Last Wednesday, in her annual lecture exploring the question, What is Contemporary? ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner pointed out that when Andy Warhol organized the famous Raid the Icebox exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, there was no such thing as a contemporary art museum. Now every city seems to have one: Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Raleigh, Scottsdale, Denver, Honolulu, and Philadelphia of course. I don’t know why this fact should be surprising—contemporary art didn’t exist much before the fifties so of course there weren’t museums for it, but it surprised me. Maybe the question is: Why does contemporary art get its own museums? Why doesn’t it go in the old museums along with all the old art? Is just that they’ve run out of room?
It doesn’t seem that way. Contemporary art institutions seem different, probably because contemporary art seems different from the art that came before. Of course, it’s not totally different, but it is quite different. Ingrid suggested a few ways of thinking about this. Contemporary art, she said, is often performative in some way—think of Marina Abramovic sitting in MoMA all last summer (The Artist Is Present), or Tino Sehgal sending children, adolescents, young adults, and old people to converse with visitors strolling up the ramp at the Guggenheim (This Progress). (I personally had a very hard time at This Progress because I didn’t know you had to start at the bottom. I went up to the top and tried repeatedly to get picked up by the old people standing in wait behind a pillar, but they just kept ignoring me.)
“The experience was the piece,” Ingrid said of This Progress. “So much contemporary art is about a contract between you and the artist,” she said. Contemporary art is “driven by ideas and practices, not masters or mediums,” she said.
The experience. A contract. Ideas rather than mediums. This seems right to me, and at the same time it seems very strange. Can an idea be a work of art? Does that make any sense?
One of the pieces Ingrid showed an image of was Some Objects of Desire by Lawrence Weiner, in which words substitute for things: “Some Objects of Desire,” reads the top line. The second line reads, “Some Objects of Necessity,” and so on. But what struck me when I looked at the slide was how carefully and compellingly drawn the words were. The lettering was great, and I liked the colors. The work of art was still a thing, an object with an aesthetic quality. It certainly was making a point about the substitutions of abstractions for things, but things were still there too. By contrast, as a writer I work to make art out of words, but I never think about what the words look like. Times New Roman is fine every time.
Another work Ingrid showed was Ai Weiwei’s Dropping the Urn, in which the Chinese artist makes a point about the devaluing of history and art by dropping and breaking historic pots. Part of what makes this work so powerful is its use of the thing itself—the pot, the urn, the vessel—how it falls through the air and hits the floor and shatters.
Ingrid’s talk, which divided the works discussed into categories like terrain, systems, history, business, and alchemy, got more expansive as it went on. Starting with a relatively constrained definition of contemporary art, it opened outward through a discussion of many contemporary works and artists, ending up encompassing not only any art being made now, but even any art “that pertains to now”—so that old works in new contexts might not be excluded.
Still, those things Ingrid said back at the beginning about performance, contracts, and ideas bear weight. They do describe a major gravitational locus that we call contemporary art, distinguishing it in significant ways from what came before. Not that art before 1945 didn’t contain ideas—it did. There were ideas then and there are objects now, but it seems that the balance between the two has shifted. Whereas the center of gravity once firmly resided in the object, now the center is often the idea.
Coincidentally, my notes from Ingrid’s talk ended up on a page in my notebook next to notes I took at a writers’ conference last year. One read, “Every formal decision is political,” which sums up nicely one way in which ideas and forms (things) are inextricable.
In those notes I also found some advice about art-making from the film maker (and artist and poet) Jean Cocteau. Part manifesto of artistic freedom, part exhortation to push beyond accepted limits into the darkness of the deeply personal, in this statement Cocteau expresses the faith that art that pushes into the new is art worth making. It seems as good a motto for a contemporary artist as any I can imagine:
“That which everyone condemns, do it more. It is you.”