Art since 1940: Strategies of Being / Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline / Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings

By Siegel, Katy | The Art Bulletin, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Art since 1940: Strategies of Being / Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline / Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings


Siegel, Katy, The Art Bulletin


JONATHAN FINEBERG

Art since 1940: Strategies of Being New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. 496 pp.; 277 color ills.; 345 b/w. $60.00 MARK ROSENTHAL

Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1996. 328 pp.; 315 color ills.; 21 b/w. $75.00; $42.95 paper KRISTINE STILES AND PETER SELZ

Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 1,032 pp.; 111 b/w ills. $60.00; $29.95 paper By 1964, when historian H. Stuart Hughes wrote an essay titled "Is Contemporary History Real History?" "contemporary" history had become a specialization. Hughes reminisced, "When I was a student, I had the strong impression that the writing and teaching of contemporary history were not quite respectable."' Today it remains a shadowy, if no longer suspect enterprise to fix contemporary experience as historical fact. A discipline without a period, contemporary art history could be defined as the attempt to fill the gap between George Heard Hamilton and Art orum.

Because it is such a relative term, at some point historians will have to stop calling the art of 1945 contemporary. Contemporary to what or to whom? To the present moment? The majority of people alive today were born after 1945. Yet we persist with the term contemporary, reluctant to concede this art to modernism, or part of our own lives to the past. Or perhaps as academics we have accepted the temporal collapse of postmodernism so completely that time's passage no longer even matters, that we can see Expressionism and Neoexpressionism as the same thing. Certainly, postwar art history is contemporary in the most basic sense: it speaks of its own moment of creation as well as that of its subject. In the past year, major publications in three different genres have appeared that, from their diverse vantage points, attempt to survey new ground in contemporary art history. Mark Rosenthal, in Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: dotal Risk, Freedom, Discipline, a museum catalogue, writes about things; Jonathan Fineberg, in Art since Il40: Strategies of Being, a textbook designed for undergraduate use, writes about people; Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Witings, an anthology, write about texts.

These books are directed toward a general as well as an academic audience. This is the territory of contemporary art-arguments of elite and mass culture aside, it should speak to all of us. According to many contemporary thinkers, the audience should talk back and is instructed not to be passive in its response. Fineberg ends his introduction with a hope: "The structural strategies in a work of art (motivated by what I wish to call `strategies of being') can put the viewer in a certain frame of mind that he or she can then bring to bear, as a posture for questioning, on real events" (p. 19). The author is simultaneously offering an explanation, directed at other art professionals, of how artworks and exhorting the public to interact with art in a particular way Similarly, Kristine Stiles ends her general introduction by citing the art collective Group Material's invitation "to question the entire culture we have taken for granted" (p. 9).

This potentially large and "questioning" (critical) audience is one explanation for the tenuous disciplinary status of contemporary art history and its historians. Our knowledge is not privileged. Beneath the breast of every spectator beats the heart of an expert, someone who was there, remembers differently, knows better. The conviction that having lived through the "period" is the primary requirement for writing on contemporary art becomes evident in a comparison of the work by art historians mining their fields of the 18th and l9th centuries with their (usually subsequent) work on postwar art. Some of the most prominent figures in recent art history, having written significant books on early modern art, have turned their attention to contemporary art.

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