A few months ago, I was asked to respond to a questionnaire on 'What is Contemporary Art' by C-Arts magazine (http://www.c-artsmag.com). A brief report of the questionnaire was published in C-Arts #2 (March/April 2008). The discussion is still ongoing, and I feel multiple platforms should address these issues. N.E.W.S. is one of these platforms, and hence I would like to challenge the contributors to consider the issue of 'Contemporary Art: 'Now' or 'Never'?
Below is a copy of my full (unedited) answers to the questions posed by C-Arts.
More n.e.w.s. on this to come from others, I hope...http://www.c-artsmag.com/forum/
CA: In your vision, what is meant with the term Contemporary Art?
TJB: Ideally, the term contemporary art is used for denoting dynamic modes of practices and discourses in creative cultural productions that are capable of rearranging notions of the time, place, and space. The term contemporary art can not simply symbolize the “process” of art-making within the “condition of contemporaneity” – the “condition of [being in] the present” (Smith, 2001).
Such a notion has more recently led to the use of the term contemporary art now. It would easily fall prey to a “circular definition” of the term contemporary art, whereby, following Jean Baudrillard: “art is only contemporary of itself” (Baudrillard, 2003). Instead, contemporary art can often not resist the complex conditions set forward by the constant need of mankind for socio-political provisioning, geographical arranging, institutional ordering, market valuation, and historical positioning. Contemporary art is not only produced in time, but also in place and in space; all of which are related to social structures.
The best contemporary art can do now, is to rearrange our perceptions of time, place, and space, and to challenge social behavior and public conduct. This means that contemporary art may disturb public peace, or intentionally disrupt a public meeting or sleeping community in its performance. This, at least, would be part of the social function of contemporary art. (Berghuis, 2006)
CA: How long has this term been used?
TJB: The term contemporary art seems to have been used for a long time now. As far as I can recall, it was already used at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Within a global context it is also important to look at the way different cultures have used different terms to describe the notion of ‘being in time’. In China, for example, there are constant connections and divergences between terms that denote such notions, such as xiandai (modern times, the contemporary age, the ‘now’ age); jindai (modern times, the approaching age); and dangdai (the present age, the contemporary era). These terms were conveyed in other cultures in Asia, including in Japan.
What’s more, these terms become connected to changing notions of art, including of fine arts (meishu) and the (skilled) arts (yishu). Hence, a growing number of Chinese artists in the 1990s are more likely to describe their experimental practices with the term dangdai yishu (contemporary art), and hardly ever use the term dangdai meishu (contemporary fine arts). In China, contemporary art is not only connected to a time-based issue – symbolized by the ‘process of art making within the condition of contemporaneity’ (dangdai). Even more important, contemporary art is conditioned by the nature of practice (yishu); which is often related to attaining a particular skill and to upholding a particular ‘mind-set’ in art-making; which is often referred to by members of the experimental art scene in China as upholding an ‘attitude’ (taidu).
CA: Is this term used to denote or indicate a time period in art, or is it used to indicate certain art forms?
TJB: Following on the last comments made about the way contemporary art in China is conditioned not only by the contemporaneity of practice, but also of the nature of artistic practice, there are certain examples that can be raised to argue that the term contemporary art is used to indicate certain art forms, or at least to produce art that is capable of repositioning a certain ‘attitude’ in the process of art-making.
For many art professionals working outside the domain of the state-institutions in China, Chinese contemporary art has often become synonymous with an “uncooperative approach” (bu hezuo fangshi), which also became the Chinese title of an important satellite exhibition to the Shanghai Biennale in 2000, and a subsequent book publication of recent art from China by the tow curators of the show, Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi. The English title of the exhibition, and of the book, was FUCK OFF; thereby creating a good idea of how ‘having an attitude’ could determine the nature of contemporary art-making (Ai and Feng, 2001).
However, at the same time as the exhibition was held, the state-bureaucracy in charge of the arts in China also started a process of identifying Chinese contemporary art, aimed at repositioning their role in the global dissemination of Chinese contemporary art, which becomes increasingly popular internationally. The main focus becomes to disseminate a proper representation of Chinese contemporary art; one that is part of the national discourse of fine arts (meishu). What follows is a debate in some of the leading art journals on the principles that form the basis of Chinese contemporary art, including aesthetic principles and the upholding of moral standards in contemporary art from China. This debate marks the institutionalization of the national discourse of contemporary art, which seeks to connect itself with the global discourse of contemporary art.
CA: If it is used to indicate a time period, then when would it have started, and till when? There is a notion that contemporary art refers to art from the time of the Second World War until the present time. In this case, WW II is often used as a "starting point". What is your opinion as to what is behind this?
TJB: The easiest way to position contemporary art is to somehow position it chronologically. Crisis and hope, and processes of massive destruction and of rebuilding the world after WW II, formulate new challenges to look forward. The political-economic repositioning of new super-powers lay at the basis of any discourse that is based on identifying the post-WW II period as a new era; producing a new notion of the contemporary. Yet, whose contemporary are we exactly looking at?
This new incentive towards chronological periodization seeks to connect the rise of contemporary art to the surpassing of modern art (just as modern art surpassed traditional art). Here, it is important to see that the subsistence of the contemporary is conditioned by the manufacturing of collapse of the modern, which in turn was conditioned by the manufacturing of the end of the traditional. With the construction of a new era in art, and in defining the new parameters of contemporary art, comes the repositioning of new standards and new role models.
