Formal innovation as a prerequisite for serious, ambitious art prevailed into the late 20th century. Among mid-century proponents of the new, passionate factions contended for stylistic primacy, and for the high moral ground. Not all forward-looking art was created equal; some was good, some was bad. Fisticuffs sometimes ensued over such differences.
Today, innovation is no longer an issue of central concern. Nor do moral values pertain to one’s way of making art. Today’s young artists voraciously consume, and then transform, existing modes of all kinds. Their often-cited lack of historical memory is probably useful in this regard, since they freely put their own spin on abstraction, portraiture, collage, assemblage, photography, video, performance, even narrative realism, and much, much more. All sources, it seems, are valid; all are fair game.
Is anything new being produced in the contemporary art world at this moment? If so, what is it? If not, does it matter? Many observers think things are at a standstill. Art history’s most active sector these days is contemporary art, and that means the territory is pretty well domesticated; not only that, it enjoys broad academic approval. In the heyday of the modern period, new art unsettled people, or even scared them. Those days seem long gone.
The profusion of art being made is daunting. On a bad afternoon in Chelsea, one can recall the sinking feeling produced by a slog through the back corridors of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where one sees far too many similar, post-Golden-Age Dutch landscapes. Much of our current work recalls a slew of antecedents; especially apparent are the various strategies and modes of Fluxus, Process art, Conceptualism, and Post-Minimalism. It requires repeated viewing and sustained attention to ascertain what is quirky, personal, and surprising; yet those qualities can still be found.
Curators of contemporary art once played to specialized audiences and clued-in critics. They expected to draw outrage and scorn from the wider public and the popular press, and did. Nowadays, exhibitions of the latest thing attract enthusiastic crowds. In search of the unfamiliar, curators now look back as artists are looking back. The Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and other such extravaganzas originally committed to showing new work now routinely include work by deceased artists. That the small show-within-a-show of the work of Forrest Bess (1911 – 1977), curated by Robert Gober, was one of the highlights of the Whitney’s most recent biennial is telling. The current Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, repeatedly invokes its own history. Three small sculptures by Julio González, seen at Documenta, in 1959, hold pride of place in a huge, otherwise empty gallery. Elsewhere is an Alighiero Boetti embroidered map of the world, made for the 1972 Documenta. It did not, in the end, appear there, but it is on view this summer, along with an intriguing documentary researching Boetti’s time in Afghanistan where the map was woven. This is not to say that Documenta lacks new work; there is much on view that is unfamiliar, making the visit eminently worthwhile.
Can there be a great period in art in which new forms are not being invented? Is new content enough? Is technical and societal change, which art inevitably reflects, enough? Or are we blind to formal change in the welter that surrounds us? Despite all the above, it is obvious that we currently confront a fertile and exciting period in art. There is a fantastic elasticity to both the social and the artistic fabric. Ours is far from an exhausted culture.
Even so, the new, as it was understood from the beginning of the avant-garde period in the 19th century up until the latter decades of the 20th century, is no longer with us. In preparing this section for the Rail’s summer issue, we have attempted to approach this subject by means of a group of exhibition reviews and artists’ statements. Among the artists, words like “progress,” “innovation,” and “originality” barely crop up. Yet it’s clear that today’s artists are taking the conditions of the art world and the society in which they live and finding ways to make art that is distinctly their own. That, for them, is what “new” means. Perhaps it’s time to give up the expectation of a millennial eruption of novel forms and/or strategies and look critically and carefully at what actually surrounds us.
A sidelight on the perils of claiming unprecedented newness, primacy, or originality: According to the New York Times (June 14), recent scientific explorations of Spanish caves have revealed art that is far older than that previously known. What is this imagery, dating back 40,000 years? “Red disks, handprints […] and geometric patterns.”
ContributorElizabeth C. Baker
ELIZABETH C. BAKER is a writer and editor. She edited Art in America for thirty-four years.