IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

events: Visual studies today: The power of images

Žarko Paić
Contemporary Art and Its Theory: Work, Event, Performance

In a Sign of New

Art in all historical epochs has the task of being more than art. It can never be either autonomous or heteronymous. It can never serve just itself or some other purposes. Nor can it be reduced just to the aesthetic truth, experience, incidence. Social revolutions and historical events that change the manner of life of people hence are not superordinate for an insight into the being of artistic practice. In the event of what has for half a century by now been called contemporary art, the problem is radicalised. Unlike modern art, which reposes on the idea of autonomy, contemporary art endeavours to put into practice the essence of the avant-garde art of the first half of the 20th century. It attempts, that is, artistically to revolutionise the social conditions of the self-generation of art.

Contemporary art, by its very act of radical negation of history as linear progress, is an exceptional adventure in the total modification of the society in which it occurs and acts. Hence it is clear that the paradox of social self-reference determines its incessant striving for innovations, novelty and dynamism. It is impossible then to periodise visual art in such a manner that from some event-in-the-world, like, for example, the Socialist Revolution of 1917, the whole project of the Russian avant-garde is connected with the social and political subjects of change. Malevich and Russian Futurism were an ideational and artistic avant-garde of the actual social revolution, which was to end up in the defeat of Utopia and the installation of totalitarian ideology as the result of the lack of radicalness of the idea of the demolition of tradition. It is also inappropriate to say that we can periodise contemporary art itself, and the theory of it after 1989, and the end of the period of communism in eastern Europe, from the squaring of accounts with the symbolic power of the year of the epoch-making end of a modern ideology. The French Revolution is not the key for the beginning of modern art, just as a world historical event, like the said 1989 and the entry into the period of post-history, is not the superordinate framework for the periodisation of that which constitutes the essence of the story of contemporary art today.

It is no longer appropriate to speak of some regional, local or any nationally defined space in which art happens as a contemporary experience of the freedom of surmounting borders. This, on the other hand, in no way marks the triumph of some illusory cosmopolitan culture and art with no grounding in its own space and time. On the contrary, the basic characteristic of this state of permanent transition in the world of art is fluidity and the traumatic search for a new identity. Just as in the global age national philosophy or science is a contradictio in adjecto so contemporary art and the theory of it lie beyond the dynamics of the nation state. If contemporary identities are trans- or post-national, then this has to be reflected in the local Croatian scene too. Social, political and cultural postulates for the effect and incidence of contemporary art in Croatia since 1989 make up only the inevitable context of the changes that have overcome the whole of eastern Europe, particularly with respect to the end of the neo-avant-garde projects of that space.

Three paradigms

Contemporary art theory since 1989 is determined by the endeavour to deconstruct a single ruling idea from which every possible real art project and its incarnation can be explained. There is no royal road to the centre of the problem. The most important theories of contemporary art are at once paradigms for the explanation of the relations between the world, society, politics, culture and art in the age of post-history. Three paradigms are the most credit-worthy since they correspond in terms of theory to the essence of our time. Under their aegis, and in contemporary Croatian art or the contemporary period it is possible to identify the ability creatively to appropriate the area of an alternative to the world of the neo-imperialist globalitarian order in which art has become a generating plant for the production of cultural spectacle. All three paradigms answer the question about the point of contemporary art in a world after the establishment of an integrated ideological and political, and economic, model of globalisation. Their basic feature is determined by an insight into the necessity of re-evaluating the inheritance of modern and avant-garde art, traditional aesthetics and post-aesthetics, the history of art, science concerning art and the phenomenology of the image. The first paradigm is the re-politicisation of art; the second is the reaestheticising of the world of life, and the third is the visual or iconic turn. The most important theorist of the first paradigm is Boris Groys, of the second Dieter Mersch, and of the third a group of various different art historians, art philosophers, sociologists of knowledge and visual theoreticians such as Gottfried Boehm, Hans Belting, Peter Sloterdijk, Bruno Latour and W. J. T. Mitchell.

(1) The paradigm of the repoliticisation of art is a kind of new discursive power.  The main topics of artistic practice are at one and the same time the main topics of the critical theory of globalisation. These include the liberation of the Other (women, sex and gender minorities, authentic third world peoples), resistance to the spectacle of the power of the consumer society, the rights of animals, art as utopian space of community outside the logic of Western (Eurocentric) universalism.