The dominant discourse of contemporary art, the discourse that connects contemporary art to art from the time of the Second World War, is, for a long period of time, a discourse that is founded in Europe and North America. It is closely affiliated to the ‘economic development model’ that is implemented at the end of WW II, and sets out to distinguish the developed world from the underdeveloped world. However, when the economic outlook of parts of the underdeveloped world starts to improve (leading to theories on the ‘developing world’), the world suddenly becomes more complex; as does the discourse of contemporary art becomes in need of more composite and dynamic models that are increasingly based on the notion of a global contemporary art.
CA: When do you think the contemporary art period will be over? What is your reasoning?
TJB: Perhaps, the question that should be asked here is: Whether contemporary art exists? And if so, what are the conditions for its existence? Only then can we ponder over the question when contemporary art may seize to exist, based on the predicament that the provisions for contemporary art will run out. If we reiterate the notion that contemporary art is “contemporary of itself” (see answer to question 1.), it would be possible for contemporary art to become perpetual; since it is based on “circular definition”, and hence on continuous circulation within the condition of the now.
Yet, perhaps contemporary art seizes to exist each time it becomes historicized. Or at least, the condition of contemporaneinity is tainted by determining art as contemporary art. Eventually there should be an understanding of the disparity between processes that assemble the 'tragic' contemporaneity of restrictively staged artistic practices and forces that arrange the farcical evocation of "untainted art objects" in the public domain. Here, it is perhaps useful to reiterate the historicizing quote on: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce (Marx, 1869)
CA: If the term refers to forms or styles or certain themes in art; what forms, styles, and themes are classified in Contemporary Art?
TJB: An example was given in my answer to question 3, in relation to contemporary art in China.
CA: What are the differences and similarities and relationship between what is termed Contemporary Art and Avant-garde?
TJB: Perhaps, some of the similarities also connect to the idea of developing a particular ‘mind-set’, or ‘attitude’ in the process of art-making; one that is ‘cutting-edge’, challenges the conditions under which art is practiced, and defies the institution of art. Yet, following my answer to question 4, one can it also becomes important to see that the subsistence of contemporary art is conditioned by the manufacturing of collapse of modern art. What follows, especially in recent years, is a circular definition of contemporary art, which is still ongoing.
On the other hand, the avant-garde (at least in China) was conditioned by the development of an intellectual movement during the 1980s; one that must be seen as Chinese high modernism or its "high culture-movement", in which the “knowing subject” rises above the “consuming and producing subject” (Wang, 1994). After the crackdown on protest at Tiananmen in 1989, the widespread hopes and dreams of creating a "high culture" evaporated, and were replaced with a pop-culture where taste was defined by the principles of market value and turning a "fast buck," which was referred to as, "stir frying money" (chao renminbi). The avant-garde seizes to exist, but the contemporary art movement continues to develop amidst increased circulation of Chinese art in the global market.
CA: Referring to Question no. 6, can a comparison be made between Contemporary Art and : · Modern Art and Post-modern Art? · Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction? · Pluralism Art?
TJB: Yes, some of the above answers can be related to these concepts, but a more detailed analysis will require a quantum beyond the scope of this questionnaire. Meanwhile, there are plenty good books already published on these comparisons.
CA: Is there a shared characteristic that is present in the various understandings of Contemporary Art? What is/ are its/their specific characteristics?
TJB: One could say it is the level of circulation; both the circulation of art practices that are understood to be conditioned by the present, and the circulation of discourses of contemporary art that are conditioned by the idea of the now. Yet, in order to perceive some type of social function of art that is capable of projecting into the future and connected to the past, it is also important to look at the ‘mind-set’ that lies behind the production of contemporary art. Hence, it is essential to examine the levels of performance of contemporary art.
CA: What is your view of the development of Contemporary Art in the West (Europe and United States of America), compared to its development in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
TJB: There are parallel conversions that are currently examined, and many more that deserve our attention. As of now, it is important to notice that these parallel conversions already challenge the conditions of contemporary art; both in terms of the production, dissemination, and in developing a new critical framework of global contemporary art.
CA: In China, at the time of the New Wave appearance, there was a debate on "Contemporary Art in China" and "Chinese Contemporary Art." What are your comments and opinions on this?
TJB: The ‘new wave’ movement was closely affiliated with the high-culture movement of the 1980s. The debate on Chinese contemporary art started around 1999-2000, and continues until today.
CA: What is your view of the development of contemporary art in today's art market?
TJB: The current development of contemporary art is closely related to the market, and hence is dependent on “the exchange of goods and services that take place as the result of buyers and sellers being in contact with each other, either directly or through mediation of institutions.” At the same time it becomes important to look at the levels of performance of contemporary art in the market, and for this it is important to not only look at pricing models, but to look at more complex models to examine the overall performance of contemporary art. This includes, paying more attention to the critical framework surrounding the development of contemporary art.
CA: How do you see the future of Contemporary Art?
TJB: The future of contemporary art should be complex, challenging, and capable of generating composite, dynamic discourses, capable of disseminating intricate ideas about a broad-range of practices. It will create problems, and for that reason, the future of contemporary art should be based on developing unremitting critical frameworks that are capable of rearranging notions of time, place, and space. Contemporary art should awake the sleeping communities.
(Baudrillard, 2003) Jean Baudrillard, “Art… Contemporary of Itself” (2003), quoted from Jean Baudrillad, The Conspiracy of Art (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005)
(Berghuis, 2001) Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006)
(Marx, 1869) Karl Marx, Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1869), quoted from Lewis, S. Feuer, ed., Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Glasgow: Fontana, 1969)
(Smith, 2000) Terry Smith, What Is Contemporary Art? Contemporary Art, Contemporaneity and Art to Come (Sydney: Artspace Critical Issues Series, 2001)
(Wang, 1994) Wang Jing, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)