The Perpetually Unsolvable Puzzle of Contemporary Art

Much has been written in the last several years about the
turning point in art and culture that occurred in the mid-’60s. Arthur Danto characterizes it as a shift from
the modern to the "contemporary". If we accept this distinction and assume we have a reasonably clear idea
what falls under the concept of the modern, one is inclined to ask what is
brought into focus through the concept of the contemporary. What does it mark other than the indexical
"now" or "the mythological present"?

In a recent essay entitled "The Contemporary and the Historical", Donald Kuspit argues that the contemporary is that which precedes, resists, and lies outside history, that is, a history constructed
according to the criterion of narrative coherence—a fitting together of events
and objects in such a way that each finds its unique place in relation to an
overall configuration. On Kuspit’s view, history is the solution to a puzzle wherein the parts fit together in a clear and satisfying way—"a consistent narrative integrating some of these events in
a system or pattern that simultaneously qualifies and transcends them by giving
them some sort of purposiveness, appropriateness and meaning, thus making them
seem fated" or inevitable. [Kuspit’s essay has also been the subject of discussions by Dan and JL at Grammar.police.]

Kuspit’s analysis of the contemporary, which makes no
mention of Danto, is similar in many respects to the latter’s conception of the
posthistorical.

I think of posthistorical art as
art created under conditions of what I want to term “objective
pluralism,” by which I mean that there are no historically mandated
directions for art to go in…. Objective pluralism…means that there are no historical possibilities truer than any other. It is, if you like, a period of artistic entropy, or historical disorder.
[Arthur Danto, from a lecture given at SVA, 18 February 1993.]

Kuspit also acknowledges pluralism as a mark of the
postmodern, i.e. the "unlimited expansion of the contemporary". He
claims that this "radical pluralism…has made a mockery of the belief that
there is one art that is more ‘historical’ than any other. Thus history has
become as absurd and idiosyncratic as the contemporary."

In words that echo Danto’s defense of "the end of
art", Kuspit says

There may be a history of modern
art and a history of traditional art, but there can be no history of postmodern
art, for the radically contemporary can never be delimited by any single
historical reading…. In postmodernity…[there] is no longer any such thing as
the judgment of history, only an incomplete record of the contemporary…. Art
history’s attempt to control contemporaneity—and with that the temporal flow of
art events—by stripping certain art events of their idiosyncracy and
incidentalness in the name of some absolute system of value, was overwhelmed by
the abundance of contemporary art evidence that proposed alternative and often
radically contrary ideas of value…. In attempting to establish certain art as
more legitimate and necessary than other art, history writing implicitly
privileges some art as more creative and ideologically correct than other art.

By contrast, according to Kuspit, the extra-historical
nature of the contemporary makes possible a plurality of interpretations that
keep the art work alive and "in play", rather than fixed, resolved,
the puzzle solved. "This enhances its contemporaneity, that is, the more
communication about and interpretation of it, the more contemporary it seems,
that is, the more alive in the present, as it were, and thus in less and even
no need of permanence." As soon as
historical status is claimed for an art object, "it withers on the
contemporary vine, losing its creative resonance…."

When the contemporary object is cast in stone and projected
into the future as art of historical value, it becomes "a fetishized
product, as though the creative process that brought it into being is beside
its point. In fact, the process is completed by its creative interpretation,
which is ongoing—a perpetual re-becoming and thus de-reification and
dis-establishing of the art product."

Only when there is nothing left to
interpret and communicate is the object complete, that is, resoundingly
concrete, which means that it is a product that has lost the vital resonance or
aura it had when in process—a resonance or aura that can be restored by a
rejuvenating injection of dynamic interpretation. It is perhaps inevitable that
art history misplaces the concreteness of the work process that is art, for art
history is subliminally concerned with the legitimacy of objects, and only
reified objects are legitimate from the perspective of history. History
writing, then, is necessarily an act of reification, and reification goes hand
in hand with idolization — the antithesis of critical consciousness.

Thus, the contemporary, for both Danto and Kuspit, marks a
space within which critical questions and interpretations are always in play,
always engaging, forever reinventing what we see in the works and through them.

The logic of Kuspit’s position seems to suggest that the
"contemporary" is more of an attitude than a temporal marker — a
critical state of mind that governs one’s engagement with an art object,
keeping its contingency in play. In principle, one could approach an artwork
from any historical period as a "contemporary" work, i.e. make it
"contemporary" by applying one’s creative imagination to the
interpretation of the work and one’s critical consciousness to one’s own
theoretical framework, unencumbered by "history".

This clearly differs from Danto’s view of the contemporary
which makes modern and pre-modern works alien in some fundamental way —
aspects of another "form of life" governed by a different structure
of art criticism — another paradigm which we understand, at best, from a
psychological and existential distance.

Since at least 1977, in a memorable essay published in Artforum entitled "Art Criticism:
Where’s the Depth?", Kuspit has been arguing for a "revitalized
idealistic criticism" and the necessary role of criticism in enabling the
work to endure by transcending its particularity. His argument extends to the ontology of art
when he claims that a critical engagement is necessary to complete the work.  Critical
consciousness is needed to constitute a (whole) work and its "aura".
Only then is the work fully realized and knowable. Only then do the relevant details emerge and
enable description of the whole and its parts. "In the last analysis the
presence of the work — its way of being present — depends upon critical
reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an
effort to ground the particular work is such a way that it will have a durable
presence." ["AC", Artforum,1977]

Given the prevalence of a largely descriptive and
compromised art criticism in today’s media, one would do well to re-examine
Kuspit’s theory and practice for ways out of the current impasse.

