Adorno
John Dewey, in his Logic, makes an informative distinction between things and objects. Things are simply in the world. Objects are the products of inquiry. Dewey writes:
The term objects will be reserved for the subject-matter so far as it has been produced and ordered in settled form by means of inquiry; proleptically, objects are the objectives of inquiry. The apparent ambiguity of using "objects" for this purpose (since the word is regularly applied to things that are observed or thought of) is only apparent. For things exist as objects for us only as they have been previously determined as outcomes of inquiry. When used in carrying on new inquiries in new problematic situations, they are known as objects in virtue of prior inquiries that warrant their assertibility. In the new situation, they are means of attaining knowledge of something else. In the strict sense, they are part of the contents of inquiry. But retrospectively (that is, as products of prior determination in inquiry) they are objects.
This somewhat idiosyncratic but perfectly coherent use of the term object thus indicates that the term covers both the products of inquiry as well as forming the objects, so to speak, of further inquiry.
Throughout this book I will follow a pattern of introducing Object sections. They will present to the reader the products of assembled syntheses that constitute the objects in virtue of prior inquiry and observation. They are the proverbial data. They are not a list of facts, although they are factual. They are not examples, although they are meant to be indicative, in a specific manner, of elements in a larger configuration. Thus, in my use, objects are a type of evidence. Being products of prior inquiry, it is fair to say, they are empirical. To that degree, they can be used to diagnose and define with more clarity the parameters of a subsequent stage of inquiry.
Objects and Objectives 1: The Contemporary
The first such object concerns the contemporary. Furthering an understanding of this object, how it might best be approached and to what end, constitutes a central objective of my efforts.
The venerable avant-garde journal October devoted a large portion of its Fall 2009 issue, number 131, to "A Questionnaire on the Contemporary." Hal Foster, writing on behalf of the journal's editors, sent out the following questionnaire to seventy critics and curators. He notes that very few curators responded. The questionnaire reads as follows:
The category of "contemporary art" is not a new one. What is new is the sense that, in its very heterogeneity, much present practice seems to float free of historical determination, conceptual definition, and critical judgment. Such paradigms as "the neo-avant-garde" and "postmodernism" which once oriented some art and theory, have run into the sand, and arguably, no models of much explanatory reach or intellectual force have risen in their stead. At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, "contemporary art" has become an institutional object in its own right: in the academic world there are professorships and programs, and in the museum world departments and institutions, all devoted to the subject, and most tend to treat it as apart not only from prewar practice but from most postwar practice as well.
Is this floating-free real or imagined? A merely local perception? A simple effect of the end-of-grand narratives? If it is real, how can we specify some of its principal causes, that is, beyond general reference to "the market" and "globalization"? Or is it indeed a direct outcome of a neoliberal economy, one that, moreover, is now in crisis? What are some of its salient consequences for artists, critics, curators, and historians — for their formation and their practice alike? Are there collateral effects in other fields of art history? Are there instructive analogies to be drawn from the situation in other arts and disciplines? Finally, are there benefits to this apparent lightness of being?
All of the responses — thirty-two out of the seventy invited — are conspicuously staid. Although the majority of the respondents are cutting-edge academic critics (most of them employed in the elite institutions of the American university system), in their responses none take any stylistic liberties of any significance and none experiment with form. It is as if they had been sent a questionnaire, which they took literally in the way that deep down they knew was what they excelled at doing: writing academic prose and agilely performing in situating themselves as cutting-edge. The tone, and the undertones, of disquiet of the replies reveals that there are felt to be vital stakes involved in the issues raised; the reason perhaps for the gravity of the responses rides as well on the fact that how to answer these questions both within the critical university establishment and in the art world of museums, galleries, auction houses, and festivals remains unsettled. In fact, the negotiated distance or lack thereof between these diverse fields of symbolic and monetary capital, to use Pierre Bourdieu's terms, is a principal stake, a source of anxiety, and a fountainhead of uncertainty for those concerned.
