Not long ago contemporary art was simply the art of our time, the art of now. This is no longer the case, as the designation of “contemporary art” has become a new art historical category distinct from time, place, and cultural continuity.
Like its predecessor, “modern art,” contemporary art has become a clearly defined movement. Unlike modern art, the new contemporary art is not distinguished by stylistic unity, Utopian yearnings, or avant-garde chic. Instead, it is a carefully crafted arena that is a telling reflection of our times driven by the extreme concentration of private wealth in the hands of the few, the homogenization of a globalized world, the outsized privilege of celebrity, and the hyper-commodification of culture. As children of Warhol, and harkening back to the magisterial playfulness of Marcel Duchamp, these artists often value the idea over the object, and find a great deal of inspiration in the mechanisms and images of mainstream commercial culture. In hyper-conceptualizing the lingua franca of the media, contemporary art acts like a shadow world to the consumerist model, intellectualizing and mythologizing the simple concepts of branding and marketing that have come to permeate our everyday world. Duchamp’s playfully subversive conceptual resistance has been transformed into academic tropes and multi-million dollar marketing strategies.
The old contemporary art has always been a bit of a cypher for the media. Unable to unravel the complex genealogy of an art whose sources and ambitions were beyond the limited realm of commercial culture and easily digested popular sentiment, the mass media framed art as either an extravagant high-cost item or a freak show. One of the big moments for this new direction in culture was the “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in October 2,1999 – January 9, 2000 that solidified the attention grabbing ability of contemporary art in both the institutional and popular minds. Playing on the business strategies of Charles Saatchi, a collector also prominent in the public relations business, “Sensations” signaled a carefully calculated approach to contemporary art-as-spectacle, the ascendancy of institutional cultural branding, and the problematic interlocking of public/private economic interests as a new norm. It was also one of the first prominent, but increasingly bold and common, partnerships between a staid older museum and a powerful collector/promoter that exploited the public relations potential of contemporary art.
If institutions follow the money, the arc from the openings of the Tate Modern in London (May of 2000) and in New York City, the New Museum (December of 2007), the new Whitney Museum at the High Line (May of 2015) and The Met Breuer (March of 2016), leads directly to contemporary art. The desire to garner the interest and support of collectors and garner larger and younger audiences is one driving force in the institutional swing in the direction of the art of now. While many museums eschewed the art of their time in the first three quarters of the previous century, today it is an absolute necessity to collect and exhibit contemporary art, effectively making public institutions powerful players in the volatile contemporary art market.
How times have changed; the old prices now look charmingly affordable and many old masters are still affordable compared to living artists of the new contemporary art. The six figures paid for the Neo-expressionist paintings of Julian Schnabel and David Salle in the 1980s, so shocking at the time; seems sane by the standards of today’s stratospheric prices for living artists. The fifty-four million dollars that the Australian Business man Alan Bond paid for Van Gogh in 1987, seen then as a rich man’s folly, today looks like a great bargain.
The new contemporary art, with low or no content, is most appreciated as such when it is superficially bright and shiny, a clever parlor trick, or an over-inflated simplistic idea. Not by chance, the new contemporary art succeeds in radically different hemispheres and plays well in both the mass media and the digital arena. It has succeeded as its own self-created brand as typified by the uber contemporary branded artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. But this brand identity also inadvertently becomes a trap for other, more thoughtful, artists. It seemed that in the 1990s Cindy Sherman was trying to make images so aggressively ugly and confrontational that no one would want to own such uningratiating photos. But, already branded as one of the greatest photographers of her generation, they did.
With the current trans-valuation of values driven by the recent consolidation of private wealth, contemporary art has earned a new status as a meta-commodity of exchange, laden with the lingering aura of prestige and power of traditional art.
The commercialization of culture and resulting inflated value of contemporary art signifies that the old humanistic values of creativity, meaning, and transcendence (personally, socially, or spiritually) were finally liquidated by the ironic relativity of postmodernism. Nor is it enough to own collections boasting the same contemporary artists as others in the collecting classes. In the last decade, over 300 private museums appeared around the world to house these new collections, solidifying the trends for museums to advance private agendas over being public trusts.
The new contemporary art, like the new politics, the new economy, and the new global culture, is a conscious creation formed in the image of the financial market, that uncontrollable, unexplainable, impersonal force that has been imbued with god-like powers, but speaks only the international language of money. As such, contemporary art finds new function and meaning as one of the currencies of one of the last major unregulated markets in the world, a market that has replaced cultural values with the predictable metrics of exchange value.
As a new international commodity of exchange, contemporary art has come to function like Bit Coin for the international elite, call them the one percent, the oligarchy, or whatever name you see fit. Like elite travel, health care, fashion, and real estate, the new contemporary art operates in a micro-economy of wealth, substantially closed off from the rest of us except as spectacle. This is why many current practicing artists increasingly no longer identify with the motivations, values, or context of contemporary art, and in such terms, are not really contemporary artists in the newest sense of the term.
How this trajectory will play out no one knows. As one of the current economy’s most visible bubbles, this separation of function from value, and value from meaning, is a profound cultural shift, and will likely not outlast the next major economic downturn. Speaking recently with Die Ziet, Gerhard Richter, one of the celebrated artists uncomfortable with the apotheosis of money in contemporary art, puts it succinctly when he comments on “how insanely the art market has developed . . . how prices have nothing to do with the work . . . the whole art market is hopelessly excessive . . . as incomprehensible as Chinese or physics.”
Chinese and physics people can grasp. As for the current art market, different sets of hidden rules apply. While it is hard to imagine a return to the pre-market driven art world, it is easy to imagine a post-market dominated contemporary art where the majority of working artists can once again recognize themselves as participants in our visual culture.
David Houston is the Curator and Art Historian at The Bo Bartlett Center, College of the Arts, Columbus State University, Georgia. He has curated at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 8-9