Sunday, January 29, 2012

Contemporary Art- mobility of medium, culture, message, and engagement

The readings for this week centered around attempting to define contemporary art in a variety of ways.  Does contemporary refer to a time period?  If so, when did it begin?

Below is the definition of "contemporary" from the Oxford English Dictionary online:


  • living or occurring at the same time: the event was recorded by a contemporary historian
  • dating from the same time: this series of paintings is contemporary with other works in an early style
  • belonging to or occurring in the present: the tension and complexities of our contemporary society
  • following modern ideas in style or design: contemporary ceramics by leading potters

Cleary, if "contemporary" means solely "of the now," our quest for its meaning would have little significance.  In this definition of art, all art has been contemporary, as the images below so eloquently state.  What, then, defines our current period of art making, viewing, and criticizing as contemporary?

I set out to map the three readings and find the overlap between them, which was significant.  Below is my drawing: 

In Terry Smith's article "Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity," he tries to define contemporary art and explores multiple ways of approaching and understanding it.

His description of the work entitled SPECTACULAR, in which artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had the entire collection of the Kunst Palace in Dusseldorf packed into trucks, driven once around the building, and re-installed, seemed to me to be not only infuriatingly stupid but also a monumental waste of money, resources, and energy, not to mention a project that put the work at unnecessary risk.  From a museum standpoint, this made me a little crazy.

However, despite all of that, it very clearly introduces a concept of contemporary art where the idea or action is the piece, not a thing itself that a spectator or viewer is meant to look at within the confines of a white cube.  He expands on describing another piece by the same artists, saying "the artists are wittily proposing that contemporary art is concerned with posing questions, usually about itself, perhaps without much hope of effect, and destined to end in ambiguity." (Smith, p. 682).  He almost could have ended the article there, as he comes back to a very similar point in the concluding paragraph.

The relationship of artists to art institutions, and vice versa, came up for me over and over in the readings.  Who exactly is defining contemporary art?  Who is promoting it, viewing it, buying it, and funding it?  The relationship between artists and institutions is monumental in this dynamic, especially with works such as the ones mentioned above, or even works like Richard Serra's, which Smith describes in detail.  These works could not function without a financial and intellectual support system behind them, not would they function without an assumed knowledge of art history and contemporary art on the part of the viewer.  With Serra's work, this latter point is less necessary, but in the way in which Smith describes it, Serra's work becomes more powerful when situated within a specific context of understanding.

Works by Richard Serra:

Smith writes about the "mobility of medium" as a defining factor in contemporary art, an idea that the other readings address as well.  No longer do artists function within one specific medium, but rather they take a much more interdisciplinary approach to get their ideas across in the most effective way.  This is interesting and important to think about in regards to our own MFA program, which as we discussed in class, is not interdisciplinary but very heavily grounded in photography, specifically the creation of photographs intended to be seen on a wall, or perhaps in a book.  In an ever-expanding field, this type of study is a very intentional and specific choice.

Smith writes, in regard to works such as Matthew Barney's "The Cremaster Cycle" and works such as Richard Serra's, which he claims require a direct relationship to the spectator, "works such as these provide the first powerful answer to the question of the nature of art in these times: contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes."  (Smith, p. 688)

I like the idea of the old modern in new clothes.  Was there a seamless shift from Modern to Contemporary, or was there more of a radical break from something old and defined into something new and unknown?

Smith writes of two ways of understanding contemporary practice (and then suggests a third), which he calls the "tiring juggernaut" and a "swarming of attack vehicles."

The definition of "juggernaut," again from the Oxford dictionary online, is below:


  • a large, heavy vehicle, especially an articulated lorry: the juggernaut thundered through the countryside
  • a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force: the juggernaut of public expenditure

Smith is comparing the existing, powerful, defined art world, complete with its modernist, media-specific sense of art (as the juggernaut), to the new definitions of contemporary art as works that exist across media, across cultures, and with an engagement to both the art world and the principles it currently holds as ideals as well as the current social and political climate of our time (as the swarming of attack vehicles).  Smith writes, "the 'contemporary art' juggernaut operates primarily in terms of frameworks- managerial, curatorial, corporate, historical, commercial, educational- imposed by art institutions, themselves a key part of a now pervasive, beguilingly distractive but at the bottom hollow cultural industry.  The guerrilla swarming of the others is marked by acknowledgment of the psychic, social, cultural, and political settings in which art is made." 

If we were to stop there, it would seem that those of us currently enrolled in an MFA program and, for all intents and purposes, embracing this culturally hollow industry of art-making, are condemned to make an elitist art removed entirely from the politics of our time.  Thankfully Smith posits a third approach, which is that contemporary art exists not within these two ideas as a dichotomy, but by making work in the very vacuum their tension creates.  Contemporary art, he argues, is made both with an understanding of the art juggernaut, as he calls it, and with an engagement with the rest of the world around us. 

When I Googled "juggernaut," I came up with this image by Marvel, which is perhaps unrelated but is a fun way to think of the older-fashioned art world.

This is perhaps a more appropriate representation:

And here comes the new contemporary:

Okay, enough fun with pictures of metaphors that were probably never meant to be this literal in the first place.

This issue of straddling the art world and our current political world played heavily in the reviews of Michael Fried's "Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before" and Ariella Azoulay's "The Civil Contract of Photography." 

Writing of Fried, the article states "he argues that the best paintings display a mode of 'absorption': figures are depicted as engrossed in their own activities, so denying 'the presence before them of the beholder' and establishing 'the ontological fiction that the beholder does not exist.'  The effect, in Fried's view, is to encourage the viewer to examine the painting's details, rather than to feel addressed by it directly in a 'theatrical' mode."  (Leshem and Wright, p. 114).

This passage brings up many interesting points that Fried also addresses (at least according to this review- we will find out for ourselves shortly).  One point is the issue of a work's "to-be-seenness," or the idea that a subject is aware of their ultimate role as an object to be looked at, or perhaps the maker is aware, at the time of the making, that they are creating an object to be seen.  Fried argues that the large scale of works such as Andres Gursky or Rineke Dijkstra have this inherent quality, this awareness that they are going to be seen.  He also posits the difference between an image being inviting or distancing, citing both overt detail and eye contact as confrontational, distancing mechanisms.  This idea is fascinating to me, as the relationship between subject and viewer is something I think about a lot in relationship to my work. 

I have always favored eye contact in my images, which embody this sense of "to-be-seenness" that I referred to above.  I intentionally used eye contact as a way to directly confront the viewer, forcing them to engage with the person in the image, as a way to bridge the gap of understanding and experience across communities.  Recently, I have been thinking about the power in not using direct eye contact and in letting the viewer have, perhaps, a more open-ended engagement with the subject. 

Dallas, 2012

This image is an example of me trying to still use eye contact but in a more intimate, open-ended way.  It is not meant to be distancing, but inviting.  By positioning myself in this way in relation to my subject, and subsequently placing this image in a space where it is intended to be viewed, it is still confrontational in some ways, in that I am forcing the viewer to consider their own relationship to this person (as well as my relationship to him, as the photographer) but is meant to be viewed on an individual, one-on-one scale.  The position that the photographer places the viewer has everything to do with how the image is read, and in this case, it is a reading involving implication.

In my newest (and current favorite) photograph, I am employing strategies more like paintings, of absorption, of capturing a moment between two people that you as the viewer are not directly asked to engage with.  You are not in this scene- you are not implicated in the same way- which provides a very different and complicated (I hope) viewing of the photograph.  There is still an implication on the part of the viewer, and their response would depend, as with anything else, on what of their own experience they bring to the table, but I am very consciously trying to play with how these different dynamics of confrontation and involvement affect the eventual reading and effect of my photographs. 

Alex and Teddy, 2012

Azoulay's writing makes the argument that art is, in fact, not only aesthetic and can have very real political implications and intentions.  The work she describes is not meant to be looked at simply visually, but rather as a call to action.  It shows an injustice that must be righted, and therefore cannot exist passively.  I hope that, as Smith argues, my work can do both of these things- to seduce aesthetically and affect politically. 

The moral of all of our readings seems to be that neither of these extreme readings of contemporary art is definitive, but rather that there is a middle ground.  In a way, the current state of contemporary art could be seen as a postmodern version of a previous definition of contemporary art.  There is more than one interpretation and way it can function, and perhaps it can only exist as an entity not between two opposing ideas, but within and around them in a more fluid and complicated way (which, not surprisingly, is also my theory/experience as it relates to gender and sexuality).  

The closing paragraph of the reviews by Leshem and Wright sums this thought up nicely.

"Surely these two scholars understand the function of photography, and the spectator before it, very differently.  Indeed, they each demonstrate the problem of taking the other's argument to its logical extreme.  Fried makes an important effort to stake out a distinct space for viewing photographs as objects of aesthetic and philosophical interest, but Azoulay demonstrates that in some cases to do so might risk missing the photographic image's ethical demand for recognition and action."  (Leshem and Wright, p. 119)

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