“Contemporary Extracts” is essentially an compilation of excerpts edited and organized by Hal Foster that address a slew of questions Foster poses regarding the particularly ambiguous categorization of contemporary art and its role in relation to the rest of art history, encompassing its discourse and study. What prompts these pressing questions is the paradox of the phenomenon: while “contemporary art” is generally considered as a periodical categorization of a body of recent work, it has become and is steadily becoming institutionalized, to the extent that established academic programs, museum departments, and the like are becoming specialized in “contemporary art.”
The responses that Foster includes in his essay span a range of perspectives, and are received from art historians, theorists, critics, activists, and curators. One common perspective that is offered by several of the respondents, including Grant Kester and T.J. Demos, is the notion that many of (if not all) the art historical movements that have inundated Western scholarship are themselves Western or Eurocentric materializations, with the discourse of other cultural art practices being either minimal or articulated in a postcolonial lens.
Conversely, James Elkins concedes that contemporary art may be seen as exceptional because it is newly “universal” (though he does not elaborate on what about contemporary art has made it so). Miwon Kwon seems to negotiate these two perspectives by nothing that the classification of contemporary art is both a temporal and spatial categorization. Ultimately, however, the dominant feeling evoked through these excerpts is a state of fragmented uncertainty and an inability to articulate the actual phenomenon of “contemporary art.”
I share these feelings of uncertainty towards the matter, and as a student of the fine arts in this day and age, this issue concerns me and my peers the most heavily. Yet somehow, I do not feel any sense of dread or disillusion with the seemingly vanishing phenomenon of “isms” — classified movements that have motivated and overcome communities of artists, predominantly in the 19th and 20th century. I wholeheartedly believe that this dissipation must be in large part to due the emerging passivity of the consumption and distribution of art, dissolving through the internet and broadcasted media channels that necessarily diminish the materiality of a piece of work to pixels on a screen that anyone with the adequate technology can consume (excluding digital media art or internet art for which such channels are used as media, of course — though it can be difficult to make this definite distinction). This, I believe, has diluted the ability to engage in such highly motivated discourse about movements that characterized the 19th and 20th century, in the sense that we are saturated with discourse so heavily that we internalize it individually rather than in mutually collaborative collectives. While I consider the growing passivity of art consumption to be a threat, the optimistic side of me thinks that the death of the “ism” might be in part a result of a more individuated phenomenon of art making that could pave the way for some breakthrough artists, not defined by a movement or cause, but rather their individual experiences.