BY Dan Cameron in Opinion | 05 JUN 93
Featured in
Issue 11

Least Common Denominator

Warning Signs from the Post-Movement Era

BY Dan Cameron in Opinion | 05 JUN 93

During the last five years, quite gradually and without anyone really taking much notice, a major transformation has occured in the contemporary art world. Although its immediate impact has been subtle, the long-term effects seem likely to spread throughout the entire system of art's production and dissemination within the next five to ten years, altering the ways in which art itself is thought about, discussed and presented for the foreseeable future. And while it may initially be difficult to isolate the fundamental nature of this paradigm shift, its significance should not be underestimated by anyone in the art community.

What I am referring to, of course, is the complete disappearance of the 'movement' as a necessary or even signifying phase within the evolution of the art of our time. In other words, although one would be hard-pressed to imagine any artwork made today that didn't adhere to the visual precepts of one or more stylistic tendencies from the past few decades, the very act of singling out certain stylistic phenomena as inherently more interesting than others, even for a brief period of time, has become an increasingly dubious practice for both critics and curators. For the moment, it is also hard to imagine that certain preferences wouldn't continue to be held by just about everyone, at least during this transition towards a fully post-movement future. Nevertheless, the word should go out to anyone waiting for the winds of art-fashion to blow them towards something more coherent - it is not going to to happen, at least for some time to come.

How did this change take place, and what does it mean for most of us? Perhaps the most direct explanation can be found in the gradual de-centralisation of the international art world over the last ten years. When New York in particular began to lose its dominance as the city where all art manifestations came to be validated, the interrelationships between artists in other places began to acquire a certain value for those who were intent on describing the new, complex system just beginning to emerge. The proposition that artists working in Berlin, Madrid, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Sydney, Zurich and Rio de Janeiro might all enjoy a form of critical equality in the reception of their work seemed like a radical premise at first. And yet, by the end of the 80s, the urge to unite far-flung artistic practices from various corners of the globe began to seem like a much more reasonable endeavour than the periodic bringing together of artists who all work in the same place, for the sake of curatorial and critical convenience. Stylistic connections between artists who might, in earlier times, have passed a lifetime without being shown together, were suddenly being pressed upon the world's attention. And rather than being treated as individuals within a group identity, artists quickly began to be seen as unique representatives of their culture, and their work treated as something that, however endemic to its environment, required exposure to as broad an audience as possible.

The other aspect of the 80s which seemed to foreshadow the demise of movements was the extraordinary proliferation of art magazines, each with its own distinctly regional point of view. Even more extraordinary was the apparently inexhaustible appetite of the readers of these magazines for others of the same ilk. No longer was Artforum the bible, with some local cultural news added for a sense of balance. Without warning, those journals and smaller-circulation magazines coming out of Milan, Sydney, Zurich, Cologne, Barcelona and Los Angeles were becoming required reading in New York, Paris and London, and a new curiosity about how the rest of the world makes and thinks about art gradually began to replace the imperialistic yearnings that mega-surveys of art from the U.S.A., England and Germany had barely attempted to conceal.

But if any single factor can be counted upon to provide the explanation for why movements just don't work anymore, it would have to be the breakdown in the market structure since the beginning of the 90s. While there is no argument that this economic factor has caused a significant degree of hardship amongst artists and those who work with them, many of the changes in the way art is now being treated can only be looked upon as positive steps, particularly where the audience is concerned. To take an obvious example: because there is no longer any incentive to lump artists and artworks together as a 'package deal', those who handle art are being forced to develop connections within their subject that transcend the stylistic categories that were bandied about in the 80s. It no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to say that work is more 'conceptual' than 'expressionist', the artist more an 'insider' than 'outsider', or an aesthetic choice 'right' or 'wrong'. This does not mean that standards have vanished and anarchy is the inevitable next step. On the contrary, standards are more in use today than ever before; there is simply less paranoia afoot as to what they ultimately signify.

