Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What is Contemporary Art?

Travels with Isabella 1 (2008), Luisa Rabbia

I stole my question from—“Predicting the Present”—an interview with science fiction writer Cory Doctorow in the Harvard Business Review.

His answer:
I believe that from the artist’s perspective, today’s art must presuppose copying. If you are making art that you expect people not to copy, then you are not making contemporary art.
A bold claim; it places the activity of copying at the center of contemporary art-making. I struggled with this at first. Maybe I was in denial, but I didn’t want to believe that “copying” could be the prevailing zeitgeist. After several days researching and writing this essay, I’m coming to see the light of our Xerox-infatuated culture . . .

Let’s resurrect that boogie of a concept, “postmodernism”. After John Barth, famed contemporary novelist, first condemned postmodernism as the “literature of exhaustion”, he later recanted and saw the possibility for a “replenishment” and a transcendent “synthesis” in literature. He wrote:
The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and ‘contentism’, pure and committed literature” to combine the most vital aspects of past literatures.(1)
The exact terms that Barth uses are not as important as his idea of synthesis. I believe contemporary art, and specifically contemporary fiction, sees itself as a synthesis of genres, styles, approaches, materials, and modes. This has to do with the tendency in contemporary art to distrust “totalizing mechanisms” and “grand narratives”, and instead to employ ironic juxtaposition, pastiche (mixing high and low art), and imbuing works with a na├»ve sense of playfulness.(2)

Novelists aren’t the only ones recycling outmoded genres and repackaging them, musicians are too. Portland band, the Decembrists, loosely based their fourth album, The Crane Wife, on a Japanese folk tale; but listening to the album, you’re more likely to attribute the lyrics to 19th century Irish literature. While combining many styles, baroque pop, progressive rock, and folk music, the transcendent, replenishing synthesis John Barth refers to becomes increasingly self-evident.

We are living in the age of the re-mix
; where the creative act of re-mixing and combining styles and vignettes claims an originality of its own. This may be scary to some, but to others it means unfettered creative freedom.

One musician and producer from Israel, known as Kutiman, rose to fame almost over night with his music video project ThruYOU. Kutiman created a seven track wonder from video material exclusively found on YouTube. Each track mixes samples, such as drumbeats and base lines, to produce seamless melodies and elaborate compositions. The tracks employ a variety of instruments (guitars, pianos, drums, harps, synthesizers), and reflect a variety of influences (R&B, Funk, Reggae, Jungle, Afro and Jazz).(3)

Under the same sky 5 (2009), Luisa Rabbia

The collagist impulse, I argue, is seen across disciplines. A parallel to Kutiman is Luisa Rabbia in the art world. Recently I read an interview with Rabbia in Art in America (June-July 2009). Rabbia’s range of works include drawings, collages, video art, porcelain and paper-mache sculptures. In her most recent project, she uses images on the web that have been made by someone else, much like Kutiman uses video clips from YouTube, and integrates these images into a “non-existent landscape”.

The collagist impulse in contemporary art is more than merely combining images, sounds, or pieces of text. I see it as inherently social and global—a departure from the artist’s role as private and alienated from society. With technology that knits us together in a million different ways, there is now an augmented awareness of each other.

Local issues become more prominent and so do seemingly random intersections between different parts of the world. Along with the freedom implicit in new technologies and mediums, artists embrace a mixture of narratives and feel comfortable (and liberated) creating their own story from the varicolored cloth of the many.

Rabbia writes, “What is different now is the fact that the images are not mine, but come from the experiences of other people. I stare at the images a long time, and try to bring my own journey into their journey.”

A la Guerre comme a la Guerre #1, Michael Cheval

When talking about contemporary art, I also use the term “collage” as a metaphor for combining disparate elements into a singular tableau. Michael Cheval, a Russian artist who I’ve written about before, borrows the style and technique of 17th century Dutch art and combines them with his own surrealistic dreamscapes. The historical elements in Cheval’s paintings, 17th century dress, courtly figures, jesters are not historical references; but instead part of an inventive and original assemblage.

Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai-shi, Japan (2001), Toyo Ito

I’ve always felt that architecture, more so than any of the other arts, presages the future. There may not be any truth to this, but it has served me as a guide. Toyo Ito is the Japanese architect who was commissioned to design the Berkley Museum of Art in California. His buildings evoke the complexity, maddening paradoxes, and transcendent, replenishing synthesis of contemporary art.