German philosopher and art theorist Boris Groys has best articulated the essence of this paradigm. By abandoning the categories of beauty and the sublime, contemporary aesthetics and art are becoming communicative practices. Beauty is subordinated to fashion, and fashions are in constant mutual conflict and contradiction. With the transformation of the aestheticised object into the world of life, a turn has occurred.  The world of life has subordinated the world of art to its own purposes. The main marker of the art of our time is hyperproduction (of photographs, video art, cyber art, film). Hence the theory of art has changed its standardising function. It no longer dictates the conceptual framework of contemporary art, rather keeps up with it, although the relation between theory and contemporary art is shot through with paradoxes. New aesthetics and theories of art attempt to impose on the big art exhibitions (Venice, Kassel) at least the basic orientations, the concepts, the paradigm, if it is not possible to achieve some canon or typology of styles. In his analyses of the strategies of contemporary art, Groys follows the logic of the contemporary avant-gardes. If everything has become the world of a life that is ruled by politics, then art has been left with the possibility of joining in the critical resistance to the world of global capitalism by the repoliticisation of its subject.

(2) The re-aestheticisation of the world of life does not refer so much to the orientation of art practices in the age of post-history as much as to the problem of testing out the possibility of art being though of out of itself as a new aesthetic event (Ereignis). Thus since 1989 there have been relatively many theoretical attempts of the new aesthetics (appearance [in the sense of coming into view] or phenomenon, mise-en-scene, performativeness). The most interesting representative of this paradigm must be the German philosopher and media theorist Dieter Mersch. He has articulated a new language and conceptual framework for the situation of the post-historical constellation of art as event and aura (Heidegger-Benjamin) in the environment of the performative practice of contemporary art. For Mersch three aesthetics have been drawn into the vortex of the modern age: the aesthetics of tradition, of the work of art and of the avant-garde. Conceptual differences between modern and contemporary art correspond to some kind of epistemological cut. Thus for modern art, the aesthetics of the work is relevant, for contemporary aesthetics, of the event. The objectlessness of abstract painting and the iconoclasm of the avant-garde lead into the space-time of the re-aestheticisation of the world of life because in it the event of the performative relation of man and world unfolds as an event of the gleam of the world. Event-art, happening, the installations and performances since the 60s and the period of the second historical avant-garde in the visual arts no longer show anything.

The basic categories of the performative aesthetic are: (1) destruction, (2) self-referentiality and (3) paradox. The artist destroys the previous work of the modern epoch with its self-referential body-in-motion and paradoxically once again “creates” it by breaking down its aura.  Performativeness is not the aesthetics of either the beautiful or the ugly.  Rejecting reduction to politics, society or any of the derivations of the modern creation of man as autonomous subject of history, the paradigm of the re-aestheticising of the world of life considers the performative event the end point of the sublimation of contemporary art.

(3) The visual or iconic turn is a collective name for various endeavours to revive the power of the visible and the iconic from the rule of logocentrism. In other words, in the new media conditions for the reproduction of the world, an attempt is being made to give the image back its own right to autonomy. The visual construction of culture corresponds to the iconic turn in contemporary art. This does not of course mean that we should simply say that we are witnessing the revival of painting or some other traditional medium for the representation of art in the age of the overwhelming digitalisation of the visual.

Among the many theorists of this paradigm I would pick out W. J. T. Mitchell primarily because for epistemological reasons in his criticisms of the linguistic philosophy of Rorty and the neo-pragmatists he has created the premises for a far-reaching theoretical pictorial/visualistic turn. The image after the long-term domination of text and speech is henceforth to be considered as an autonomous field of meaning. It belongs to the visual construction of the world in the age of the media. It is its own precursor and its own superordinate.

Images are the iconocentric circle of the media culture of visuality. But their power is actually hence illusory. In his analysis of biocybernetics, Mitchell pulls together the story of artificially created life and computer technology. Biocybernetics is not just a information and communication event within which life and art possess completely different characteristics. There is at work a communication community at work that Mitchell puts contemporary art theory in his debt by having founded visual studies.  Interdisciplinary science of the collaboration of different disciplines in the consideration of the phenomenon of the image and visuality has contributed to a different understanding of the media in the age of biocybernetic reproduction.

The outlook?

Contemporary art and its theory is faced with the challenge of a second beginning. Instead of going round and round in a circle and the tautological stance that contemporary art responds to the world the way it is and the way that is necessarily possible here and now, perhaps the time has really ripened for the question to be asked concerning the point of one and the other (contemporary art and contemporary art theory) with the question of their future, which neither utopias nor eschatologies will be projecting any longer, but which will be generated by the mere iconicity of the image without a world of its own. But is there at all such a future, as not to be comprehensible from this total currency of the new that consumes everything?

(An excerpt from the book by Žarko Paić, The Trauma od Differences, Meandar, Zagreb, 2007.)