Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 6, 2009
Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee, eds. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. 456 pp.; 77 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (9780822342038)

How should we identify our period style? Twenty years ago, that question would have been easy to answer: we are postmodernists. But these days postmodernism is finished—whether because too many competing commentators killed the concept, or because it was too closely linked to modernism, or because we in the early twenty-first century require our own period style. And so the goal of the sequence of essays given at a University of Pittsburgh-sponsored conference during the 2004 Carnegie International and collected in Antinomies of Art and Culture is to offer a way of identifying the characteristic features of art made today.

Some period labels function in strictly chronological terms. Quattrocento art is that Italian art made in the fifteenth century. More often, however, period styles imply value judgments, as when the High Renaissance is said to mark the point of greatest achievement. Not all Italian art ca. 1520 belongs to the High Renaissance. Early on, Nicolas Poussin borrowed a proto-Baroque style from Caravaggio, but later he was not a Baroque artist, even though he lived and worked in Bernini’s Rome. Not all art made in Paris in the late nineteenth century was avant-garde, for there also was Salon painting. And during Clement Greenberg’s modernist era, most New York art certainly was not modernist. Analogously, not all art being made today is contemporary. Helen Molesworth’s contribution to the volume argues that Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1998–2007), a collection of photographs of discarded clothing that makes its way from Brooklyn to Africa, is a model of contemporary art (Terry Smith also singles it out as exemplary in his introduction). Certainly this sort of art, which I enjoy, is familiar to readers of Artforum and visitors to survey exhibitions like the Carnegie International.

For my present purposes, the key text in the volume is Smith’s introduction. His brief, admirably lucid commentary develops a far-reaching analysis that deserves close reading. Admiring Charles Baudelaire’s account of modernity, Smith rightly notes that modernism was oriented toward the future. “Contemporary,” he adds, also involves “a distinctive sense of presentness, of being in the present, of beings who are (that are) present to each other, and to the time they happen to be in” (8). Greenberg’s modernism, one must note now, was focused entirely on European (and American) art, but this account of contemporary art recognizes that today all visual cultures are intimately connected. Knowing the now generally recognized problems with “master narratives,” Smith argues that, “New forms of translation need to be found for channeling the world’s friction” (11). What art history should do, he argues, is map “the specific frictions of . . . world making” (17). When we do that, we acknowledge that Greenberg’s distinction between serious art and kitsch is no longer acceptable, for much contemporary art is involved with film and other media associated with popular culture.

Smith’s introduction sets the stage for discussions of documentary film in India (Geeta Kapur); contemporary art in China (Gao Minglu and Wu Hung) and South Africa (Colin Richards); Monica Amor on the canons; Jonathan Hay on Fredric Jameson, contemporary Chinese art, and African forgeries; Okwui Enwezor on globalization; James Meyer on the return to the 1960s in present-day art and criticism; and McKenzie Wark on the politics of contemporaneity. In this context, Rosalind Krauss is the odd woman out: “I am the complete dinosaur who is not only committed to reinventing Modernism, but never admitted its eclipse by postmodernism in the first place” (61). All of the other writers in this volume want to go beyond postmodernism.

While I agree with co-editors and conference organizers Smith, Enwezor, and Nancy Condee that postmodernism no longer provides a satisfactory definition of our period style, I do not believe that their concept of contemporaneity provides a satisfactory substitute. Elsewhere, Smith has worked his analysis in more detail (see his “What is Contemporary Art? Contemporaneity and Art to Come,” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift/Journal of Art History (2002) 71: 1–2, 3–15; and his more recent “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 4 (Summer 2006): 681–707). Still, one basic problem remains. All sorts of art forms, including some that are not taken seriously within our art world, are also contemporary, in the strictly chronological sense. Currently, Abstract Expressionist-type paintings, sacred Greek icons, sentimental Buddhist and fundamentalist Christian images, naturalistic landscapes, portraits of corporate leaders, and other forms of art not much appreciated within the art world are being made. But this is not contemporary art as defined in Antinomies of Art and Culture, for this book is concerned, like Greenberg’s Art and Culture and the commentaries of his postmodern successors, with identifying the leading contemporary forms of art as recognized from within the art world. Contemporary art, Nikos Papastergiadis writes, does not “always aim to” create “objects that can be collected and displayed in museums” (372). I agree that much Artforum-style art takes this form. But you need only visit an art school in China or Cleveland to see that very many contemporary art students do not think in these terms.

