PRINT May 2010


Terry Smith’s What Is Contemporary Art?

Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 344 pages.

TO THE TITULAR QUESTION “What is contemporary art?,” Terry Smith’s answer is appropriately elusive. A professor of contemporary art history and theory at the University of Pittsburgh, Smith writes with an assured and fair hand, even as he withholds any snap definition in favor of a series of hypotheses. In its most basic and banal formulation, contemporary art is simply “art that is being made now”—but this is a truism that, Smith contends, fails to account for contemporary art’s relation to modernism and postmodernism, much less to particularize the pluralism of the contemporary or offer an ontology of the present.

It becomes clear, however, that Smith’s initial evasion is deliberate. His role is that of a seeker as much as an instructor: a protagonist who interrogates, undergoes, and makes discoveries—whether at the Palais de Tokyo or at Minamidera, Naoshima Island, Japan; at the Havana Biennial or at Miami Basel. Smith thus seems to assume some of the most common forms he diagnoses in art today: “Provocative testers, doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, tentative projections, diffident propositions, or hopeful anticipations.” He makes a tactical decision to “show and tell,” describing the considerable amount of time he has spent taking in the scope of the contemporary art world in the flesh. Smith suggests, in fact, that contemporary art demands individual and physical encounters that might nullify the reach and propagation of spectacle culture.

The literal experience of art and its institutional settings is thus crucial for Smith. His argument turns on the relationship between being and time—as manifested in the myriad physical, financial, and discursive spaces in which one views contemporary art—and on the antinomies produced in these confrontations. Yet globalization, accelerating economic inequity, and an immersive “infoscape” (as the author calls it) all seemingly disallow any overarching interpretation of such a vast range of occurrences. Against this dead end, Smith strives for a kind of holistic mapping—attempting to theorize contemporary art despite its wild decentralization. Smith deserves plaudits for not shrinking from the immense task of writing a macroanalysis of contemporary art. His narrative extends beyond conventional Western trajectories and thoughtfully considers the effects of postcolonialism and the increasing socioeconomic disparity between Northern and Southern hemispheres. The study is therefore ecumenical, without falling back on cloying relativisms. But it is hardly free from conventional aesthetic and political criteria (for instance, Matthew Barney is no less a bad object here than in less sprawling accounts, and for similar reasons).

Smith identifies three major and irreconcilable “currents,” each of which is “driven by a characteristic outlook, is drawn to specific sorts of content, uses a particular range of expressive modes, and prefers a certain system to disseminate its output.” The first, dubbed “Retro-sensationalism,” encompasses the avant-garde shock tactics that are repeated by the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami and that seem direct results of the excesses of neoliberalism. (Part of this current is “Remodernism”—in Smith’s words, “the constant efforts of the institutions of modern art [now often labeled ‘Contemporary Art’] to rein in the impacts of contemporaneity on art, revive earlier initiatives, cleave new art to the old modernist impulses and imperatives, and renovate them”—a tendency exemplified by such canonical figures as Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, and Jeff Wall.) By contrast, a second current eschews movements and styles. It focuses on “the postcolonial turn,” on art that comprises and effects a circuitry of international goods and people shaped by localized, antiglobalization values while viewed in new markets and in ever-proliferating exhibition venues. Finally, Smith identifies a third strain that results from a generational shift coincident with globalization and postcolonialism, wherein artists (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn, Emily Jacir, Allan Sekula) appropriate elements of the first two currents, “but with less and less regard for their fading power structures and styles of struggle, and more concern for the interactive potentialities of various material media, virtual communicative networks, and open-ended modes of tangible connectivity.”

Smith works through these currents via specific case studies and settings: The chapter titled “Museums: Modern/Contemporary” assesses the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s reopening in November 2004 and the openings of Dia:Beacon in May 2003, the Saatchi Gallery in May 2000, and Tate Modern in May 2000 to make a series of contentions about their plight (they all, in some fashion, shore up the modernism from whence they came and yet embrace a nascent contemporary that often has little patience for modernist premises). “Spectacles: Architecture/Sculpture” focuses on the Guggenheim Bilbao and on Matthew Barney at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to expose the function of architecture as a kind of decadent sculpture; “Markets: Global/Local” takes on auctions and art fairs; “Countercurrents: South/North” attends to the iconography that emerged from decolonization and postcolonialism; and, finally, “Contemporaneity: Times/Places” dwells on themes that mark Smith’s third current, namely, notions of time, place, and action. These chapters go some way in demarcating Smith’s project, its stakes and its method, but they also make a statement about the present. To put it baldly, the world is big and filled with incommensurate objects existing in “a plethora of temporalities” that are subsumed under the banner of the contemporary for a variety of expedient—often monetary—reasons. Instead of papering over such difference, otherness, and disparity, Smith insists on them. He extols their promise: The “challenge to art,” he writes, is to conceive “possible exchanges between these othernesses as a worldwide economy, one that is occurring incessantly, everywhere, at once and in many distinct places, always concrete and always connected.”