6 thoughts on “The Perpetually Unsolvable Puzzle of Contemporary Art

  1. I’ll be the first to offer that I don’t have a real handle on this latest Kuspit essay/lecture, and I don’t necessarily disagree with the ultimate direction of his thought (“that by definition the history of any particular art is a case history” and that “it makes an interpretive case for a particular art’s interestingness by tracking its environmental development in the context of the observer-interpreter’s phenomenological articulation of his or her complex experience of it”), but when I try to level this (your summary from above):

    Kuspit has been arguing for a “revitalized idealistic criticism” and the necessary role of criticism in enabling the work to endure by transcending its particularity. His argument extends to the ontology of art when he claims that a critical engagement is necessary to complete the work. Critical consciousness is needed to constitute a (whole) work and its “aura”. Only then is the work fully realized and knowable. Only then do the relevant details emerge and enable description of the whole and its parts. “In the last analysis the presence of the work — its way of being present — depends upon critical reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an effort to ground the particular work is such a way that it will have a durable presence.”

    … with this (from the artnet Kuspit piece):

    The interpretive perspective is always relative, pragmatic and informed with an ulterior motive. It is concerned to legitimate what would otherwise seem illegitimate, that is, contemporary. In place of the infinitely open system of contemporary art it offers a closed historical system of self-satisfied understanding and secured value, but there is always more of the contemporary. Either the hermetic historical system collapses under the pressure of the contemporary or breaks down because of its own pretentious weight.

    … I can’t help but come away with the sense of narcissistic “posturing” JL discussed.

  2. … “narcissistic posturing,” that is, on Kuspit’s part (in his rhetorical rejection of any historicizing interpretation).

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Dan. I’ll be back in a few days with a response and follow-up post.

  4. If you step out of time to look at the contemporary and the historical what would you find? Start simply, we would have a “past” and a “future” with the “present” as a boundary between the two. A more complex model would probably need to be more like an aggregation of multiple sets of uniquely personal past-future models. The “present” is the foam between the “past” and the “future”. So as “Donald Kuspit argues that the contemporary is that which precedes, resists, and lies outside history”, this is what I describe as the foam of the “present” By foam, I am implying that the present is constantly mutable and indeterminate, it is there but hard to pin down. By definition, the “present” cannot have a history because it is a boundary condition which is infinitely subdividable. As the present moves through time it becomes history. We may not like the characteristics of this “history”, it may not fit our desires for a taxonomy of concisely packaged descriptions but it will be history never the less. Moreover, the perceptual span or time experience of the “present” is not very large, trying to bind a categorical definition like “postmodern” with the “present” will fail logically. From this standpoint, the perception that “…there can be no history of postmodern art” is illogical and therefor false. The idea that there “is no longer
    any such thing as the judgment of history”
    is presumptuous. It assumes that the future historians will view the current critical argument as true. This seems highly unlikely and the present critical theories and constructs will be viewed as the bias or an artifact, of our particular moment in historical time. In other words, there will be a judgement of history.

    Danto’s conception of the posthistorical makes more sense to me.
    The advent of photography initiated a radical change in the way the culture could create images. For thirty thousand years, the cultural process of creating an image was the purview of the shaman-artist.
    While it’s is true that an yone with a marking stick could make an image, the “cultural images, the bison on the wall, the altarpiece, the still life, etc” were produced by “artists” with a command of the craft. The advent of “mechanical reproduction” specifically photography, slow ly democratized the process of image creation.
    I hesitate to use the phrase “simplified the process” but this was also the case. The result of this change in the means of production has been an exponential increase in the number of images in the culture. Moreover, since the early 60’s the development of electronic media has further accelerated this process. The posthistorical world is the consequence of the information cross linking initiated by the advent of communication revolution which started in earnest when television saturated the culture. We live in an image soup. The posthistorical must encompass the historical because the historical is part of the image soup.

    Since just the act of producing an image appears to be historica l, a greater consequence of the posthistorical will be how the artist defines his relationship with the image soup. The artist need not define this relationship specifically, i.e. work from a theory. He or she must have some intuitive awareness ,that in the image soup, anything could be art, and a primary issue is to create a separation from the background noise. I suspect that what we call “pluralism” is the first manifestation of the separation process as individual artists focused on issues or aspects of the culture they found compelling. The changes implied by the concepts of the “posthistorical” are profound and will require more extensive analysis from a theoretical standpoint.

    Finally, as an artist I feel the “aura” is sufficient, indestructible, and does not require interpretation or theory for its existence. Its creation is the job of the artist.

  5. The Critic Is a Lonely Hunter

    Another round of heavy, chin-in-hand ruminations about the decline of the art critic, this time by the LAT. One thing I’ve noticed about this recent line of conversation is how regularly Arthur Danto is cited to explain the art critic’s…

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