Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 9, 2017
Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, eds. Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 512 pp. Paper $50.95 (9781444338669)

The last decade has seen a profusion of anthologies reckoning with “contemporary art”—a contested term. Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, edited by Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson, is the latest one, but certainly not the last. Their desire is to expand the discussion on contemporary art to include a multiplicity of voices. In the process, Dumbadze and Hudson bring together forty-six international writers. The writings are grouped into fourteen “fluid rubrics,” which are chapters that contain three essays each. The editors hope that this anthology lays the “groundwork for successive histories of contemporary art” (2). They attempt to be generative, but they fall short in delivering a foundation—if that is even possible or desirable.

One question to ask is why the editors picked 1989 as the date to mark the “beginning” of contemporary art? They argue that the art world shifted due to decolonization, globalization, and inter-/national political and economic events in the late eighties that have lead to a decisive change in contemporary art. Thus, the editors selected a younger generation of authors; they argue: “the ubiquity and variance of contemporary art since 1989 challenges art historians, curators, and critics attempting to account for works of art created in a truly global context” (4). The editors, ultimately, ask a traditional art-historical question: “how to order thematically art defined by a multiplicity of contents—art that is far from determined or accommodating to extant, particularly Western, critical approaches” (4). But, is this the road we should take, or does it simply bring us back to the same problems that the editors are trying to escape, which is to say that the editors’ framing limits the anthology within the same well-trodden paths—though announced as new—instead of creating lines of flight that would lead to possible, and very interesting, foundations? I argue that their anthology unwittingly keeps the West as the force that stages and scripts dominate art history and its institutions by simply adding non-Western art to its institutions.

Dumbadze and Hudson use rubrics to track art (-historical) tendencies, as well as rethink what contemporary art ostensibly is. I should note that I will be linking rubrics out of order; for example, the anthology’s most successful aspect is an examination of art, biennials, and globalization that is missing from other anthologies. The relationship between globalization and art (history) is more important than ever with the current rise of nationalism—as embodied by Brexit and Trumpism, which happened after the publication of this anthology.

The first rubric starts with Tim Griffin’s “Worlds Apart: Contemporary Art, Globalization, and the Rise of Biennials.” He argues that if art is “bound up in its institutions—in other words made legible as ‘art’ only through and within its various apparatuses of production, display, circulation, in addition to its discourses—then nothing is so crucial to our conception of contemporary art as globalization” (7). We have to look at art’s connection to cultural and economic globalization, and looking at biennials can do this. Biennials are seen in two ways: as a “fantastic opportunity for visibility for non-Western artists seeking international recognition” (12) or as turning art into a pure commodity that diminishes difference. Griffin compelling argues that we must maintain aesthetic differences in the face of globalization, given that it tends to not maintain complexities. But, I would ask: how would we write contemporary art with a backdrop of globalization without (unintentionally) eliminating difference and/or art being understood simply as a commodity—given the force and weight of the West? In other words, how to decolonize art history, and how to be critical of globalization without running to nationalism?

The essays “The Historicity of the Contemporary Is Now!” by Jean-Philippe Antoine and “‘Our’ Contemporaneity” by Terry Smith are complementary. Both believe that globalization is fundamental in understanding how current global frameworks shape contemporary art. Both contest the historical term “contemporary”—which promotes the metaphysics of progression, with its lineage of art-historical styles and movements—for the theoretical term “contemporaneity,” which is not firmly defined, but which can be said to promote difference, multiplicity, and change. As Smith states, “the past-present-future triad no longer dominates temporality” (25). This is a particularly important point that one can further expand in a different staging and scripting of art history—be it in a text or an exhibition.

Analyzing the topic of rubric six, “Biennials,” the authors argue that they do well for the dissemination of art, as Massimiliano Giono argues in his essay, “In Defense of Biennials.” He contends that many critics of biennials fail to see that they promote cultural and aesthetic differences, and it is the fault of curators who stultify these exhibitions by making them formulaic. With regard to art and capital, he argues that biennials are tied to cultural, not economic, globalization, but this argument should have been articulated more deeply. Finally, he offers a manifesto for producing non-formulaic biennials, namely, keeping them open to a multiplicity of (global) aesthetics.

In “Curating Heterogeneous Worlds,” Geeta Kapur argues that biennials open up Euro-American art to a variety of forms and ideas when critically curated biennials generate transnational public spheres. Opposed to Giono, Kapur argues that biennials are a mixture of politics, capital, and cultural hegemony. Yet both agree that biennials should be fluid, and they should be critiqued if they fail to show their generative and heterogeneous potential. I would argue that this is a good way to begin to rethink globalization, outside of it simply being an economic issue, as a global network of art and culture.

In the last essay in the section, Caroline A. Jones argues that contemporary art is often connected to an “experiential aesthetics” (192). She connects this aesthetics to an “experience economy” that is tied to global capitalism. Jones argues that it is necessary to be specific in discussing viewer participation with art, and to take into account the politics and ethics of the artwork and the viewer’s investment(s). Finally, it is important to examine how art is contextualized philosophically and historically.

Rubric twelve consists of one essay and two interviews. In Olav Velthuis’s “Globalization and the Commercialization of the Art Market,” he states that art is sold through a two hundred-year-old art-market system. But this art world has changed due to the rise of biennials, international art fairs, the internet, and a small number of Euro-American auction houses and galleries. Indeed, the current economic global reality contributes to the “globalization and commercialization of the art world” (370). He contends that art fairs nurture elitist exchanges of money and connections.

Another important analysis within this anthology is in rubric three, titled “Formalism,” with its vital rethinking of formalism. Postmodernism made many scholars understand formalism as “an essentialist tradition that marginalized a significant amount of art” because of its sole focus on form (71). But interventions from, say, postcolonialism reconfigured and employed it otherwise, thereby partially deconstructing the form/content binary.

