The art of defining what art is (contemporary)

The art of defining what art is (contemporary)

When we talk about “the contemporary” we refer to what is happening in our time, what coexists, what is current, what is new, what is today. However, once established in the reflection on art, the contemporary becomes a category that increases its descriptive capacity and the set of manifestations it comprises. The contemporary as a malleable space where reflection updates its tools and tests conceptual constructions that account for the incessant experimentation that the field of art enhances.

A first meaning of contemporary art is one that places it as a phenomenon that began in the mid-19th century.
In his book Arte Actual. Dictionary of terms and trends (1985), the critic Leonel Estrada defines it as follows: «Movement that, starting in the mid-19th century, appears as an artistic revolution that begins and tries to progressively distance itself from the traditional art of the West. Generally speaking, Contemporary Art is a discordance that is not limited to formal, technical or aesthetic problems but is something that affects its social use, creating perplexity in people. Beauty is no longer the canon of measurement; It is neither perspective nor proportion, nor is it harmony and symmetry that this art illustrates. Hence the viewer asks, frequently in this contemporary art, "What does this mean?"

In this sense, contemporary art is characterized by having multiple interpretations, “open-ended” which implies that the understanding of art does not always occur and audiences are often confused or disillusioned. They expect a single, true definition of what art is, and frustration appears when they are confronted with the multiple ways of conceptualizing it. The search for understanding the meaning inscribed in the works becomes both a goal and an obstacle in the relationship that contemporary art establishes with its audiences.

The contemporary in art has also been associated with the emergence of the historical avant-garde. Peter Bürger suggests that the goal of the historical avant-garde (futurism, dadaism, surrealism, cubism, expressionism) was the reconciliation of art with the praxis of life. In its attempt to eliminate the gap between art and life, the avant-garde had to destroy the art institution and transform its isolation into a productive force for social change. Through the avant-garde, according to Bürger, the artistic subsystem reaches a stage of self-criticism, both against the artistic distribution apparatus and against the status of art in modern society.

In third place appears the generalized position that attributes the specifically contemporary to the neo-avant-garde that emerged in the 60s. This transformation not only compromises the artist and his practice but also from Dada to pop art, passing through happenings, performances, arte povera , conceptual art, among others, a transformation has been taking place in the role of the public. The various artistic avant-gardes have sought to distort the dividing lines between art, work and public, carrying out a complete review between the borders art/life, creation/perception, production/reception, authority/reality, trying to break the hierarchical and pyramidal dynamics modeled by the spectator passivity.
Three curators. Three definitions.

It seems that proposing a single idea of what contemporary art is becomes an impossible task. With the desire to contribute to this complex network of notions, we rescue the testimonies of three curators who provide us with illuminating contributions based on their curatorial practice in Mexico City: Ruth Estévez, Itala Schmelz and Carmen Cebreros Urzaiz.

From a critical and reflective position, Ruth Estévez, writer, curator and director of LIGA-Espacio para Arquitectura-DF, states: “contemporary art is a complex structure and we are accustomed to a type of popular culture where everything is governed by the image. , and contemporary art is not governed so much by the image but by texts and associations and the majority of people are very unaccustomed to this type of language. So its own unraveling is complicated. How do you keep it simple and not give it away at the same time? (…) the language of the contemporary artist continues to be very different from that of the general public and it has nothing to do with the medium itself, but rather his way of speaking and reflecting on it. I think it is precisely because what an artist does is observe reality, reflect on it and materialize it in another way.”

For her part, Itala Schmelz, art critic and curator, suggests that contemporary art has changed its strategies, paradigms, languages, tools and now it is not so easy to define what a work is since many artistic productions involve closer understanding processes. to the field of education and pedagogy. This idea is linked to the transpedagogy proposal developed by Pablo Helguera.

According to Helguera, since the nineties it has been possible to notice a “pedagogical turn” in contemporary art, introducing into the process of its artistic work some basic notions and principles of education to deepen the connection between audiences and critical reflection. In relation to the purpose and effectiveness of art, Itala states that contemporary art has been the key to deconstructing numerous dominant and controlling thoughts of society: “It has been strategic to have a critical angle, to be able to develop a certain irony and humor (… ) In all societies there have always been spearheads and contemporary art is one of them, it is not the spectacle for the masses. It is this spearhead that allows thinking to be active, language in motion, and paradigms and control mechanisms on alert. If we think about the effectiveness of contemporary art, I believe that it is very important and substantive, but it is not an effectiveness that reaches large masses or makes immediate changes, it is an art that always places itself on the side of transgression, of the critical, the rebellious, the breaking.”

Finally, Carmen Cebreros Urzaiz, curator of the Bancomer-MACG Arte Actual Program, suggests that the contemporary artist is someone in constant transformation of his subjectivity and in these transformative processes is where the works are built. In this sense, the idea of a creative genius that reveals to us the truths and enigmas of life is abandoned and the artist becomes someone who is in a position to start from scratch each time to produce this knowledge through artistic work. “Art is not necessarily pedagogical or explanatory of reality, what it does is think that the world can work in a different way and that can be disorienting or reorienting. (…) I do not believe that it is the duty of art to educate anyone and if “art indoctrinates that it is not art but something else very dangerous.”
Regarding the role and mechanisms of artists, Cebreros proposes: “The artist is someone who tests his own systems of knowledge and that questioning, that doubt and that need to think about the world in other possible ways, not as a revelation or as truth, but as possibilities to relocate yourself and, from that disorientation, think about how the world could work.”
Currently, once again the definition of contemporary art takes on new meanings. We find ourselves going through a historical moment marked by the multiplication of cultural offerings and the proliferation of cultural objects: “trapped in a chaotic mass of objects, the creative individual recycles, transforms, takes control of the signs that surround him,” says Nicolas Bourriaud. , who proposes the idea of post-production. This concept refers to the tendency of a large number of artists to interpret, reproduce, reexhibit and use works made by others or cultural products available in their daily environments. These are not quotes, references or tributes, but rather a new use that proposes an active and creative relationship with what exists. This is an idea of the artist as an “appropriationist”, who uses the codes of culture, the formalizations of daily life, all the works of world heritage and reorders them and makes them function in a specific way, according to some. specific senses. Thus, new contemporary artists resort to culture, cinematographic language, advertising, journalism, art, everything that surrounds them, as a toolbox with which to “use” the world and create complexes of meanings.