The ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art often suggests a qualification of the modernity rather than a counter to the modern. The counter to a now historical (Greenberg-style) modernism was postmodernism, with postmodernism marking a critical distance from modernism. For some reason postmodernism died into history’s dustbin, and it has been replaced by contemporary art, which is what now regulates the division between the past and present in the present.
What then is contemporary art, and where does photography fit?
Some say that it is art works produced now that offer a fresh perspective and point of view, and often employing new techniques and new media. The fresh perspective is that contemporary art challenges what was before and hints that there is more to come. It should confront prevailing notions as well as being seen as interesting, exciting, significant and fresh.
The term ‘contemporary art’ is usually associated with the break with the prevailing object-based and medium specific art that emerged in the 1960s and the sheer diversity of forms after the end of the Cold War in 1989. It draws on the legacy of the conceptual art of the 1960, whose historical significance was its rejection of the over-valuation of the aesthetic dimension of art in Greenbergian formalism, but it is post-conceptual in that it understands both that art is necessarily conceptual and that its aesthetic dimension is ineliminable because its materiality means that it exists in time and space.
Contemporary art also exceeds or ruptures the historically received conventions that had previously defined the various artistic mediums, and the emergence of the global transnationalization of the biennale as an exhibition form. Hence the idea of the de-bordering of arts as medium and the de-bordering of the national spaces of art.
Photography, after conceptual art, comes into contemporary art because the image space of the photographic has expanded to global dimensions and is the dominant visual form of global capitalism. Yet not all recent photography would be considered contemporary art, since ‘contemporary’ in an art critical sense is a critical and selective concept, and so it excludes as well as includes. Contemporary art’ is different from art simply produced in the here and now as it engages in a critically reflective way with the world in which we live.
To say that an art work is contemporary is to make a claim for its significance in participating in the actuality of the present over and against other works of art. It is an art that functions critically within the spaces of the global biennale art institutions.
That’s a minimal interpretation. So what happens to those art works that aren’t based on a craft-based ontology of mediums but are not included to be a part of the global biennale art institutions? They are not contemporary art by exclusion because this exclusion means that this art cannot function critically within these institution, even if the works are post-conceptual in character and expresses/reflects something of the structure of ‘the contemporary’ itself?