Smith does view certain strains of art—particularly that of his third current—as more fully engaging these specific possibilities and conditions of the present, just as he dismisses Retro-sensationalism as a pawn of global capitalism. One is left to quibble with details: Why, for instance, does Dakar-based Jean Michel Bruyère’s interactive installation Si Poteris Narrare, Licet (If you are able to speak of it, then you may do so), 2002, exemplify the imaging of otherness? Or, more broadly, why should Documenta 11 and the 2003 Havana Biennial stand in for Smith’s mapping of North and South, except that they are shows that he saw? These examples serve his points but nonetheless seem arbitrary. Advocating for another roster of names or places would simply offer substitutions without fundamentally altering the doubting-Thomas dynamic. Smith ultimately remains focused on the upper echelons of the art world, spending little time—outside of a thoughtful consideration of Australian Aboriginal art—discussing alternatives to major museums, high-profile biennials, and the economic reach of blue-chip transactions. We do not get very far from his initial definition of the capitalized institution of Contemporary Art (an international network of organizations and markets linked through fairs, auction houses, the Internet, galleries, and magazines). And one wonders how the author would explain the fact that in cities like LA and New York, many of the most progressive exhibitions occur in commercial galleries or small nonprofit spaces. Or that art fairs (with their obvious problems) keep many galleries in Berlin afloat.

Perhaps, in the end, that Smith saw the shows he did is not only necessary but sufficient. It is impossible to see everything, and in any event, he wastes no time on apologies, maintaining that his partiality—what he terms an “implicated relativism”—is a virtue matched only by his stamina. There is much to praise in the results, a highly descriptive and experientially oriented account that airs the many conundrums inherent in writing contemporary art history. Chief among them: Is it a historical practice? Smith seems to answer in the affirmative. In other words, his study of contemporary art is brought to bear on the discipline of contemporary art history. As the author puts it (the italics are his): “For the history of contemporary art, the core object of inquiry is the art, the ideas, the cultural practices and the values that are created within the conditions of contemporaneity.” How these factors materialize as art is the stuff of contemporary art; how they get historicized is the meat of the discipline that attends to them. Contemporaneity itself can and should be historicized. (Witness Smith’s call for “a more subtle understanding of contemporaneity as constituting all the possible relationships between being and time. . . . Different sets become relevant at particular times, in specific places.”)

Complicating these matters is the feeling that the teleology of modernism still lurks behind aspects of Smith’s claims—a logic of progress, a future in which things might be better. As Smith concludes: “A different imagery is needed. It is just becoming visible to us.” These apparitions, one presumes, constitute contemporary art right now—a temporal rather than an epistemic category—and it is the task of the historian to make sense of them. Yet Smith’s history is more concerned with issues of distribution, leaving questions of production unanswered. What would such “different imagery” look like? In a book where medium (to say nothing of critical reception or artistic intent) is not greatly emphasized, one speculates as to how Smith’s contemporaneity works through the obdurate stuff on which its historical purchase relies. His synthetic approach and experiential chronicling do not always square with the analysis of individual objects or events.

Of course, as Smith recognizes, he is caught between the global and the local, between generalizations and particularities, and these often remain incommensurable. Ideas of contemporary art in Beijing, Beirut, Lagos, New York, and São Paulo may be shared, but they are hardly the same: Time is geographically and culturally specific. Smith’s acknowledgment of this fact leads to one of the book’s major contributions. Smith sees the multeity of contemporary art as a reflection of this world of temporalities but also, and more profoundly, as a rumination on what it means to live in a globalized, postcolonial constellation that has moved beyond traditional divisions of era or epoch, modernism or postmodernism. Indeed, the book is forthright about its own privileged position relative to such formations, all the while making clear that “contemporary art” and “contemporaneity” are neither magic words nor monolithic phenomena. Smith’s willfully contingent history, cobbled from ephemeral affairs and anecdotal happenings, gestures toward an understanding of the alterity and specificity of the present. This is an admirable and thought-provoking accomplishment. What Is Contemporary Art? should—really must—spur further investigations into the query that forms its title. Which is to say that Smith’s will not be the only answer, but it will certainly serve as a critical foundation for whatever may come.

Alexander Dumbadze is an assistant professor of art history at George Washington University in Washington, DC; Suzanne Hudson is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois.