What can be done with Contemporary Art?
There has been a good deal of press in the last week about the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston
. Initially thought to be dead in the water, an anomaly in an “artistically conservative” town, the building is being hailed as a significant architectural achievement
and the promise of the collection poised for success.
What makes a city “artistically conservative?” Washington D.C. makes for a good example. No matter who is in power, Washington runs on consistency, punctuality, and tact (tawdiness is not uncommon, though certainly frowned upon). The city center is a massive project of Neo-Classical monoliths. Despite the fact that D.C. houses the greatest percentage of adults with Masters Degrees of anywhere in the country, it does not have the same manic artistic vibe as New York, Paris, or London. Culture always takes a back-seat to politics, profits, and shopping in D.C.
I use “Contemporary” as a term to talk about recently created works that cannot be historically situated within the “Modernist” movements and somehow seem outside of the immediate grasp of “Postmodernity.” Much contemporary art is the result of combinations, pastiches on previous movements, works, artists, and mediums. In one sense, contemporary art can be conceptualized as the physical embodiment of Freud’s “Eros.” That is, ever progressive combinations and recombinations that serve the life-affirming instincts by way of their inability to let any idea expire. Almost all contemporary works of art have a certain poise or posture that reflexively demands the viewer to situate the viewed object/performance into the greater history of art. If previous movements always had a sense of place – “I am a portrait of Louis XIV, am part of the late Baroque and/or Rococo traditions, and deserve to be hung on the walls of Versailles” – then these works may not. “I am a jar of urine with a baseball inside, could be situated in eight current ‘movements,’ and should be stored somewhere-or-other” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Can certain challenging works of art thrive in a conservative scene? Certainly, though the artistic-cultural apparatus might not be in place to make them known. In an era of fragmented avant-gardes, polyvocality, and rampant speculation on art prices, works sell and become known out of hype more often than originality (or, if that Romantic criterion has failed us, emotion, compositional excellence, intensity of alienation, or any number of other benchmarks).
Contemporary art does not thrive in rural areas, where the Hudson River School and kitsch still reign supreme. Universities have an interesting connection to art – on the one hand, they introduce a generation of artists into the ways, practices, and means of the contemporary art scene, but on the other, are burdened by the political correctness, regulations, and free-speech restrictions that frequently shackle educational institutions.
Some would argue that contemporary art thrives in certain non-metropoles, and it well may. However, much of what passes for contemporary art is no more than craft. One can hardly take two or three steps in downtown Charlottesville, VA or Asheville, NC without crashing into a “gallery.” Rather than challenging, historically important work, we see ceramics made by bored retirees, blatent knock-offs of Sol Lewitt, Calder, and some of the other heroes of late modernism, or simply unapologetically nostalgic painting that would make Norman Rockwell cough in disgust. Likewise with the American Southwest. Arizona’s main cottage industry is the commidification and contemporization of the art of Native Americans. What once had spiritual significance and ritualistic value has become a set of trendy earrings that was mass-produced, sold at an outrageous profit, and passed-off as important. After all, what kind of art could possibly be sold by a huckster as lovably clueless as Benny Reyes (Miguel Sandoval) from Alex Cox’s underrated Three Businessmen
This whole entry, in fact, is my roundabout way of lamenting the fact that, even in an age of digital dispersal, de-localized business, and fast travel, art is still very geographically determined. If the London art scene remains ready to explode, it could certainly pass off some of its zeal to suburban Virginia.
I wish for the best for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and sincerely hope that it makes inroads into shaking up a non-happening art scene.