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Robert Storr: Make New Friends, but Keep the Old
April 11, 2008

"Contemporary art," says Robert Storr, "is simply the most recent of modern art and modern art is an ongoing phenomenon." That line from a recent lecture on museums and collecting modern and contemporary art delivered by Storr, the artist, critic, curator, and instructor, caught my attention. Though it was given in a fairly matter-of-fact way, that line struck me as not so obviously true.

Storr mentioned a 60 Minutes program Morley Safer once wrote, in which he decried contemporary artists (contemporary for the time) like Robert Ryman while he heaped praise on Miró. Miró, of course, was a pivotal member of the band of surrealists who were considered at one point to be a threat to the national order so plausible that Congress held sessions discussing the option of banning art-world "-isms." Storr's point is that controversial contemporary artists soon become our familiar standby favorites. Exposure makes ideas more accessible over time: in that regard, contemporary art becomes modern art.

A side note for clarity's sake: contemporary art never becomes Modernist art. That period in art, which roughly covers the late nineteenth century through mid-twentieth century, concluded when Postmodern artists, critics, and theorists began responding to and summarizing the radical discoveries from the Modernist era. Because Postmodernism introduced new difficulties in moving forward with a linear, progressive understanding of schools and styles in art, the work that has been made roughly since 1970 has been called "contemporary" whereas work that preceded that time is called "modern." These broader categories have no bearing on the more advanced critical/academic notions of Modern and Postmodern; when Storr says that all art made since late nineteenth century realist painting is modern art, he does not mean that all the art is Modernist.

Going back to Storr's broad distinction, I don't think that we should accept that modern or contemporary art loses its power over time, even if reactionary responses fade away or new ideas become more accessible. Marcel Duchamp's provocative work—his readymades; The Fountain; his appropriation of Leonardo's Mona Lisa for his own L.H.O.O.Q.—is still worth grappling with, for artists, critics, and viewers in this day and time.

In other respects, there are useful distinctions to make between "modern" and "contemporary" art—and it depends in no small part on who is making the distinctions. Critics once held painting to be a "higher" medium, up to and including the Modernist era. But today, critics would take a dim view of that opinion (or any hierarchy of genres). Conservators and curators might note the great expansion of techniques that new media have introduced: video and installation—and their applications in contemporary art—have expanded art's potential beyond the plastic arts. Museums have had to cope: collecting contemporary art means adjusting to work that may by design flout the restrictions of an art museum. (Like what? The examples are too many to count. From earth rooms to hotel rooms, new venues and formats for art reveal that one of the first-order functions of contemporary art is the critique of contemporary art. That couldn't be said necessarily of Modernist art.)

As art has moved beyond the canvas—into the realms of concept, critique, and more—it has changed the entire industry associated with visual art. The shift from modern to contemporary seems like more than an arbitrary division in time. In broad terms, it describes a watershed expansion in art's possibilities and roles, from one set of broad rules to another. Pinpointing that divide, however, is trickier. Up close—that is, describing art on a case-by-case level—the division between "modern" and "contemporary" is ambiguous. Is it best to use a crude cut-off (say, that all works made from 1970 to the present fall under "contemporary")? Or is there a work or group of works that crystallizes the moment between modern and contemporary?

Posted by Kriston on April 11, 2008 in American Art Everywhere


Here's a saying I know someone has said before me, "Critics are just failed artists." Or "those who can't paint, critique." Art that's not done out of love I could care less about, and this includes at least half of all "contemporary art."

I agree with Kriston that there really was a seismic shift between (Post) Modernism and Contemporary art; I think it was Pop Art that finally brought Modernism to a terminal crisis, and Warhol was the pivotal point. Art reflects its culture and Modernism reflected an optimistic corporate culture where progress seemed infinite and the frontier, now defined by a space/ time continuum, was once again wide open, the perfectibility of society now a real possibility. When the break came sometime in the late 60s, the wall between high and low art came crashing down and the determined superficiality of Pop art, without the least distinction between one thing and another, set a precedence.