To begin with, none of his buildings look alike.(4) They are independent of a dominant mode or aesthetic style. Furthermore, Ito experiments with reversing expectations in modern architecture and design. The Sendai Mediatheque, a library and exhibition space, has the trappings of a Modernist building—from the distance, the building looks like a conventional glass box—but upon closer investigation, one notices “white latticework tubes that pierce the top of the structure”.(5) The juxtaposition of Modernist rigidity and outlandish, outer-space tubes extending “down through the entire structure” imbues the building with a lavish sense of freedom.

Kaohsiung Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2009), Toyo Ito

The 44,000-seat Kaohsiung stadium designed by Ito goes even further with pushing the boundaries of contradiction. A stadium that resembles a giant coiled snake combines the expansiveness of a super-stadium while maintaining a transparency and openness between inner and outer worlds. Nicolai Ouroussoff, from the New York Times, writes, “Mr. Ito’s stadium seeks to maximize our awareness of it while still creating a sense of enclosure.”

I love how Ito describes his architecture. “I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body. The in between is more interesting to me.”

Contemporary art revels in the spaces in between. In between materials, styles, stories, histories, and techniques. Contemporary art is the art of perpetual discovery, an art without a destination, only entry points and possibilities. And if it is true what Corey Doctorow says about today’s art presupposing copying, then it is only because copying is merely a first step towards something greater and less recognizable.

More essays are available at Escape into Life

Image Credits:

Travels with Isabella 1 (2008), Luisa Rabbia
Under the same sky 5 (2009), Luisa Rabbia
A la Guerre comme a la Guerre #1, Michael Cheval
Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai-shi, Japan (2001), Toyo Ito
Kaohsiung Stadium, Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2009), Toyo Ito


gingatao said...

That is a stunningly intelligent and precise overview. My only question is Shakespeare remixing old histories and narratives, classical musicians using folk tunes, and so on. Is the phenomenon you are describing really a mark of the contemporary? And does it have broader implications regarding the nature of creativity itself?

5affy said...

Having spent the last few days with artists from Australia I struggeled to discribe my art to them as I have no idea what genre I fit etc... and am not even sure what counts as art and what counts as craft. Being of retirement age they didn't get that I put my pictures on my blogs and that I even tell people how to make things I've made with step by step photos and instructions for free.

To me if people copy they are being very flattering - a photographer friend of mine has a similar attitude and gets annoyed only when they take the low res images and blow them up when the high res ones are there that they could use!

I like the idea of someone taking an idea or concept I've come up with and doing something better with it - but I've had friends go mental at me for putting stories or science essays on line for free they say I'm ruining the market for them. Again this was an issue I had when working for the small publishers - they just could not grasp having 'fans' that come back again and again rather than buying a one off book.

They wanted e-books and then they didn't becuase people could copy and they asked me to hobble things in away that was bad for disabled access to the work etc... to stop sharing that is just as likely to happen with a book- ie people leaned/give to charity shops books they have read.

But I have ended up ready whole series becuase someone lent me the first book - which I have then bought copies of to give to people.

I love the concept of the spaces inbetween hence I have the domain name though haven't done anything with it - me and two friends wanted to do a cross genre e-zine with it but just havent had the time.

I don't really know much about art and art history - it is something I've only been exploring recently. I do however beleive that for the first time in history art is being shaped not by relgion, or one society but by global influences both current and historic - news and information is wide spread and people can talk to people the other sidde of the world easily.

Each person is now multilayered, they have local culture and global but also a personal 'culture' but with all these external stimuli can any piece of art be said not to be copying in some context?

Having said all of this I would be very annoyed is a big company took one of my images or constructs and made a fortune off of it with no credit and worse blocked the use of that for free to other smaller organisations or individuals or copied it shodderly and made it dangerous in some fashion.

It is an interesting question and raises many more - I myself have been struggling with a more base question of what makes art art - I feel that many people who say they are artistists but (and here I get shouted at) only have technical ability ie they can copy a scene perfectly but they cannot come up with an idea or concept that is even vaguely orginal.

Again sorry for the spellings!

Teia Hassey said...

Well written essay. Bravo!

I love contemporary art. I admire how someone can take their views and ideas to create a unique piece of inspiration. Something that leaves you in wonder and amazement.

Contemporary architecture has always taken my breath away. Toyo Ito left me in bewilderment when he designed the Kaohsiung stadium. Another one I marvel at is the Burj Al Arab hotel. Yet, I do not think that would be considered contemporary since it is modeled after a sail boat. I still love it.

