Burnrate of the Contemporary

The main goal of a progressive contemporary artist should be to attempt to understand the world they live in – only then can meaningful change occur. The early twentieth-century Modernists wanted to totally change the present to work towards a possible future world. Even art itself had to be jettisoned in the project.

‘Contemporary Art’, however, works in an opposite way to this. It’s all about an eternal present that reconstitutes itself every day; an endless New perpetuated by social media and digital culture. By this reasoning, there will always be Contemporary Art because there will always be contemporaneity. To paraphrase Jacques Derrida, one can never see the totality of one’s situation whilst one is in it. As in science fiction, one needs to first visualise the future to begin making it.

During the heady but short-lived days of the Occupy Movement, artist and curator Christopher Kulendran Thomas dared to put forward an insight into a possible future by pointing out that the New may just have spent its initial capital, saying:

‘Contemporary Art faces a potentially terminal crisis. Contemporary Art has sold itself as a non-specific, expanding, universal non-genre, much as Neo Liberalism passed itself off as the natural state of things. The realisation that Contemporary Art is in fact a time-limited historical period, that can end, is a radical moment. But it’s an idea that’s gathering momentum … I can’t see what will emerge afterwards, anymore than I can see what the world economy might look like after Western dominance, but Occupy Art can be seen as foreshadowing what replaces Contemporary Art.’

By rebranding Contemporary Art as a ‘non-genre’, Kuldren Thomas essentially brackets it as an era that will end – just as it needs to if art is to really embrace the future.

So what will this ‘post-Contemporary Art’ look like? Visual art is visual; we think in images. This is our art world. What has changed in the most revolutionary way is the mode by which images are exchanged and promoted through the World Wide Web, which began around 1991. Many feel that this is when the current global ‘Contemporary Art’ begins, with its continual Art Fair / Biennial / Triennial circuits. In 1999 a new way of consuming art was heralded by Web 0.2 – the second generation of the World Wide Web when the Internet essentially became more user-friendly with social networking, blogs and low-cost web hosting.

Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s buzzwords for the then-new medium of television, ‘The Medium Is The Message’, suggested that the channel through which a message is transmitted is more important than the meaning of the message. The web – a medium with total and instant global reach – has transformed how we consume art in the most unprecedented fashion. The vast majority of art we consume is via a jpeg, rather than in the ‘real’. Our very brains and our bodies are being reshaped by new technology, especially those of digital natives. So while it could well be that post-Contemporary Art may look similar to Contemporary Art now, it is the medium that may be different.

We can begin to see the influence of technology on Contemporary Art in the dominance of ‘identity’ as social media content. We can see the real Death of History in the rise of the Google Image Search and Wikipedia. We can see Post Modernism’s profound questioning of old structures of authenticity in the rise of the meme, deep fakes and post truth.

It’s amusing that Bret Easton Ellis, the writer of 1991’s classic novel, American Psycho, was once so quick to decapitate new technology: ‘Everything has been degraded by what the sensory overload and the supposed freedom-of-choice technology has brought us, and, in short, by the democratisation of the arts.’

The manifestos of the early modern avant-gardes found they needed to negate and oppose the status quo – just as Occupy Art, Extinction Rebellion, the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protestors or any other ‘resistance’ movements are attempting. Some of the most radical of the Russian Constructivists insisted on opposing the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1917. They insisted on totally new beings who could challenge Time and Space itself. Such radicals visualised a future that Contemporary Art ignores via its endless New.

The avant-garde of the twentieth century had well and truly begun by the second decade of that century. One suspects that this century’s big changes have already begun as well.   

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 48, 2019

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