The business acumen and celebrity persona of Warhol`s dead man walking was the perfect mask for the new media and entertainment culture; artists and their venues had increased exponentially along with the general population (the Tenth street bar by comparison a tiny village), and now with increasing access to the technical means to make it so, anyone could be an artist and anything, with the right PR, could be art. The social imperative had changed from progress to social equality and the playing field was leveled. Warhol expressed this by showing that art had the same ambiance as a soup can. Without aesthetic discrimination, the only thing that mattered was novelty and name recognition.

This had real consequences for the art world. Demographics and the celebrity culture created a grab bag of competing personalities, styles, and art world text; the category of Contemporary art is much too unwieldy and diverse to be called a movement. I also think it is time bound. There will always be "contemporary art" of course, but we have usurped the phrase as a generic description of our time: distraction in the midst of fracture, chaos, and rapid change in an increasingly interconnected global world.

With this comes intense competition. You may as well be running a rat race. No sooner do you get credit for the next new thing than another Neo-ism takes your place in the media circus. No wonder artists tend toward the dyspeptic; when everybody`s somebody then nobody`s everybody, and success, except for those who become the impresarios of their own ongoing variety show, is short lived.

Or maybe they`re grumpy because Kriston is right when he says that the only function for contemporary artists is to criticize contemporary artists. But this makes for a gated community full of didacticism and righteousness, swinging from social grievance and personal transcendence and back again- an insular world of virtual reality, a synthesized reality increasingly remote from the real thing which has become an exaggerated cartoon of itself.

Sometimes I think that many artists would like to slow down, to break out of the bubble and go back to Tenth street and start over again, before manufactured celebrities and critical exegesis defined the scene. To figure out what they`re doing, exactly. Maybe that`s already happening somewhere. Like the French poet says, important stuff always grows in the shadows.

Or maybe what used to be called "art" will simply become more and more the background of choice for life style fashions. The moral distinctions attempted by traditional art in the name of truth and beauty will have finally become an archaic curiosity. Such distinctions need introspection, and we don`t seem to have the time for that anymore.

But I`m an optimist. When art as well as the body politic is broken into a million pieces, sooner or later you have to put them back together again, and we`re still shifting through the rubble to see what it all means.

I think the reason why so many people feel so strongly negative against certain "contemporary/modern art" is that they don't or can't understand it and it makes them feel vulnerable and somehow lacking, perhaps in an intellectual or subjectively fashionable ascetic way.

But art isn't meant to be for everyone, even the artists who aim for mass appeal end up with critics who revel in slagging the work. I doubt David Byrne has a Thomas Kinkaid print on his wall at home and I doubt Thomas Kinkaid has David's latest CD.

I always use the "David Byrne" approach when exposed to art that I don't "get." David Byrne (from what I've read) tends to like art that isn't my cup of tea. But it's David Byrne --you don't get more "artsy" than him, If it's art he would know. You don't just spin the wheel and luck decides if what you make is art or not.

Just because I can't see what the point is to the piece doesn't mean it isn't valid, legit, and is made from the heart and soul as the art I do like.

Why would David Byrne just lie about what he thinks good art is? The problem isn't that certain modern/contemporary art isn't good. It's just that it's not good to everyone, but it doesn't have to be.

There's plenty of room for all kinds of art, but the fact that art is subjective shouldn't be used to legitimize behavior that society has deemed illegal.

The publicity stunts where people use the term "as art" to legitimize something that really isn't creative but put in context of the art world it's original, must reflect back on the art gallery's where it is being shown.

Artists, like children, will push the boundaries for attention and the gallery, like a responsible adult, must know when to draw the line.

I'm always wary of "as art" art, Like starving a dog to death "as art" or watching a man die "as art". There is a line between art and art in the most generic sense. Are snuff films (films that show an actual murder) "art?" Are voyeur cameras in bathrooms making "art?"

Art has become such a generic word that it's on it's way to becoming irrelevant in defining much more than one man's opinion.

"My farts are art" --that's not an un-true statement to make. I'm sure we've all blasted off a satisfactory volley yet the chances are we were the only people who might define it as art!

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