Smith Paragraph

Contemporary art, as Terry Smith demonstrates in this excerpt of “What is Contemporary Art?”, is difficult to define. He finds this art period, if one can refer to today’s art as a movement at all, in a state of constant flux that makes generalizing the emerging global art community entirely impossible. This is an issue for art historians, artists, curators, and admirers alike — if contemporary art escapes definition, or remains a self-defining concept, then what is the next step? Smith’s logic points to a strange truth, no definition of a movement then makes the movement infinite, such that there are no new ideas that emerge, since one cannot distinguish any self-defined work from another contemporary work. The emergence of mass media, aided by technology, gives contemporary artists new tools to exemplify their ideas, mainly through what Smith refers to as the “iconomy”, a new language of imagery that perpetuates all media, thus becoming relevant to any aspect of the new human condition. Where contemporary art falls short however, is the myth of the spectacle. Artists feel forced, as following a modernist perspective, to sell themselves short by appealing to a global audience that feeds on celebrity and scandal which is viewed through an increasingly short attention span. The views on contemporary art, as Smith demonstrates, then become extremely polarized.

Smith defines these two opposites as “remodernism”, which takes contemporary art as a refashioning of the avant-garde modernism of the twentieth century, and “postcolonialism”, which makes contemporary art the lofty concept that defies a basic definition except as shown by an individual contemporary work. He argues for a healthy middle ground between these two concepts, one that takes into account all factors that make contemporary art a separate movement from modernist art. He find three main currents that he argues are not a progression, as they would seem, but as paths that are pursued simultaneously. The first is world currents, or the affect of globalization. One must now acknowledge the local and global impact of a work, due to mass media. Decolonization is the second path, one that takes into account a knowledge exchange unprecedented in human history, which affects the very definition of art. The third, perhaps most relevant change is the emergence of a new generation of young people assuming an active role in art, as artists and as interpreters. The focus of individual works have since transformed from a concern of making a monumental grandiose impact to a simple interaction on a smaller scale. This is perpetuated by the sharing of ideas on the global exchange of media, now the gallery is no longer the final goal for making an impact with the piece.

As a student of art history and a contemporary artist, I would say that contemporary art needs no definition yet, since the movement is still happening now. The emergence of mass media will have a major impact on how and why we create and interpret art that extends far beyond any theorist’s definition, and thus becomes the main current behind art today. I expect that the contemporary art movement will remain a time where art is defined simultaneously on a global as well as individual scale. The relativist point of view of contemporary art is one that remains most true to the movement. What is more important now than ever before is not the ideas expressed in an individual work but how that works relates to everything it interacts with. The interactive aspect of modern life affects art in a bizarre yet profound way — the shift from introspection in a work to relativistic interpretation of the work makes the artist ever more challenged to make something relevant to both themselves, their community, then finally, the entire globe.

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