What is contemporary?

Today I’ll be part of a panel that is happening at MMU as part of the centenary celebrations of MMU in Cheshire. A full schedule is online here. My panel is described as follows:

Panel Discussion: Arts and the Contemporary: A discussion between key artistic practitioners and writers
Time: 5 – 6:30pm
Location: Axis Theatre

John Deeney, principal lecturer in Drama at MMU Cheshire and editor of the ‘Routledge Drama Anthology and Sourcebook’ will chair a panel of artist practitioners and scholars in a lively discussion on ideas around the contemporary in relation to artistic practices.

John, my colleague in the Department of Contemporary Art, sent those of us on the panel an article to read from e-flux, with a focus on this excerpt:

The term “contemporary art” is marked by an excessive usefulness. The contemporary has exceeded the specificity of the present to become inextricably linked to the growth of doubt consolidation. At the same time, it has absorbed a particular and resistant grouping of interests, all of which have become the multiple specificities of the contemporary. The tendency is for artists to deny that they are part of something that is recognized and defined by others. Frustrations here are always unique. Donald Judd did not identify himself as a minimalist. Yet “contemporary art” activates denial in a specifically new way. It does not describe a practice but a general “being in the context.”

(See full article)

The E-Flux article is focusing on ‘art’ as in ‘visual art’ in the above provocations and the discussion within the article is somewhat limited by its return to the context of displaying visual art (which is very different than theater or performance art, even). Nonetheless questions of what makes something contemporary (vs. what? modern? historical?) come up again and again in my own work as an educator and artist. The author claims that the term ‘contemporary’ is excessively useful while also being an umbrella term that takes in ‘multiple specificities of the contemporary’. The quote, and the full article, does a very good job of laying out the problem with the label despite its excessive usefulness and seeking to pinpoint a few of the key problems with the term. I was also interested in the fact that the author of the article highlighted Donald Judd’s resistance to being labelled as a minimalist (he preferred to call his work ‘permanent installations’ – focusing on the relation between the artwork and its site), partly because I worked for the Judd Foundation for a number of years and was able to sleep in his properties, view his collection up close and because I spent a lot of time helping to craft a timeline of his life for a retrospective that happened at the Tate a number of years ago. I recall, in doing the research for Judd, that although Judd was a prolific writer (especially as a critic of other artists work), he was also a key figure in fostering the work of the other artists who came to be called minimalists. He did this by writing about their work, drawing connections between their practices, and by advocating forcefully for a specific approach to art that created a distinct relation between art and space.

I think the author, above, is  also correct to note that often artists do not like to be categorized or labeled; as an artist I can say that in my case this is largely because label are generally only useful to people who are not engaged in actually making work…labels are helpful in translating that work to a mass (non-specialized) audience. My typical response to the endless desire in academia to create taxonomies and labels is to resist them unless they are truly enlightening and actually useful. I sat through a rather infuriating (and ill informed) keynote at TAPRA this week by Erika Fischer Lichte who has decided that intercultural performance is no longer a useful label and that ‘interweaving performances’ is better. I had to stop myself from hurling myself over a theoretical cliff as she contradicted herself again and again in her talk (especially with her claim that intercultural performance is always a mix of east and west…oi). The cherry on the toxic cake in her talk was when she showed a video from a group in Brazil who were apparently, in her esteem, making radical and important work; perhaps she has never seen the videos of Dionysius in 69 or any of the other work that was happening in the 60s and 70s in NYC since the video she played seemed to be a direct copy of that work, but forty years later and on a different continent. I agree with her that the term intercultural has probably outlived its sell by date, but to replace it with the clunky, unhelpful and (frankly) confusing term interweaving performance is a bit like cutting off the head of one evil beast only to allow another one to grow back in its place. Several of us on Twitter moaned ‘what is wrong with just calling it performance’, for goodness sake?

