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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Contemporary Art

Delfim Sardo

Contemporary Art is a concept that has two meanings: it either refers to art from the modern period, that is, art since the 18th century, or as it is commonly accepted, post-war art, also known as second avant-gardes of the 20th century. In a more current sense of the word, post-war art came along to an understanding of artistic practice that is beyond the tradition of historical disciplines, defining itself as a broad discipline and without a genre or medium typology. Thus, contemporary art is taken as the art of today, as well as it is located in the period that follows the second war with an affirmation in the 60s and 70s. In this meaning, contemporary art would give place to post-historical art, that is, to an artistic formulation that would be in the abandonment of categories, narratives and paradigms that had shaped art until modernism, to assume itself as a social practice of more fluid contours and closer to science and the disciplines of social and human sciences. In any one of the cases, contemporary art is intimately connected to the appearance of conceptual perspectives, as well as to the abandonment of typological distinctions of art history.

Keywords: modern art; rituality and performance; video; technological arts; end of art

The distinction between modern art and contemporary art is a difficult, unpleasant and never totally well successful task. At times, some of the characteristics considered fundamental of modernism seem to repeat themselves at different moments of the last 40 years (such as the dilution of borders between artistic disciplines, the importance of the photographic and film image or the value of the documentality), which has taken some theorists like Peter Bürger to define contemporary art, in the second avant-garde version, as a reactivation of issues raised in the first avant-gardes of the 20th century. Hans Belting, German historian, links contemporary art to the new vision break paradigm and the cooling of the importance of the image, whereas Rosalind Krauss refers to the extension of the disciplinary field of art until its dilution. Any one of these tendencies is present in the artistic developments that followed the artistic transformations that began in the post-war and that knew of their more radical formulation during the 60s and the 70s.


In general terms, the crucial features of contemporary art located in the following axes:

1.            In the first place a decline in the importance of the image in relation to the generically conceptual concerns. This theoretical framework is not limited to the appearance of conceptual art in the strictest sense (with Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner), in which the word and the appropriation of the analytical philosophy assume a predominant role, but to all the processes called “dematerialization”. This expression coined by the North American critic Lucy Lippard refers to the global emphasis on the process in detriment of the object, or in the idea in detriment of the image. Underlying this process (which the curator Harald Szeeman was an attentive and committed promoter of, with exhibitions like When Atitudes Become Form, of 1969, or the Documenta of 1972) is the assumption that art itself is centred on the creative process and that it needs to reinvent the notion of form – taken as the centre of modern art.

2.            In the second place, a break from the tradition of the connections between art and manufacturing, knowing that the industrial appearance of artistic objects is connected to a de- hierarchization of the creative processes. This emphasis is particularly present, in diverse ways, in Pop Art (namely in Andy Warhol’s silk screens and in his production originating from the studio he called Factory), and in Minimal Art. In this second case, above all in artists like Donald Judd or Dan Flavin, there exists a use of components and of industrial aesthetics and an adoption of a project methodology very close to architecture or design.

3.            Thirdly, the tendency for the constant redefinition of what can be understood as art, whether it is through exogenous processes (that is, the exiting of art outside of itself by the adoption of methodologies from human sciences, above all from sociology and anthropology, like questionnaires, participated observation, etc.) as well as a concomitant endogenous tendency, that is, the enlargement of the artistic and the deepening of art in the broadest sense – as what happens in Dan Graham’s work or in Ed Ruscha’s first moment (Fig.1).

4.            Fourthly, the appearance of the extended notion of performativity  that is so related to the development of diverse forms of body art and of performance (as what happens with Marina Abramovic, Rebecca Horn, Ana Mendieta or Valie Export), as to the use of photographic and filmography processes of documentation of performative actions or events that never consist of played performances in the physical presence of the spectator (as is the case of Urs Luthi, Jurgen Klauke, Dan Graham or Helena Almeida).

5.            Lastly, the intense use of the image in projected movement, whether it be in the context of the super 8mm and 16mm film, or later on, from the use of video, making the performativity context closer to the enlargement of the sculpture until its expanded field and cinema version.

This combination of concerns led to an abandonment of artistic types that possessed an historical tradition determined by the sedimentation of aesthetic issues and development of problems around the image or the physicality of the presence, above all of the sculpture and painting. These historical frames, even if they correspond to formulations used by the artists, (as is the case of John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha or the collective Art & Language) are integrated as devices that fulfil functions in the wide context of art and not as developments in a continuum of problems coming from traditions or common lines. Therefore, contemporary art defines a field – with a strong emphasis in California – of production that intends to situate itself outside of artistic tradition and thus, outside of Art History .

During the last two decades the invasion of the artistic field by photography and by video brought a new component, eventually contradictory with the previous tendencies, that we could characterize in the following manner: photography, which knew its first importance as a-historical field (with Baldessari), or documental, comes to define new lines of relationship with the tradition of painting, quoted in a consciously historic way (as with Jeff Wall) or taken as a mere image field. In the same way, film and video, which had appeared from a sculpture use (with Robert Morris, for example), assume a cinematographic connection, which came to imply an enormous specialisation of procedures – as is the case of Steve McQueen and Isaac Julian. Therefore, the new fields of the use of image come to recover the idea of artistic competence that the avant-gardes of the 60s and 70s had dismissed, to build axes of historical relation of image now in the network and not linear form.


On the other hand, three factors, in their different versions, have come to contribute to the construction of an art that if it is not actually post-historical, contributes to the re- assessment of art history itself:

1.            On the one hand the processes of globalization have come to broaden the field of artistic projects, opening the field to artistic traditions that are not from the developments of art from the Renaissance, nor from the structure of the Fine Arts, hence diminishing the borders between erudite and vernacular dimensions of artistic practices, but also between art and other practices of image.

2.            Secondly, the appearance of cultural expressions resulting from the affirmation of gender and identity issues brought formulations inside art (that Susan Sontag called “camp”) indexed to operations of establishment of imagetics of group, generational and gender or others that brought inside the artistic practices cultural and aesthetic determinations that were unrelated, or that were foreseen in the performance practice since the 60s.

3.            Finally, the appearance of practices strongly rooted in new technologies  of image and communication came to build new spaces of artistic sharing, but above all of reformulation of creative methodologies, supports and processes of distribution, etc.

Contemporary art is therefore, a field in an enormous process of expansion, its openness implies a permanent reformulation which can be understood as art, an ontological, ethical, economical and aesthetic issue that more than ever, relocates art in the centre of contemporary world issues.




Fig.1 - Dan Graham, Static 1 (1995), Whitney Museum of American Art


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