As long as art is recreated or altered to leave open for the imagination, I do not considered that "copying". Certainly if it leaves people in wonderment.

warren said...

Presupposing copying a la Doctorow is part of it, I suppose; but there's also the question of art-as-commodity.

The romantic myth of the tortured artist who dies penniless only to be appreciated after his death (van Gogh, anyone?) is given the lie by undeniable artists such as Ito.

There's a crossover there, I think, a mix of art and marketability, which might or might not be problematic.

I find it hard to imagine some people choosing an Ito design for a building, so if art is locked down to or defined by what sells, we can get into trouble. (Leaving aside arguments about needing to expand social horizons.) On the other hand one does eventually have to make one's way in the world.

You know, the thought just occurred that contemporary art has always been with us. Whatever art was being done at any time has always, by definition, been contemporary; it's only in retrospect that movements were identified.

I suppose if it's vigorous, interesting and at least somewhat accessible it could be seen as expressive art; but it'll take a generation to decide whether it's worth keeping around. Consider the overall verdict on Mappelthorpe versus, perhaps, Warhol.

Kimber Scott said...

Warren makes a perfect point when he says all art has been contemporary during its time. I would add, along with gingatao, artists have always "copied" their contemporaries and predecessors in one way, or another. Artists during the Renaissance - and much of art thereafter, even until today - looked to the Greeks as a model of perfection. The Academics looked to the ancients and the Orient for inspiration. The Impressionists were enamored with the flatness of Asian art. The abstract movement began with the idea one must start with something in order to take it apart and this something was the past. In taking apart the past they were required to look at the past. And so it goes. In our time, as you point out in your essay, artists from all over the world are free to express themselves in any of these past styles, or to combine them to make "new" ones.

This is a very thoughtful essay and adds a lot of clarity to what we do as artists. Thanks!

kira_arg said...

Very impressive essay on a vast subject; covered so many fields: Art, Architecture, Writing, Music, etc. Agree with the comments above that artists, writers, etc. have copied their predecessors throughout history.

What is different in the present context is the making of collages by copying and synthesizing various genres, styles, approaches, etc. (As mentioned in the essay). Never before have so many styles amalgamated into Art all at once. If one traces Art through ages (in any culture be it the Orient or the Occident) one would find that the process of copying and change (from one style to another) has always been laborious, ultra slow and all consuming.) Not so in this day and age!

With the internet, the world has shrunk and expanded at the same time. I might go as far as to say the internet democratizes everyone and everything. No longer do we have time for "totalizing mechanisms" and "grand narratives". Every idea is at once glorified and vilified by the masses. Finally I feel that Art in the Contemporary sense is like a teenager telling everyone to "just chill, dude"!!! :)

Lethe said...

gingatao: I don't think Shakespeare ever thought of what he was doing as "re-mixing". My guess is that Shakespeare prefers to conceal sources whereas the re-mix likes the announce sources.

I don't see a connection. Inter-textuality has always been around. Texts look to each other as inspiration and influence. But that's not what I'm talking about.

The style I'm describing is not only a style; and that's why it may be confusing. There is as you say a timeless aspect to humans and art. And maybe my words echo with that for you. But the purpose of my essay is to designate the aspects which are bound by time. Determined by temportality. Mortal stories.

5affy: Artists are the ones who have the hardest time with identifying themselves.

Teia: "As long as art is recreated or altered to leave open for the imagination, I do not considered that "copying"." And is copying bad even if it was?

warren: This is an issue I do not explicitly talk about, art as commodity. Funny b/c I took out a section in one of the earlier drafts about contemporary art as process and performance over static object. We relate to art in different ways. We relate to it as an activity or an object. The objectification of art is capitalism grinding away the distinction b/w life and work.

We are becoming advertisements. Everyone of us. And consequently art is becoming an advertisement to a band, a corporation, a president, an individual, a genius, a weirdo.

Whatever the case, art and money have always been connected to each other. No artist or author has created without the thought of profiting from her labor. However, the commodification of society at large is not solely about art.

About all art being contemporary, yes but this dodges the purpose of the question. The question asks, "What is it?" The answer must treat the subject of it.

There are no big "movements" today. And there will no longer be "movements" as we knew them. Everything in our time is a blip the is replaced by another blip.

Memory is losing to the battle against abundance.

