Contemporary Art’s Midlife Crisis

If contemporary art has started out as a mission to democratise and demythologise art, a viewer of TraceyEmin’s bed has every right to ask: ‘Why can’t I make a million quids out of my even messier bed?’Bed

This week, opinion pieces on a similar topic caught the attention of the art circle – one concerns itself with Amazon’s plebeian adventure into art (#amazonart), and the other resents the laymen’s ‘hands-on’ admission to high culture. All these debates are not new. Artists, philosopher, theorists and generally stuck-up intelligentsia have been arguing over what makes art art,[1] and one might want to think that the modern art scene is basically shaped by such debates.

Co-incidentally, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (follow Twitter @ICALondon) recently trended a debate on #WhatisArt as a precursor of their Art Rules project – an attempt to simultaneously open up and rein in the authority of defining art. As the The Guardian cheekily calls it ‘a kind of Twitter – for art’, this platform is going to be a welcome democratisation, allowing us laymen to converse on equal terms with artists, curators and critics.

They asked fundamental questions: does this or that count as art? who defines art? and even ventures into morality with this seemingly naïve question: ‘Is art presented with malevolence still considered art?’ Ultimately, this begs for a definition of art in an era when, at least to the bemused museum-goers, anything can be art as long as the artist (or expert) calls it so. The most mundane of all objects can be art.

The platform hasn’t gone live yet, but the predominating sentiment amongst Art Rulers seems to agree that art is that which does not follow rules. But isn’t this precisely the paradox? That the Rulers embrace no rules?

Certainly this is not what the art world really thinks. One big underpinning notion of contemporary art is that of blurring boundaries – between real/unreal, private/public, high/low, subject/object, senses/mind. Modern art is born of subversion; and postmodern art is the subversion of that subversion (Here’s a good article for the background). But art has gone to such a point where all these contradicting and obscuring are in need of some ‘consolidation’, in the absence of a better word.

It’s almost like an existential crisis that we go through every 20 years or so, that looking back, we somehow have to justify our rebellion teenage years to contribute to where we stand in a society today (as exemplified in art by this piece).  Different people approach it differently. Some re-erect the barricades for a new round of dismantling. We see from the reactions to the impending threat some feel towards too much openness in Amazon’s latest adventure (evidenced by the quick dismissal), or the annoyance brought by increasing inclusivity that museums extend today, where the elite’s exclusivity is quickly established, protected from the middle-brow and the larger public. Others respond to this crisis through endless soul-searching, and the ICA project manifests itself as one.

Both cases display the anxiety within a discourse of binary oppositions that contemporary art struggles to subvert. But as we have understood from Derrida, deconstruction is premised on such oppositions, hence the irony that the most radically subversive are often not accepted as art by the general public. If contemporary art has started out as a mission to democratise and demythologise art, a viewer of, say, Tracey Emin’s bed has every right to ask: ‘Why can’t I make a million quids out of my even messier bed?’

What rules dictate that, indeed, is the question.


[1] Starting from Kant’s aesthetics, and those who embrace the idea of artistic moral high ground such as Schiller, Hegel and Ruskin, to those who began to subvert such elitist notion (but inadvertently fell for it): Nietzsche, Wagner, Heidegger, and those, in the truest sense of subversion, dismantled the institutional barricades between high and pop culture and basically transferred the whole topic to the realm of sociological discussion: Adorno after Marx, Jameson, Hal Foster, Bourdiu, Barthes, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Ranciere and the whole lot of them.

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