Of course, labels are made for simplifying things. They are used to try and make it clear to a reader or listener what the terrain is that something (a work of art?) sits within. But more often than not, I find that labels just make things even murkier. In the same article quoted above, the author goes on to say:

The contemporary necessarily restricts the sense in which you are looking for a breakthrough. An attempt to work is the work itself. Unresolved is the better way, leaving a series of props that appear to work together—or will do for now. In this case no single work is everything you would ever want to do. This is the space of its dynamic contradiction. Hierarchy is dysfunctional and evaded by the contemporary, and therefore key political questions, whether ignored or included, are supplemented by irony and coy relations to notions of quality.

This return to form, or to the ‘work itself’ taking precedence over the ‘content’ is problematic for me in relation to contemporary work. Or, rather, I tend to find myself frustrated in cases where form swallows content, or where process trumps the experience of the spectator/participant/watcher who encounters the work. This brings me back to the main point, which is to briefly note some of my thoughts about tonight’s panel discussion of ‘what is the contemporary’ in relation to art (and theatre more specifically, in my case). Despite disliking labels, perhaps it is important to at least understand this term since it is used so widely (and indeed, it is in the name of the degree I lead and the department in which I teach). Having been boxed into a corner (of my own making?) I will offer up these thoughts as a way of trying to pin down what contemporary in relation to theater and art means to me:

  • Contemporary is both an obvious label that speaks for itself (it refers to the present according to the OED) and also a slippery beast. Another article from E-Flux puts it thus:

So it is with the contemporary: a term we know well enough through its use as a de facto standard by museums, which denote their currency through an apparently modest temporal signifier: to be contemporary is to be savvy, reactive, dynamic, aware, timely, in constant motion, aware of fashion. The term has clearly replaced the use of “modern” to describe the art of the day. With this shift, out go the grand narratives and ideals of modernism, replaced by a default, soft consensus on the immanence of the present, the empiricism ofnow, of what we have directly in front of us, and what they have in front of them over there. But in its application as a de facto standard this watery signifier has through accumulation nevertheless assumed such a scale that it certainly must mean something. (See Full Article)

  • If the label contemporary ‘must mean something’ beyond the obvious relation to the present, perhaps it is in the context that the term is used that we find an answer. It is applied as an adjective, most frequently, to code what comes after it; thus, ‘contemporary art’ or ‘contemporary theatre’. For me, this does not simply mean ‘art happening now’ or ‘theatre happening now’ as the OED definition would suggest. If that were the case then  Moliere staged as a piece of museum theater (i.e., historically accurate, whatever that means) would be contemporary and instinctively I feel this just does not make sense.
  • In my opinion, contemporary art (or theater) is art that in some way causes a reconsideration of the contemporary moment in history. The contemporary should ask, insist, require even that you reflect on what it means to be alive now. The contemporary, I believe, points us back at ourselves to encourage us to understand something about how we are, who we are now. You could say that this is the goal of all art, but I am not sure that this would be true. Plenty of art is about transporting us, taking us away from our daily lives. And there is nothing wrong with that.
  • The judgement of how something or whether something causes a reconsideration of the contemporary moment is exactly that: a judgement. I do not think it is possible to create a definitive sense of whether something is inherently contemporary or not. It will be contemporary (or not) according to the person or people making the judgement. This might mean that for some people a staging of Moliere as a museum piece is contemporary. I’d like to hear their argument for that, but I do not rule out the possibility that someone could convince me of this.

This is certainly not a mind-blowing set of conclusions I am reaching here; I am merely trying to carve out a start at an understanding of how this term applies to theater and art for me. What my statements above suggest, though, is that I am in favor of art/theater which is filled with ideas (and passions) and that this substance is perhaps more important than the form it takes. Have a read of this very good blog post that reviews a piece of theater (which I have not seen) to reach the same conclusions. The blog post ends (as this one does):

If I dared to find a starting-point for now, I would choose the words of John von Düffel who claims today`s theatre is about “less art, more substance”.

(See full article)

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