The crucial difference, though, is that the artist's freedom to act as an individual, regardless of the socio-cultural context in which this action occurs, has begun to be recognised as the most irreducible aspect of his and her activity. This became apparent enough, to this writer anyway, around 1990, when a new crop of American artists emerged without any trace of an appreciable link between them. Although critical language struggled to find some way of talking about the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cady Noland and Charles Ray together, it was clear that each had staked out a completely different 'zone' of activity, and in fact had nothing to do with one another. Although one might also claim that the 80s labels of 'neo-expressionist' and 'neo-geo' were far from helpful in illuminating the work of those artists so described, the fact remains that both of these generations fell together much more easily than did the new generation of the 90s. In the intervening period, artists who have emerged in their wake show even fewer signs of banding together, despite the fact that certain threads of common interest - gender, race, AIDS, ecology, childhood - can be easily discerned in their work. Outside the USA, where such issues play a less prominent role in the subjects of the artists, the de-clustering of artists seems to be proceeding at an even faster pace.

But not all is rosy in this formulation: one of the most unsettling characteristics of the early post-movement period has been the phenomenon of 'ganging' (apologies to Richard Prince), or bringing together groups of artists from one locale, as a new form of geocultural sabre-rattling. Sometimes there is a credible enough premise at work, as in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles' Helter Skelter (1991) show, which sought to expose the dark underside of the city that invented technicolour. Unfortunately, because the scene which the show was trying to document consisted of only a half-dozen individuals at most, too much time and space was wasted on the effort to force-fit other artists into the same mold. More recently, as with the group show of British artists last fall at Barbara Gladstone and Stein-Gladstone galleries, the idea of a critical group premise was abandoned altogether in favour of a looser clumping of people who seemed to spend a lot of time together anyway. Although the show's overall lack of conviction may be attributable to other factors, there was much comment at the time concerning the fact that the project bore almost nothing in common with the more authoritatively 'British' projects that were so plentiful during the 80s.

In the long-range analysis, ganging can be described as a form of pseudo-movement which comes about as a result of the craving for group identity. As a response to the inevitable vacuum which the absence of movements creates, it is certainly a legitimate phenomenon, at least in sociological terms. However, if the current examples of ganging in Cologne and Paris are any indication, such social formations do more to damage than enhance the reputations of the artists involved. Instead of convincing the art public that these artists are working together because they have something vital to impart, the resultant posse phenomenon reveals a clinging together for the simple reason that most of the work, considered individually, would not bear up under prolonged examination. In addition, the pressures to conform to the group aesthetic, which is as evident in the communities surrounding the gangs as it is in the groups themselves, are merely a more coercive version of the hierarchical aesthetic codes so prominent in the market-driven 80s.

However, if indicators are to be trusted, even ganging will give way within the next few years to the kind of all-inclusive approach to both style and point of origin that is barely hinted at in projects like this year's Whitney Biennial and the 'Aperto' section of the Venice Biennale. In fact, the disappearance of movements appears to signal nothing less than the opening of a new era in which artists have a unique opportunity to regain their place at the forefront of cultural production, without the need for refuge in the various '-isms' that have reduced contemporary art to little more than an anachronism in the eyes of the general public. Even more significantly, the reception and evaluation of artworks no longer need to depend on their relationship to a given milieu; every creative gesture has gained the freedom of absolute independence from every other creative gesture.

But the greater goal of the early post-movement era is a movement towards populism, at least to the degree that art is gradually becoming integrated into the daily life of greater numbers of people, making the move away from elitist structures of discourse the most important challenge facing the international art community in the next few decades. By dividing itself in order to conquer an electronically splintered society, the art world of the post-movement era will no doubt end up much less streamlined than its recent predecessors. But there can be no doubt of its ultimate message for the closing moments of the age of '-isms': what the world seeks through art is the expression of a radically individuated consciousness. Artists, and memorable encounters with works of art, only come in multiples of one.