ART CRYSTALLISATION - THE CONTEMPORARY ART SYSTEM

The contemporary art system can be described or analysed in a multitude of ways. There are many different people involved in it, occupying a variety of roles. Its purpose, relation to history, and relation to the public, its implied audience, is complex. It has produced its own codes, linguistic tropes, and behaviours. It has been absorbed into government policy and has a fairly important role in the urban tourism industry. The contemporary art system, as a socio-economic phenomenon, has arguably come to overshadow in significance the experience and interpretation of individual artworks. As populations increase, and the amount of information about everything continues to expand, the individual artist and artwork struggle to be considered worthy of attention. As a consequence of this, within the contemporary art system, there is a necessity for curators, who act as consumers, researchers and discoverers of art, filtering it and authoring selections of artworks that aspire to communicate collectively with a strength the individual art work now struggles to. The curator becomes a co-author, not a neutral selector or critical evaluator of artworks objective qualities. They play a role somewhat akin to the DJ, who selects from the vast stream of individual musical productions, and pieces together a longer duration work that represents an average or aggregate of all production.

This perspective on the system focuses more on the institutional mode, on the museums and biennials that ostensibly exist with no commercial intention. The contemporary art market is, however, increasing in importance, and assuming some of the cultural significance of the museum. The art fair, its origins in the culturally neutral trade fair, fits well with the event culture of our time, and combines the excitement that surrounds large flows of capital with the spectacle of a gathering together of international elites. It also acts as an outlet for artistic energies that do not engage so well with the politically complex space of the contemporary art institution. This occurs as the museum focuses less on its permanent collection, and more on its own potentialities as a site for events. The contemporary attention span, accustomed to constant flux by the internet, demands change, and the notion of an unchanging collection display does not seem natural anymore. 

The role of the internet further complicates the picture. Art was perhaps slower to present itself to the internet than other areas of culture, but this tardiness is now finished. The museums and the galleries, as well as all the individual actors, engage with their presentation online and find this to be a central part of their activity. An awareness of the internet naturally pushes artists towards an engagement with documentation and archiving, that they might previously have left to the institutional and commercial actors.

In reality, my role within the system is virtually non-existent, though it is the site of my intellectual and practical roots. I first engaged with art as a space for libidinal expression, and as an enclosure in which individual, socially impossible impulses could be released. When I first encountered the contemporary art zeitgeist, a difficult split opened up in my relationship to art. I was torn between my cherished engagement with it, which suddenly seemed antiquated, and a more contemporary engagement that was interesting, but gave rise to an intense antagonism -  questioning my place in the frantic socio-economy of 21st century capitalism. 

A historical understanding of art can be the bridge between these two poles, between the romantic idea of the past and the antagonistic present. Noting the developments of art through modernism has been the way that I have intellectually reconciled these two poles. Over the past few months, my historical understanding has crystallised into an analysis of two distinct approaches that I find to be represented by, on the one hand, Duchamp, and on the other, Malevich and Mondrian. I feel the choice of these two artist is a little arbitrary, and could be substituted by others , but both have important things to say about artistic development and the discovery of a style. 

The Duchamp movement is what I refer to as art that wants to say something, and the M&M approach as art that wants to show something. Duchamp leads off in the 20th century to art that engages with political issues and the possibility of continuing with art. M&M hint at the continuing possibilities of art as an engagement with material, in a way that does not shirk from an understanding of the technological realities of society. By emptying their material works of content, they frame the content of the world and make this their subject. This opens up the traditions of formalism and leads to the late modernist artwork, arguably a dead-end in its own right, but something that I see continued in the tradition of artists who engage with architecture and an expanded notion of what the art object is, and how it relates to its container. 

However, both of these lines remain within an analysis of art that takes as its starting point the production of objects. One of the most perplexing things about contemporary art (which I would argue is suffered from less directly by literature and music) is how quickly nascent traditions are superseded. As the form of art that engages directly with media, it is visual art that is most rapidly altered by technology. The culture of contemporary art has been reshaped by the internet, by new media, and by the new sense of time that affects peoples desires and relations to the world. 

Contemporary art is now influenced heavily by the event culture that takes place everywhere. Time based and performative approaches to art are now prominent, leading to the significance and collectability of the documented art event. These documents are especially important in the contemporary art institution, which is based around cultural significance rather than simply power, strength or aesthetic qualities of the object itself. 

There is also a lot of interest in the artist assuming the role of the curator in order to reclaim some of their lost authorship. This is perhaps the only line of enquiry left that remains interesting. I have a lot of sympathy with material art, and from a philosophical perspective, this is perhaps the most interesting form of visual art, as it can be traced back to its origins and it is not derived from language. Duchamp, in effectively declaring the age of the hand-made art object to be at an end, to be replaced by the artist as a selector of objects, both invented the contemporary role of the curator and pushed the artist towards a greater engagement with language than with material.

In a talk about art in the age of the internet (MAAT Lisbon 17/03/2018), Boris Groys dealt with many of these issues, in a more abstract way. He spoke about the artists changing role in the internet era as being defined by the move from ‘form-giver’ to ‘content provider’ (a term which in itself is totally a product of the internet era). In the past, content was provided by the patron, or the ruling ideology, and the artist was the being that found a way of representing it, of giving form to it. Now, the formal co-ordinates of contemporary art are predetermined by the political system (white cube space, architecture of the museum, technical preconditions of internet archives), and the artists role has shifted to being that of ‘content provider’, of filling in the spaces left by this system with their own, personally constructed vision. It may be that modernist art, and all the developments it contained, is so compelling because it bore witness to this changing relationship, and for a time, when the era of the individual was at its peak, saw the artist acting as both form-giver and content-provider. 

This line of thought concludes with the notion of the artist-as-curator, another position mentioned by Groys. I approached this and supplemented it with an economic interpretation in my successful installation, Museum of Anthropology and Souvenir Shop. Although it requires an engagement with the contemporary art system at its most complex, this position again opens up the possibility of a reconciliation with the intellectual analysis of art as a system, and with an engagement with art as libidinal construction. 

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