BY Katy Siegel in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

The Year in Review - USA

Changes in historical perspective that are shaping art being made today

BY Katy Siegel in Critic's Guides | 01 NOV 12

Bactrian Princess, late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BCE, Central Asia, shown as part of dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel

There has been a lot of talk in the last decade or so about the term ‘contemporary’ in art. The talk is inflected with a complaint: that an anodyne and vapid category, used as a temporary marker, is accruing the permanence of a period – that the contemporary doesn’t mean anything but, nonetheless, won’t go away. Both category and complaint depend on an implicit contrast to Modernism (still): Modernism was about political struggle, historical progress and ideological belief, while the contemporary signals only a mindless ‘presentism’, novelty without the progressive element of the new. Thus ‘contemporary’ replaces both ‘modern’ and ‘Postmodern’ – it’s Postmodernism without that label’s bummed-out aura or stylistic tics.

I don’t want to get into this often circular and tedious debate; the entire structure seems faulty to me, and there is little to be gained from insisting on these terms. Rather, I want to feel through something quite different, but simple: a change in historical perspective that inflects the art being made now, and that also reconfigures the way we write and teach history, not just of the present, but of the recent past as well. The feeling crystallized for me this year, looking at art.

Contemporary art is returning to a sense of the present which is much more akin to that of the modern than Modernism itself expressed: there is attention to the moment without the conviction that the moment is better than the previous one or anticipates the next in a logical progression. One example of this is the artistic focus on materiality rather than medium: putting aside the bombastic wish that every painting make a definitive statement About Painting, much recent painting opens up new possibilities. The false sense on the part of critics that there is no history here, only a continuous present, is an intellectual failure to apprehend anything other than historical narrative rendered in the broadest of brushstrokes. That is, history demands two modes: sensitivity to the moment that expands it to the fullest range of possibilities and continuity – a recognition of the persistence of material interests and social conditions. Magnus Plessen’s latest paintings, shown recently at White Cube, London, are radically contingent – some of them can even be seen in multiple orientations, despite being figurative – and also engage issues (like rotation and levitation) that have surfaced for centuries, in works by artists from Tintoretto to Bruce Nauman.

In some respects, today’s conditions approach those of the pre-modern; they remind me of music before Romanticism, in the 17th and 18th centuries. This pre-modern music is sometimes referred to as ‘rhetorical’, because it was imbricated in its moment, rather than attempting to master and transcend it. Here, music was made prolifically, to be performed and then perhaps not even saved, discarded in favour of the next day’s work. The traditions were local and the music was composed and played for specific conditions and audiences (in contrast to modern ‘classical’ music, which has the same Beethoven symphonies performed in the same fashion by every provincial philharmonic around the world, year after year). Sensitivity to the present meant responding to that present in detailed and multiple ways, rather than attempting to generalize and thus elevate it. The current ubiquity of performance and more modest and specific art resonates with these conditions. The performance programme of this year’s Whitney Biennial was disarmingly minor and hugely engaging as, each day, something else happened; if you didn’t like it this Thursday, come back next Friday.

This adjustment of our estimation of the present is accompanied by a heightened and more imaginative awareness of the past. This can be seen, for instance, in simple attention to artists and practices that were once overlooked because they did not fit into the canonical narrative of modern and Postmodern art. Artists whose practices were too individual and anomalous, not critically/socially favoured, or which took place outside central art centres and markets, can be easier to see today. In part, they may be fodder for a ravenous market, but there is also a genuine change in perspective: some facts and figures look much smaller, leaving room for others to take on new proportions. One project rife with implications was ‘Now Dig This!’ at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, part of the Getty’s massive and massively successful ‘Pacific Standard Time’ project. Curator Kellie Jones presented artists such as Charles White, Melvin Edwards and John Outterbridge, compelling in their own right, even for those to whom the names are news. Even more, taking on the endlessly glorified 1960s and ’70s, this show demanded a rewrite of the history dearest to the hearts of academics, and perhaps most flawfully imagined.

There is also an interest in much longer traditions, as if the present were seen from a distance, putting it into perspective and proper scale, and allowing for further shores of history to enter our field of vision. The artists of nations and regions that have recently fully entered capitalism, and so taken up contemporary art as it is understood in the West, are also exploring their own local histories, of traditional culture, nationalism and their intersection with more general and official accounts of the modern. Even many us artists have turned to the specificities of America’s founding and violent history, evidencing a newfound awareness of the temporary nature of American dominance and its actual provinciality. The pressure of global climate change insists we think still more expansively, registering the scale of the present in relation to a very long story. There is a reason that biennials and other international exhibitions increasingly feature ancient artefacts in concert with art projects made only the day before. dOCUMENTA (13)’s Bamiyan Buddhas and Bactrian princesses – ancient figures destroyed and intact – sent a still more vast stream of history under its grounding reimagination (and implicit global rewrite) of the postwar period.

In the 1940s and the 1980s, writers who claimed a historical vantage point nonetheless often approached history as critics. They not only judged art but, cutting up history into broadly generalized yet absurdly short periods (wielding sharp terms like ‘end’ and ‘paradigm shift’), judged those periods as good or bad. That tendency is ebbing – in my view, happily – with not only newly visible histories, but new perspectives from younger people, unindoctrinated and largely indifferent to this mode of thinking. If, seen from without, our present looks small next to the presents of the past (or at least how they appeared at the time), from within the reality expands, like a balloon, filling with possibilities.

Professor of Art History at Hunter College, CUNY, New York. She is currently working on an exhibition and catalogue, due autumn 2013, on the intersection of representation and materiality in modern painting (Yale University Press and the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio).