Categorically Re-thought

This is funny, disagreeably agreeable and general snack for thought:

Contemporary art is an easy thing to hate. All the meaningless hype, the identikit openings in cities that blur into one long, banal, Beck’s beer fuelled anxiety dream from which there is no escape. The seemingly endless proliferation of biennials—the biennialization or banalization of the world. One begins to think that everything aspires to resemble the opening of a Frieze art fair and every culture wants its own cheeky Damien or spunky Tracey. Glamour, celebrity, business, and radiant superficiality blend together to give each location the patina of globality with just a frisson of local color. People talk excitedly of what’s hot and what’s selling for millions. Capricious and seemingly tyrannical übercurators wander around quickly with their assistants talking on cell phones. The sharp eyes of eager young gallerists track them like prey, waiting for the moment to pounce. Everyone is either on the make or wants to be on the make. Contemporary art has become a high-end, global culture mall, which requires very little previous literacy and where the routine flatness of the gossip allows you to get up to speed very quickly. People with the right connections or serious amounts of money or sheer stubborn persistence or who are prepared to do anything can quickly gain access to what has the appearance of a cultural experience. God, it’s awful isn’t it? And I haven’t even mentioned how this art system is fed by the seemingly endless proliferation of art schools, M.F.A. programs, and the progressive inflation of graduate degrees, where Ph.D.s in fine art are scattered like confetti.

It is difficult not to be cynical about contemporary art. Maybe the whole category of the “contemporary” needs much more reflection. Maybe it needs replacing. When does the contemporary cease to be contemporary and become something past? When did the modern become the contemporary? Will the contemporary one day become modern or will there, in the future, be museums of postmodern art: MOPMAs? Why not call contemporary “present art” or “actual art” or “potential art,” or, better, “actually potential art” (APA)? At least it sounds more Aristotelian. But, then again, why use temporal categories at all? Why not use spatial terms instead? Some have spoken of visual art as spatial art, which is an attractive idea. Whichever way one approaches it, however, the categories need to be seriously rethought through research that is historiographical, institutional, and anthropological. The problem with contemporary art is that we all think we know what it means and we don’t. As a consequence, the discourse that surrounds it is drastically impoverished.

But despite such confusions of reference and the horrors of the contemporary art business model—or perhaps even because of it—I want to defend contemporary art, up to a point. It is simply a fact that contemporary art has become the central placeholder for the articulation of cultural meanings—good, bad, or indifferent. I am middle-aged enough to remember when literature, especially the novel, played this role and when cultural gatekeepers were literary critics, or social critics, often from literary backgrounds. That world is gone. The novel has become a quaint, emotively life-changing, and utterly marginal phenomenon. The heroic critics of the past are no more. I watched this change happen slowly when I still lived in England in the sensation-soaked 1990s and recall, as a kind of cultural marker, the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and immensely long lines queuing up to see a vast spider by Louise Bourgeois in the Turbine Hall. It was clear that something had shifted in the culture.