In Jan Verwoert’s essay, “Form Struggles,” he argues for “form,” which means its materiality—not the formal qualities, per se. This keeps politics and other issues in the discussion of art. He does not look to Euro-America for art or a discussion of form, but rather to Eastern Europe. He takes seriously the shifts that have occurred since 1989: here, the collapse of the Soviet Union. He looks to the “local,” which has been historically marginalized because of being outside the dominant art world. He argues for a reorientation to a diverse art world and to broaden conceptions of art and theories, such as form, in order to see what is happening outside of Euro-America.

According to “Formalism Redefined,” by Anne Ellegood, formalism has been contested over the past half century. She argues that the “primary existence of form—the shape, line, color, and materiality of the art work—has not been debated; rather, at stake has been the value of form in relation to other aspects of the artwork, and by extension, the role form plays in understanding and evaluating works of art” (84). She says that formalism has made a comeback in exhibitions and writing, but that the form/content binary has not been put back into play; rather, they are seen as equally important. In fact, she argues that a formal discussion can lead to important issues about content. Hence, the separation of form and content ostensibly has been bridged. Ellegood offers a refreshing take on a polemical theory, showing that theories can be rethought.

The last essay in this section is important in that it looks at form(alism) within a global perspective. Joan Kee’s “The World in Plain View: Form in the Service of the Global” is instructive in highlighting that the art world has expanded, and there is an amplified visibility of artists “whose country of origin would have formally doomed them to a life on the margins” (95). She does not call this an act of globalization, but rather “globalism” itself, which she defines as a “constellation of attempts to realize an ideal kind of world order based not only on mandates for inclusion, but also on ensuring parity among those included” (96). In her discussion of globalism, she addresses the contentious issue of making judgments. Kee’s essay is important in that it reopens the question of who is given authority to judge and who is not.

Kee raises the important, and controversial, 1993 Whitney Biennial—otherwise known as the “identity exhibition”—which revealed the highly invested ideas that were, and are, constitutive of dominant art history. Certain reductive formalist approaches would, and have, failed to do justice to “reading” works that are situated in discourses of identity, but Kee argues that a formalist reading may help in making unforeseen connections. Nevertheless, she asks if this would be a “regressive turn towards aesthetics and away from politics” (103), but I would argue that aesthetics is always political. She asks, “Is it possible that form might actually be central in realizing the dream of globalism?” And, “Can aesthetics be the fodder for a transformative politics of its own?” (103) The answer may very well be, yes.

The final rubric I will discuss is the tenth one, “The Rise of Fundamentalism”—a timely topic that cannot be found in other anthologies. It highlights that the political, economic, and cultural factors that have merged to create globalization have also lead to the rise of fundamentalism, which can be read as a resistance to Westernization. In their introduction to this section, Dumbadze and Hudson argue that “fundamentalism runs parallel to contemporary art, and its literalism puts it at odds with the diversity of opinions, approaches, and worldviews that make up contemporary art and its contexts” (298–99). Both the essays “Monotheism à la Mode” by Sven Lütticken and “Freedom’s Just Another Word” by Terri Weissman discuss globalization, Westernization, and fundamentalism—of all Abrahamic faiths—in their essays. I will focus on the last essay: Atteqa Ali’s “On the Frontline: The Politics of Terrorism in Contemporary Pakistani Art.” These also highlight the current globalist versus nationalist debate, one that another anthology might pursue in more detail and with more essays.

In Pakistan, it is widely held that blasphemy against the Islamic faith is forbidden. This belief has given rise to the idea that anyone who blasphemes must be punished. Here, I would like to note that fundamentalist beliefs and actions take place in America; for example, when an abortion doctor is murdered or an LGBT person is beaten, if not killed. Fundamentalism is not only a non-Western issue.

According to Ali, after 9/11 political art in Pakistan grew. The majority of artists that “have come to age after the post-Zia period of Pakistan, attending art school after the brutal military dictatorship enforced a strict Islamic view of the nation,” largely make political art (323). Pakistani “artists and writers who live in the West find a need to provide a voice for Pakistanis who feel implicated because of their country’s role in global terrorism” (327). Indeed, contemporary Pakistani artists employ their art as a forum for discussing Islamic fundamentalism—often indirectly to escape persecution—and they draw from traditional and Western subject matter and methods.

Contemporary Art is a generous anthology, which contains material that is not in others, but it is missing some crucial issues that would make it a more substantial contribution to rethinking contemporary art. For instance, there are no rubrics dedicated to identity politics, feminism, critical theory, or visual culture. Though several of the essays do mention these topics, there is no deep investigation. For example, even though Kee mentions the 1993 Whitney Biennial, she does not dig deeper into the issues that this biennial exposed in art history. Furthermore, there is no mention of the culture wars and the related art activism that resulted from the AIDS epidemic (even though there is a rubric on activism). Also, interventions by feminism and critical race studies that aided in the reconfiguration of thinking and writing about art in the last decade of the twentieth century to now are only sporadically discussed. I argue that if one is to produce an anthology on contemporary art, then such topics should have been included.

Finally, even though the editors state that “the ubiquity and variance of contemporary art since 1989 challenges art historians, curators, and critics attempting to account for works of art created in a truly global context” (4), this is never fully realized. However, even though there are blind spots in the anthology, it is very much worth reading; but it would do one well to adopt a comparative approach and read other anthologies alongside this one. Yet perhaps my critique only shows that any attempt to “capture” the current moment is impossible, which in turn necessitates the continued questioning of contemporary art, and it shows why new anthologies must emerge because this world is always turning and issues are always surfacing and fading away, while at the same time all anthologies are only small glimpses of what was happening at a particular moment.

Robert Summers
In memoriam