The Question Concerning Contemporaneity

By Aaron Betsky

The question of what contemporary art is begs the issue of modernism. Strictly speaking, any work that is done now is contemporary; it is, in other words, modern, or our modern or current age. That in turns presumes that we are always making something new; that we live in distinct moments that we can separate out, that we are continually changing our world; and that we are making progress towards some future goal. In other words, the notion of the contemporary is impossible without the idea of the modern.

We might think that there has always been a sense that we live in a modern world, different from what has come before and what might be to come, but the notion is a relatively recent one. Without going into either the etymology of the word or the complex history of its use, it first came into wide circulation in Paris around 1690 during the debate between the “ancients” and the “moderns:” those who felt that theater always had been, and always should, follow Italian models and be performed in that language, and those who felt that the vernacular French, then being codified, was appropriate for a new form of art more expressive of current concerns and practices.

If you believe thinkers such as Michel Foucault, this debate was just a symptom of a larger realization, that of difference: the distinctiveness of the human being from other sentient beings and from the physical world, but also the discrete nature of time and space, vouchsafed by science. Individuality, particularity, and distinction became the hallmarks of one’s nature and worth, as opposed to one’s lot.

Whether or not we hew to such philosophical notions, it is clear that sometime around the time that the term came into use, a world began to come into being that tended to the fabrication of a separate, human-made reality, distinct in time and space from what it replaced. This world consisted increasingly of artificial materials, cell-like or divided spaces, geometries and forms you would not find in nature, and an essential knowability. It was also a world marked by the continual movement of goods, people, and information. By now, the modern world encompasses almost all the reality we experience. It changes continually. It is the world we have made for ourselves.

Modernism is any and all attempt to give shape, form, and image to that modern world. It is, if you will the self-consciousness of modernity. It seeks to represent modernity either in its effects or in its essence, and therein lies a first distinction, namely between those modernisms that tend towards the fetishization of what we as humans make, idealizing what is new and what is possible, and those modernisms that seek to make the very notion of the new, change, the human-made, and the artificial into something we can experience.

However convenient such a dialectic might be, further fissures are evident in modernism. An artist can see her work as the creation of a critical answer to modernity, a perversion that through that very action makes modernity visible, a contrast to what is going on around her, or a reaction against that modern world. Modernism can try to be of the moment, thus tending towards its own ephemerality, but it also can be –and more often than not is– either historical or teleological. One of the hallmarks of modernism is the continual invention of new ways to make modernist artifacts. This is of its essence, as the nature of the world we have made for ourselves is, in its totality, its reflexiveness, and its mutability, not something I believe you can fully represent. Every modernist attempt is a promise towards the realization of modernity (even when it is a reaction against it), not its fulfillment.

I realize these abstractions are of little use when you are trying to figure out what is modernist, let alone contemporary. The latter terms has become necessary because modernism by now has such a venerable tradition, having produced a trove of cultural artifacts stretching back several centuries and ranging across the arts, literature, and the furthest reaches of cultural production, that we need it to distinguish and define what is being made now. Contemporary art, in other words, is a subcategory of modernism. What is important for me to point out is that neither modernism nor contemporary art are a style: they describes modes of working or behaving. The only way not to be modernist is to lock yourself up in the woods like a hermit. Not to be contemporary is even more difficult: he only way not to be contemporary is to elevate yourself into some sort of Zen state where you are beyond the here and now.

Certainly I have preferences or biases for certain kinds of modernism. I think that turning away from our modern world is not particularly useful. As somebody who always asks questions and wants to know more, I am interested in those modernisms that seek for and represent the essence of modernity. I feel drawn to work that comes together out of the bits and pieces our modern world has produced, as I think that its fragments allow us to reimagine other wholes, the signs of use mark them with humanity, and the result –collage or assemblage—has an inherent contingency that seems appropriate to the very notion of modernity. Finally, I have a soft spot for that art that reveled in modernity, seeing it as something glorious, progressive, and always improving our lot. It is hard to be modernist today without being cynical, but that does not make me wish we could not be that full of belief in the now and its future, and so I love the art that was.

There is no wrong or right modernism or contemporary art. There is good and bad art –but that is a whole other discussion. As long as you realize –in both senses of the word—that you live in the here and now, you are a modernist.

I would add only one note of caution: now that we seem to be drowning, both in the displacement of water we have caused through our very rush to build our modern world and in the stuff we have made in the modern era, the making of something new, not just in intent or appearance, but as a thing, is something we should all question.

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