Although there are nuances of tone, of insight, and of fervor to be found in the range of responses, almost all of them insightful, a consistent broad thematic does run across the replies; few, if any, contest October's tentative diagnosis of the state of things in the world of art and art criticism. Significantly, none of the respondents actually directly takes up Hal Foster's challenge to move beyond "general references to the 'market' and 'globalization.'" This lack of engagement does not mean that "globalization" or the "market" are not being constantly invoked and evoked, only that no sustained, serious sociological or economic analysis is provided (or even referenced). This absence of scholarly curiosity, or felt necessity, to engage a vast literature on these topics is striking and revelatory: this is a self-referential peer group that has internalized the existing genre constraints at work in their disciplines. Or perhaps, these critics are so dependent and connected to the turbulent effects of these myriad market forces and the venues and trends they create that to take the time to address them in an adequate manner would be to exclude oneself from the current hyper-accelerated game of contemporary art. Time is of the essence, and timeliness is mandatory. Apparently, being untimely is too risky professionally at this conjuncture for these contemporaries.
There is broad agreement that even though there is no stable scholarly or commercial consensus on what contemporary art is (and is not), the growth over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century of institutions to display it, explore it, and sell it has been rapid and defining. Not only has there been an expansion of the scale of the well-known biennales; there has also been a globalization of their sites and contributors as more and more venues are created, financed, and visited by artists, dealers, curators, and critics as well as tourists and amateurs of all kinds. More surprisingly, given the dispositional and institutional lethargy of the academic world, there has been a mushroom-like establishment of university investment in contemporary or contemporary/modern art with the associated courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. And, of course, there has been a "transience" in the branding of the object being named (if such it be) driven by a great flow of money, or artistic producers and directors, of critics within and outside of museums, auction houses, and the academy. And then, lest we forget, there is the Internet.
It would almost certainly be misleading, however, to characterize the state of affairs in this part of the art world as a crisis. To call it a crisis would imply that the existence of the older art institutions is in danger; that suddenly there was a steep falling-off of money and audience (as in the classical music world); or that the mood of those involved was either somber or torpid. As none of these conditions apply, we can only say that "the times they are a-changin'."
Thus, for an anthropologist of the contemporary, the art world's contemporary qualifies as a plausible object of study and reflection. As an undertaking, such a study is neither my current goal nor consonant with my expertise. Here I offer a few observations in order to get clearer about the current range of the term "the contemporary" — and to clear some more ground for subsequent explorations.
1b. Accelerations: The View from MoMA's Escalator
One of a small number of curators to respond to October's questionnaire was Helen Molesworth — head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art (created in 1997) and the Houghton Curator of Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museum. Her reflections are among the most thoughtful and balanced of those appearing in the issue. Her core diagnosis of the current state of play turns in part on her observation that "for many, the un-answerability of questions about quality, the lack of consensus about importance, the newfound vitality of the viewer, and the perpetual influx of new art are all causes to rejoice." As a curator, Molesworth cannot comfortably embrace this state of affairs, which she nicely labels "festivalism." The reason for her discursive pitch of caution is that, as a curator, she is obliged, after all is said and done, to make choices precisely about quality, importance, vitality, and the cacophonous influx of artistic production. She laments the fact that even her most distinguished fellow curators, even while they are organizing shows at the most prestigious and well-funded institutions on contemporary art, are uncharacteristically unsure and noncommittal; after some hesitation, they have decided to make a virtue of what they take to be a necessity. She writes tellingly that even "MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art in New York] seems unwilling to narrativize what is at stake." And that refusal authorizes others in less prestigious institutions not to commit to a standard beyond the numbers of people drawn to visit the museum or gallery, the experience of the art and artists, and a sense that another show will soon be on exhibit.
Johanna Burton — associate director and senior faculty member of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York City — describes her disquiet and irritation while riding the escalators at MoMA at the cascade of things on display apparently without order or hierarchy except, of course, that they are at MoMA and hence are valuable and worthy of regard, however obligatorily nonjudgmental. One might say that she regrets being mandated to occupy the stance of a flâneur when she was trained to be an arbiter of taste. The contemporary operates as a category, Burton writes, in two different ways: "as a category so pluralist and wide-reaching in its vicissitudes and effects that it would seem all-encompassing, and as a newly secured 'institutional object' recognized as particular (or at least pervasive) enough to be jockeying for legitimacy within the field of art history." The theme of the dispersion of authority is introduced by a number of respondents with notable ambivalence. Alexander Alberro, the Virginia Bloedel Wright Associate Professor of Art History at Barnard College and Columbia University, observes: "Gone is the chic collector who seeks cultural capital, let alone the connoisseur of early modernism; art collecting today is largely dominated by purchase of sheer speculation."