Kimberly: Thanks you for that concise explanation of art history. And about your first remark, copying as I see it is different than copy ideal forms. Copy today, as you point out, is a form of destruction: "one must start with something in order to take it apart."

Kira: Thank you. You interpreted this essay very well. Almost exactly to what I was thinking when I wrote it.

anita lobo said...

The spaces in between, are the place of change and inspiration. Where the mind's preparation is uninhibited by normal controls, and leaps to new levels of insight. There's a fascinating interview of Josh Waitzkin by Scott Kaufmann on Psychology today. His perspective about 'empty space within' resonates with your thought.
This is a wonderfully thought provoking and well-written post.

Mark Kerstetter said...

"Copying" is indeed one of the primary modes of contemporary art, but saying, "If you are making art that you expect people not to copy, then you are not making contemporary art" is going too far. I knew an artist who sat down and with his hands molded spheres out of concrete as big as he could handle (ie, not quite as big as a volleyball). When he had ten or so of them he built a long platform and placed them in a line. The name of the piece was something like 'from Lascaux to the Louvre.' Who was he copying? What was he copying? Some plausible answers come to mind, but more to the point, did he expect someone to copy him? Doctorow's emphasis is wrong, since it seems to favor certain types of art, especially those that can be disseminated on the Internet. Works like the cement spheres are based on their physical presence and on the thought process that they initiate concerning the making of things by hand. The more time people spend online the more we will need such works. One must remember that contemporary artists don't simply open their arms to the world as the best of all possible ones. They also stand outside and comment on it. Sometimes the best way to do this is to make something that cannot be easily duplicated.

DARIAN ZAM said...

It's definitely heaven for "Slashies" like me.

We are living in the age of the re-mix; where the creative act of re-mixing and combining styles and vignettes claims an originality of its own. This may be scary to some, but to others it means unfettered creative freedom.

ownnothing said...

"Contemporary art" in its most simplistic terms is art which is produced contemporaneously. All art produced in one's own lifetime, by this definition, is considered "contemporary". What distinguishes one contempoary artist from another is the degree to which the artist has assimilated historical influences and made them their own. No artist can completely throw off derivative elements in their work, but the challenge for any artist, at any period of time, is to find their own voice, given historical precedent. "Contemporary art", at its best, distinguishes itself by its separation from the past, by its originality, by the unique and honest expression of its creator.

syrimne said...

Great essay Lethe.

In terms of commenting on the trend itself, I get the freedom in this, I do. I love the access I have to so many influences and styles and samples and voices from all over the globe.

...And I miss any comment on how this might change, disrupt, challenge the honing of an individual person as an instrument of their art (or life) into something more than a marketable object. There is a danger in this as an artist (or a human) that it simply is another way to throw up walls between one another, to lesson the visibility of the depths of the individual creating the art, and worse...diminishing the importance of having to experience life to attain that depth in the first place. All of these people after all obscure...well, all of these people, and even life itself.

I like to think the real potential of art lies where it maker carries the personal depth to be able to pass on something of real meaning...not simply to entertain us, or to stimulate our senses...or even our minds when we are bored, or to impress our friends with our cleverness or originality. If that is all I should expect from art, then there really is nothing more to us but a collection of nattering minds, chattering at one another incessantly, trying only to be heard.

In my personal experience, the further you go into others' minds and away from the real experience of bumping through life, the more your work feels like a "copy." I notice this all the time - fan fiction, sorry to say, lacks depth. When writers I like start distancing themselves from the world and writing fiction based on copies of other fiction or even their own, it loses something. Copies don't actually carry the same depth as can't learn the same lesson from reading a book about drugs as you can from trying them yourself. Maybe a poor example, but I could list hundreds of examples of people "psuedo-experiencing" life through copies of copies of copies...and not even noticing the difference, or the voraciousness of their own appetites because the copies never sate them...

I do completely disagree with you on one point. There will definitely be (and continue to be) movements of human art and otherwise. They are happening everywhere, all over...people tend to gravitate towards one another even in cyberspace. I think right now the idea of "movement" is changing and vague and fragmented and localized because we all feel so cut off from one another and things move fast, but I think that lack of community is causing a crisis in many ways, not stabilizing into some kind of new evolutionary norm. Where there's a vacuum, something new always emerges.

Anyway - doesn't disagree with [m]any of the points of your essay, I just wanted to throw that out there, because, well, dammit, it matters to me.

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