Terry Smith’s “What Is Contemporary Art?”

In Terry Smith’s view, there is a concrete answer to the question “What is contemporary art,” and contemporary art’s definability is a result of a contemporaneous art historicism which marks the birth and development of current art trends in such a way as to identify the ideas, objects and practices of contemporary artists and how these art aspects interact with one another. The answer to the book’s title, when boiled down, is that contemporary art is the reflexive, distinctive structures of stasis and change in the institutionalized and globalized economic culture of  current art. Smith applies her precise (if sometimes exhaustive) rhetoric to the question of defining contemporary art, suggesting that contemporary art may be classified as the sum of three currents of art production. The first is the aesthetic of globalization, the second is post-colonialist world diversity, and the third is the quantitative increase in young artists practicing today.

As Smith constructs reasoning for her argument that contemporary art is dominated by three currents, she identifies the problematic and numerous inner struggles of the post-colonial, post-modern and globalized art world to be resultant of “arrested art criticism” and “nervous historicism.” These uncertainties in long-established art institutions stem from the lack of a discernible cohesive or singular art movement as compared to Modern art (which began to cede dominance over the art world with the coining of the term post modern in the early 1990s). Smith presents the opposing positions of Okwui Enwezor and Kurt Varnedoe on the current state of world art. Varnedoe, Chief Curator at MOMA, holds that contemporary art is an ongoing extension of Modernism’s concerns, while Enwezor, Curator of the Documenta 11 exhibition of 2002, holds that contemporary art is a decentralized junction between different realities of the institutions of the globalized art world. She categorizes Varnedoe’s view as characteristic of Remodernist thinking and Enwezor’s view as characteristic of Retro-sensationalist thinking. Both of these analyses draw from the continued effect of modernism, though Remodernism adapts the aesthetics of modernism more readily. These two contending ideas are the institutions of the Globalized aesthetic and post-colonial currents, respectively. Along with the Spectacularist (younger artists’ acceptance of the pervasive image iconomy) institution of the third current increase in young practicing artists, the approximate layout of the contemporary art world is complete.

I found the most fascinating aspect of Smith’s account to be her accuracy in describing the tendencies of younger artists. In my experience at home and abroad, the young artists of the third current seem to seek the immediate, wanting to grasp and acknowledge the ever-changing nature of time. I thought it was true also that young artists operate laterally, using art in the Relationist sense almost as a tool for peer-to-peer connectivity. It seems perfectly logical too, as our contemporary world is more invested in the image economy and social connectivity than ever before. With eerie accuracy Smith identified specifically the habits of young artists (myself) to seek mediated inter activity and the ability to apply “place-making” through dislocation. These last two sentiments of Smith’s seem to spell out my study abroad experience in France. I also enjoyed the section in which Smith puts forth examples of  artists who fall under the different “current institutions.” Matthew Barney’s films seem like the perfect example of a middle-ground between the aesthetic sustenance of Modernism in Richard Serra and Gerhard Richter’s Remodernism and the “spectacularist” contemporaneity of Jeff Koons, Julien Schnabel and Takashi Murakami.

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