This diagnosis is linked to a broader claim that there is a near total void of a sophisticated and conceptually rich analysis of reception. What is mentioned, perhaps a little timidly and sotto voce, by a number of these art historians, is the felt need to reestablish, in some fashion or other, that fashion being undersigned and undefended, the learned critic's privilege and legitimate authority to lay claim to judgments of "objectivity" and "disinterestedness." Of course, theory-driven critical discourse within the elite academy over the last several decades has itself spearheaded the deconstruction of such notions as merely historical, arbitrary remnants of modernism and its advocates. Additionally, the blurring or elimination of the line between high and low, or popular and elite, or individual and community, or art production and art criticism has been established with a near hegemonic authority. Some of those who championed these developments, and who still, to an extent at least, appreciate their value, are now wondering about some of the unexpected ramifications of their theorizing practice.
Current artistic practice is extremely heterogeneous, yet in theoretical and critical writing on contemporary art one often finds a quite consistent set of terms employed to analyze artistic practices. I am thinking in particular of Agamben's "homo sacer," "bare life," and "state of exception"; Jean-Luc Nancy's "inoperative community"; Jacques Rancière's "partition of the sensible"; Negri and Hardt's "multitude"; Laclau and Mouffe's "radical democracy"; and Balibar's "transnational citizenship."
It seems at times as if awareness was suddenly stirring among these holders of endowed chairs that they are reaping what they, or their advisers, have sown. Among those ramifications appears a current that negates or eludes the very practice of history as the study of a past per se:
Perhaps paradoxically, then, the horizon of contemporary art history is in fact the past, not the present. The field against or on which it operates is what we think we already know. The present is not arrived at through the past but the reverse. I think contemporary art history is best when it is de/constructivist of "contemporary," "art" and "history" alike.
The only paradox is that one stream of doxa has become dominant. And that dominance increasingly precludes, at least in certain venues, a sustained attention to and presentation of the past. The line between "presentism" and the "history of the present" is, when it comes down to it, under conceptualized and no longer controlled by those who are, or were, authorized to think about such arcane topics.
1c. The Beautiful Cloud
Although MoMA's curators are apparently reluctant to name the order obtaining in the contemporary art scene, others are not so reluctant: one offering of the contemporary state of affairs has been "narrativized" in Yves Michaud's short book (or long essay) L'art à l'état gazeux: Essai sur le triomphe de l'esthétique published in the summer of 2003. Michaud, a prolific philosopher and critic in the Parisian style, argues that the special domain of art as the privileged site of the aesthetic, which had prevailed for centuries, has come to an end. What has replaced it, gradually for a time, and then in an accelerated and triumphant fashion more recently, is the ever-increasing spread — like a cloud of invisible and euphoria-inducing gas — of the aesthetic into more and more realms of life.
Michaud identifies three main causes for the state of the contemporary situation. The first is the progressive undermining and eventual disappearance of the art object as the unchallenged pivot of the aesthetic experience. Michaud provides a long discussion of the gradual dissolution of the autonomous art object during the progressive triumph of modern art over the course of the twentieth century. He traces genealogically the origin of this dissolution in modernism to the decade of the 1910s with the appearance and eventual acceptance of collage (papier collé). Sixty years later, he cites the critic and advocate of modernism, Harold Rosenberg, as having identified as early as 1972 the deaestheticization of the art object. These and a plethora of other examples bolster Michaud's thesis that the end of the autonomous art object does not by any means entail the end of art: quite the opposite in Michaud's view.
As the art object became displaced and eventually replaced by a broader understanding and practice of the aesthetic experience, it became clear quite early on in the process that there could be multiple other paths leading to such an experience than painting and the other nineteenth-century fine arts. If it is the "effect" side that begins to colonize aesthetic experience, then the trend to more and more technical means of generating such experiences is not surprising. It follows that its production requires engineers and managers as much as artists. The twentieth century has seen a vast expansion of the industrial production of cultural and symbolic goods. Perhaps most famously in the Bauhaus, the older demarcation zones were brought into closer proximity. This process certainly had its democratizing dimension; it also required more standardization and the industries that could make such products available for mass distribution.
Excerpted from "Unconsolable Contemporary"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction. Form and Birkenau 1
1. Object: The Contemporary 15
2. Constellations: Writing and Imaging Strife 33
3. Assembling: Abet and Facilitate 65
4. Composition: Technē and Pathos 95
5. Contemporary Consolations: Unconsoled 125
6. Restive Endings 141
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