Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art: Books

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Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, By Peter Osborne, Verso, 288pp, Pounds 60.00 and Pounds 19.95, ISBN 9781781681138, 80940 and 83354 (e-book), Published 20 May 2013

A stuffed Jack Russell terrier stands on its hind legs, paws wrapped around a hand-lettered sign that reads, "I'm dead". The dog is either a work of cutting-edge sculpture or an adolescent stunt with taxidermy. In fact, it is both: The Independent calls it a "stand-out" work by artist David Shrigley, best known for his darkly humorous cartoons drawn in a naive style. Shrigley is one of this year's four finalists for the Turner Prize, the UK's most prestigious award for contemporary art.

"Contemporary art is badly known," Peter Osborne declares in the introduction to his ambitious philosophical treatise on the subject. It is hard to disagree with this diagnosis. Despite the increasing mainstream popularity of contemporary art - Tate Modern had a record-breaking 5.3 million visitors in 2012 - today's art world is in some ways more impenetrable than ever. It seems governed by hidden principles, inscrutable signs and, most importantly, wealthy collectors. To the uninitiated, the pronouncements issued by the curators and critics who serve as its high priests can seem arbitrary or just nonsensical. The dense, jargon-laden discussions that fill exhibition essays often serve to alienate rather than to illuminate. A cynic may find a bleaker meta- message in Shrigley's irreverent sculpture: contemporary art is a dead dog that can do nothing more than state the obvious about itself, over and over again.

Osborne is clearly more optimistic than that. As professor of modern European philosophy at Kingston University, he aims to make sense of contemporary art by arguing that it is "postconceptual". By this he means that art today expresses our unique historical situation. The past 25 years are marked by a geopolitical shift from the international to the "transnational", characterised by the erosion of boundaries among nation states through demographic shifts, the movements of global capital, labour migrations and, of course, the internet. …

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