What about the Other Face of Contemporary Art?

By Kamhi, Michelle Marder; Torres, Louis | Art Education, March 2008 | Go to article overview

What about the Other Face of Contemporary Art?


Kamhi, Michelle Marder, Torres, Louis, Art Education


It is unfortunate that in current art-world usage contemporary does not simply mean "of the same time as the speaker or writer," as ordinary usage would lead one to expect. Instead it refers specifically to anti-modernist work-that is, to the unconventional forms typical of postmodernism (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2007). Such usage is clearly reflected in museums of "contemporary art." For example, MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art)-the largest of its kind in the United States-is officially dedicated to "the creation and presentation of provocative visual and performing arts pieces, and of works that blur conventional distinctions between artistic disciplines," while also "function [ing] as a laboratory for the contemporary arts, fostering experimentation by artists" (MASS MoCA, 2007). ' The call for papers for this issue of Art Education devoted to contemporary art reflected a similar conception. Referring to "interactive art installations," "sound art," "ephemeral performances," and "monumental digital dialogues" as "exploding, expanding, and re-imagining that which is at the center of what we do in art education-Art,"2 it implied that the age-old art forms of painting and sculpture are now irrelevant and that the concept of art has no boundaries.

Surely teachers of the visual arts might question how and why such things as "sound art," "performance art," and "monumental digital dialogues" entered that realm to begin with, and whether they logically belong there. They might also question how and why such forms have largely eclipsed traditional art forms in the contemporary art world (Spalding, 2003; McEvilley, 2005; Torres, 2008). At the very least, we suggest, art teachers ought to inform their students of alternative viewpoints regarding these questions.

It is an ironic fact that the unconventional forms regarded as "contemporary art" owe their origin to the anti-art impulses of both the 1960s and the preceding Dada movement. The Dadaists (who inspired the early postmodernists1) aimed to dispense with art altogether. Contrary to an assumption generally shared by arts professionals and scholars today, the "readymades" of the Dadaists' fellow traveler Marcel Duchamp should not be regarded as precursors for a new approach to "art," for he plainly stated that he never intended them to be art.4 So, too, such forms as "conceptual art" and "performance art" originated expressly as anti-art gestures. As noted by Thomas McEvilley in The Triumph of Anti-Art (2005, p. 100) and by us in What Art Is (Torres & Kamhi, 2000, chapter 14), they were reactions against Abstract Expressionism, then dominant in the art world. A reaction against the arbitrary formalism and meaninglessness of abstract painting-trenchantly satirized by Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word (1975)-was surely warranted if one believes that art should be meaningful (Spalding, 2003, especially p. 81; Torres, 2007). But what that reaction produced was often equally arbitrary and baffling-an endless proliferation of alleged new art forms that are, we have argued, the deliberate antithesis of all prior art (Torres & Kamhi, 2000, chapter 14).5 Hence, the term anti-art. By definition, however, "anti-art" is not art, the prefix anti- means "against, opposite, or opposed to." Indeed, early postmodernist theorists such as Allan Kaprow (1961/1993, p. 1) and Henry Flynt (1961/1989, p. 431) openly declared that the new forms they were advocating had nothing in common with what had previously been termed art and therefore should probably be called something else. Soon, however, the postmodernists were willingly co-opted by the very economic and cultural forces they were reacting against, so that their anti-art has, in McEvilley's words, "attained ... more or less complete dominance in the art world" (2005, p. 352; see also Torres, 2008).

Just as contemporary works of painting and sculpture, especially those in a traditional "academic" or "classical realist"6 style, were by implication excluded from consideration for this special issue, so too they are absent from public museums of so-called contemporary art. …

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