In his most recent book, What is Contemporary Art?, art historian and theorist Terry Smith offers some compelling answers to a difficult question. To formulate the answer, he positions the contemporary within art history by contrasting it with modernism’s love of categorization and grand narrative. In this schema, postmodernism is passé since it was a specific movement in the 1970s and 1980s that defined the transition from the modern to the contemporary. Despite its freewheeling independence from rigid definition, Smith states that contemporary art is “much more than a mindless embrace of the present” (1). Throughout the book, his analyses of how institutions, artists, and critics have responded to the current art historical moment reveal general parameters for a broad, yet useful, definition.
Smith offers critical examinations of ways in which various museums have responded to the shift from the modern to the contemporary: MoMA is a staunch model of modernism; Dia:Beacon contemporizes minimalist works; the Tate Modern successfully contextualizes modern art via a focus on the contemporary; and, with its fantastical building designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Bilbao boldly states that the architecture is the art.
In the MoMA case study, Smith praises the museum’s 2004 building (designed by architect Yoshio Taniguchi) as a refreshing design that deliberately distinguishes itself from spectacle museums like Bilbao. However, he criticizes MoMA’s conservative permanent exhibition layout, i.e. its regurgitation of the grand narrative of modern painting and its championing of “safe” contemporary art rather than progressive, original, and challenging art. Smith terms MoMA’s stance “defensive remodernism.” One of the more enlightening contrasts between the MoMA layout and the Tate Modern’s is that, in the latter, the contemporary is presented as the culmination of a relatively free-form viewing experience while, at MoMA, the visitor begins with the contemporary—which Smith argues is actually the postmodern—and then “regresses” through a strict, linear (or modernist) history of modernism.
At the conclusion of his MoMA critique, Smith reconsiders the transparency of Taniguchi’s design that makes the Museum seem to disappear. He characterizes the building as a ghost of postmodern past, and cites it as further evidence that MoMA seriously falls short in terms of the contemporary.
But if one of the major contemporary museum trends, à la Bilbao, is to outshine the art it houses, then what must an artist do to get noticed these days? Well, just ask Matthew Barney who, according to Smith, combines vital elements of high-end contemporary art, namely Remodernism and Retro-sensationalism, to create Spectacle Art (or Spectacularism). Despite this potentially off-putting mouthful of newly-coined terminology, Smith’s argument is compelling.
While the lack of media hierarchy and the exploration of gender fluidity make Barney’s Cremaster cycle undeniably contemporary, its basis in popular culture (Houdini and Gary Gilmour are two direct citations), narrative focus, and limited-edition videos complete with custom pedestals, are modernist; hence, Barney’s work is Remodern. Its embeddedness within the art historical tradition (including nods to artists such as Duchamp, the traditional focus on masculine power, and the use of allegory to support narrative)—not to mention its visual evocation of earlier styles and images—make it Retrosensational. And, of course, its (ultimately empty) sideshow-for-sideshow’s-sake extravaganza makes it Spectacle Art.
If you’re having difficulty buying that Barney’s work is relatively conservative, I point you to Chapter 10, in which Smith describes Jean Michel Bruyère’s Si Poteris Narrare, Licet (2001-2002). This work combines video of a Ndeup (Cameroon, Africa) ceremony with the ancient Roman story of Diana and Actaeon to reveal truths about humanity, including the interrelationship between beauty and animality. By layering Western and African beliefs, Bruyère’s video installation exists fully in the postcolonial, global present where the truly cutting-edge artwork is happening.
As the former margins shift to occupy the center of the art world, what does this mean for the art market? Smith outlines how less intellectually challenging artworks (including those by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst) were selling for millions, and being traded like stock, before the recent economic crash. Smith also traces the history of contemporary art’s overtaking of the art market and the powerful role auction houses played in this transition. As he points out, the danger with this system is that many artists, and people in general, have begun to determine the value of art by dollar capital instead of idea capital.
Smith begins the introduction with the statement: “No idea about contemporary art is more pervasive than the idea that one can—even should—have no idea about it” (1). By the end of What is Contemporary Art?, however, even the layperson will have gained insight into our current art historical period, not to mention learned about a wealth of artists. Smith’s definitions truly are useful at getting a handle on some of the more grandiloquent and controversial works produced in the past decade, and on understanding why they’re not cutting-edge.
Despite its diversity, Smith notes that contemporary art has four defining characteristics: It is 1) art that has been produced since the 1980s, 2) globalizing, 3) distinct from modern (and postmodern) art, and 4) saturated with a detailed knowledge of art history’s place within history and current events. He summarizes where each of the major trends generally are located: Remodernism, Retro-sensationalism, and Spectacularism appear in major museums, prominent commercial galleries, auction houses, and celebrity collections (the centers of economic power that drove modernity); postcolonial work characterizes biennales; and “the widespread art of contemporaneity” (268) can be found in alternative spaces, temporary public displays, the internet, independent zines, and other do-it-yourself venues. In his final analysis, Smith calls for scholarship and criticism as diverse and nuanced as contemporary art itself.