Just as Greenberg and the postmodernists sought to pick out the best art of their time, offering evaluative and not merely descriptive accounts of their period styles, so too do Smith, Enwezor, and Condee want to identify the best art of our time. But how do they know what is the best contemporary art? Boris Groys tries to answer that question when he says that contemporary art is not just produced today, but “demonstrates the way in which the contemporary as such shows itself—the act of presenting the present” (71). But his account poses the same problem. Why, I am asking, should a contemporary Christian American fundamentalist, a belated Abstract Expressionist, or a landscape painter in Pittsburgh not think that her pictures, as much as that art described in this book, presents the present? Once you look at every visual culture, including those outside the official art world, then the range of art made now becomes immense. There are very many different presents and many diverse ways of presenting them. Who is to say that this very diverse art is not as legitimate as Leonard’s? It too is contemporary in a strictly chronological sense.

Smith, Enwezor, and Condee want contemporary art to be politically critical leftist art. As Kapur rightly says, U.S. imperial politics creates “a desperate urgency to forge a corresponding language for oppositional ‘truth’” (50). But while I share their general viewpoint, I am genuinely uncertain that it is possible to move from this critical way of thinking to a definition of the most authentic art of today. How can we move from art theory to this broad political perspective? And, are very different cultures discussed in this book connected enough to make generalization possible? In the end, these problems posed by political analysis are difficult to sort out. Contemporary Chinese art, Wu Hung says, “responds to China’s startling transformation over the past ten to fifteen years” (304). He further states that if this art is contemporary, then within it China’s “social transformation and globalization . . . must be internalized as intrinsic features, qualities, intentions, and visual effects of specific art projects” (303; emphasis in original). To me, this sounds a lot like Hegel’s view of art as social expression. Just as Dutch art of the Golden Age expresses the ideals of that Protestant mercantile culture, so does the best Chinese art express China today. We all know Hegel’s analysis is highly problematic, for it presupposes that we can identify the Dutch Zeitgeist in a non-circular way. The same is true, so far as I can see, with this account of contemporaneity. Not all of everyday visual experience in Beijing is reflected in the art on display in the galleries of the local art center, 798. In the past, in Song dynasty China as in Baudelaire’s Paris, painting provided only a very selective image of the larger culture. Why think, then, that the art presented in Antinomies of Art and Culture could offer a comprehensive vision of our world?

Puzzled over this argument, I asked Smith for help. In a remarkably generous reply he wrote that the goal was not to

replace postmodernism with “contemporaneity” as a “period style” marker, but rather to offer an alternative to modernity and postmodernity as accounts of the state of the world as a whole today, and specifically its cultural sense of itself. We talk about contemporary art as art made within the conditions of contemporaneity, the complexity and multi-temporality of which make (I argue in the introduction) all periodization, including art style periodizing, impossible. (Except I argue elsewhere as anachronism.) (Terry Smith email to author, March 3, 2009)

This makes his account sound rather like Arthur Danto’s view that ours is a post-historical era. (Danto is mentioned only in passing in the book.) If his characterization of the central claim is correct, then clearly I have missed something. Or, I should say, I have troubles with this way of thinking, which deserves extended discussion, but not in this review. Antinomies of Art and Culture is marvelously energetic and determinedly good willed, and so like all substantial commentaries is certain to create much productive discussion. I passionately admire this book, for it is ambitious, far-reaching, and intellectually generous. Anyone who rejects its account really should be inspired to come up with a better analysis of early twenty-first-century art. That, at any rate, is what Smith, Enwezor, and Condee have inspired me to do.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar