"Contemporary art might be thought of as impure or nonpure, but only against the haunting memory of modernism in its virulence as an artistic ideal."
- Arthut C. Danto, After The End Of Art (1995).
Last summer, while trying to develop a wikipedia for contemporary art at e-flux, I encountered a small technical problem when it came time to develop a simple menu structure to allow readers to navigate such an archive. We thought first to organize it by movements, yet there have been no significant movements in the past twenty years, and artists have not been interested in organizing itself around any. By medium? But contemporary artists work simultaneously in a variety of different ways. By geographic regions? Well, that's probably an approach better suited for the CIA. In the end, we found that no objective structure or criteria exists with which to organize art activity from the past twenty years or so, and the necessity of creating a structure for it - to make it intelligible -proved to be so impossible to resolve that this question completely derailed the project for the time being.
Often there is some hesitation in developing any kind of fixed strategy for understanding art that emerged in the past 20 years because it is somehow assumed that it’s still in its emergent stage. Meanwhile, this work has made its way into museum collections, academies and auctions, and formed a very concrete context for art production whose parameters are somehow taken for granted but not explained specifically. It has to be acknowledged that much of the activity responsible for this condition is no longer under development, but has assumed a fully mature form, (but one that refuses to be historicized). Or are we simply not trying hard enough? Perhaps it is time to approach the notion of contemporary art as a fully formed cultural project with certain defined parameters, complete with logics of inclusion and exclusion similar to the modernist project, define these lines and ultimately render a historical form that can be accessible to non-practitioners and the uninitiated, a menu structure in essence for browsing all of this activity that has, for practical purposes, already been browsed (through its inclusion in museum collections, academic journals and curriculums, etc).
In this sense we are looking at two distinct approaches to contemporaneity - one that has already been fully institutionalized, and another that still evades definition. There is a lot of work to be done here - how do we acknowledge the parameters that have already been established? At the same time, there is some agency in how it is left open - how can we also use this to form our own parameters for browsing, historicizing recent activity in a way that also recognizes the agency of its still-incompleteness, of its complex ability to play host so many narratives and trajectories without necessarily having to absorb them into a central logic or determined discourse .... before it forms a historical narrative and logic of exclusion that we would much rather disavow?
Most recently, I was invited by Hal Foster to respond to a questionnaire for October on a similar topic, "The Contemporary," in which one question asked whether this elusive condition might be caused by "a merely local perception." This may very well be the case, and I feel that a conversation on this topic could be most productive and urgent situated in Shanghai, one city among many in which canonical approaches to the history of modernism can examined with attention to its alternate uses and possible other readings. The lecture series will take place at the Sino-Soviet Friendship Hall, built as a gift from Stalin to Mao Zedong in 1955. Currently used as a trade show center for a variety of fairs, from luxury boats to contemporary art, it is in itself an artifact of a very different kind of modernity -- one that is very far from the purity of modernism that Danto refers to so apocalyptically in his book.
The conference will be structured as a series of short lectures and one or two panels, the contents of which will be subsequently published in the Fall issue of e-flux journal.