Contemporary Art Has No Future
Any valuable object, in order to appeal to our sense of beauty must conform to the requirements of beauty and expensiveness both. This cannon of expensiveness also affects our tastes in such a way as inextricably to blend the mark of expensiveness… with the beautiful features of the object and to subsume the resultant effect under the head of an appreciation of beauty simply. — Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class.
Contemporary art is booming. The global art market achieved sales of $63.8 billion in 2015, with the US showing an increase of four percent (its highest ever total of $27.3 billion, equivalent to 43% of global market share). The expert consensus is that demand has grown “in response to major market structural reforms triggered by globalization.”1 In spite of profit fanfare, the crisis of contemporary art is glaring., playing out like a simmering, irrelevant sequel, perceived by the jaded eye, through redundancies and deficits. Contemporary art feigns quality through marketing devices such as identity and profit, but lacks rigour. The high demand for contemporary artworks conceals contemporary art’s self-destructive features, such as temporal exhaustion, repressive ideology and stylistic homogenization. 2 Presented with this identity/profit dynamic, contemporary art has no choice but to repress its identity, even as the latter continues to assert itself. Understanding the deficit of contemporary art requires examining three components of this ostensive presentation: “temporality” tackles how contemporary art is able to endure as such; “style” addresses the received “value” of contemporary artworks, and finally, “ideology” looks at contemporary art’s selfvalidating discourse.
The temporal crisis of contemporary art
Following a temporal logic, whatever happens in the now necessarily happens Contemporary art is self-presence condemned to the present. The first term, contemporary, compels and qualifies; the second term, art, just follows the beat.
Alternatively, “contemporary” becomes amnesiac while “art” becomes an illusion. This “amnesia” is a form of repressive repetition. One doesn’t merely forget; rather, one automatically repeats. To understand this dynamic, we have to go back to Sigmund Freud’s idea of repression, a psychic form of avoidance. When memories become traumatic, the psyche automatically supplies a mechanism of repetition. Repression is, “…simply turning something away… keeping it at a distance from the conscious.” 3 The avoidance of memories is correlated to Freud’s pleasure/unpleasure principle. Changing the quality of psychic drives from receptiveness to productiveness, from pleasure to restraint, from joy to toil; the pleasure/unpleasure principle takes control of the transformation of energy inside the psychic apparatus. In Eros and Civilization, Frankfurt School critic Herbert Marcuse extrapolates the nineteenth-century repressed individual to the twentieth-century repressed civilization: “As psychology tears the ideological veil and traces of the construction of the personality, it is led to dissolve the individual, his autonomous personality appears as the frozen manifestation of the general repression of mankind.” 4 The social subject now introjects civilization’s commands into its own mental apparatus.5 Marcuse calls this form of repression “surplus repression,” the incentives and restrictions necessitated to induce social docility. Surplus repression is anchored in Marxist political economy, but it also brings forth the idea of social dispositions of consumption and waste.6 These dispositions are stimulated by the market and distributed throughout the social fabric as “cultural spectacle.”
According to French theorist Guy Debord, “culture is the general sphere of knowledge, and of representations of lived experience, within a historical society divided into classes; what this amounts to is that culture is the power to generalize, existing apart, as an intellectual division of labor and as the intellectual labor of division.” 7 In the end, “surplus repression” reshapes the social body in accordance with the new reality principle of culture. For our purposes, culture is a surplusser of illusions distributed throughout the post-capitalist service society. The financial system capitalizes this surplus as “debt services.”8
Contemporary art is a form of repression because it inherits the memories and norms of its epoch. Contemporary art is not an epoch, but the present of any epoch, a unique historic cut of the temporal continuum.9 Contemporary art appears and concurs with the postmodern epoch.10 Before we discuss this repression, we need to understand the link between an epoch’s memories and the epoch’s temporal consciousness. The reason is that repressed traumas can cause great social harm (think of colonialism, homophobia, political chauvinism, etc.). Let’s examine the connection between temporal consciousness and futurity. In his Twelve Lectures on Modernity, Jürgen Habermas explores the normative side of epochal consciousness. Epochally speaking, Modernity’s constant renewal and futurity cannot happen without self-normativity: “Modernity can and will no longer borrow the criteria by which it takes its orientation from the model supplied by another epoch: it has to create its normativity out of itself.”11 Selfnormativity and utopia are poles of the same axis. Theodor Adorno is aware of the correlation between utopia and futurity: “… art must be and wants to be utopia, and the more utopia is blocked by the real functional order, the more this is true; yet at the same time art may not be utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation. If the utopia of art were fulfilled, it would be art’s temporal end.” 12 How does the postmodern and its offspring, the contemporary, repress this fulfillment? Adorno suggests that art (contemporary art in this case) conceals its betrayal of futurity. Postmodern suspicion and defiance of the modern is driven by this repression.
A fundamental rule of the modern is that the future is a reserve of the present. As the present works for the future, the future preserves and fulfills the present. The postmodern doesn’t look forward to the future. On the contrary, with deep suspicion it looks yonder to its past, the modern. This suspicion has deep roots in postmodern (unconscious) jealousy of modern’s self-normative mastery. However, depleted of futurity, the postmodern has no reserves to present a real struggle with the modern (if it did, it would likely turn into its wished nemesis). Instead, the postmodern comes back to a “repressed” modern reenacted as “deficit” (the recurrent pastiche we are used to). Epochally speaking, there is no “real” cut from the modern into the postmodern: 13 There is a “shift” from modern into “late” modern, then a “waning” into the postmodern. The latter is a condition of axiological anemia, a chronopathy.
At this time, the trumpeted postmodern “war on totality”–following Jean Francois Lyotard’s lead in Postmodern Condition14 – becomes a cipher for slackening relativity, “postmodern science”15 becomes global warming denial, “crisis of narratives” becomes “fake news,”16 “self-knowledge” becomes “paralogical” hermeneutics,17 “the Nietzschean strength to forget the past” becomes surplus repression.18 The postmodern plays like a fall from modern into amnesia. Clearly, the modern carries a responsibility in all this, since the modern discovered repression and invented pastiche and all forms of detachments from preexisting norms. In the meantime, the contemporary, suitable offspring of the postmodern, winds up chockfull of presence, frozen in the morass of the now.
Under the portent of the postmodern, capitalism accelerates from industrial to financial to Global Inc. (IMF, World Bank, WTO, EU, et al.). This is the surplusser of social control. Lobbying, campaign spending, preferential treatment, tax evasion, and non-regulation are the repeating symptom of a general decline in the rule of law, conscientious journalism, and the trust in scientific consensus. A central investment of this global surplussing is “cultural spectacle” through contemporary art’s primary platforms: the global museum,19 global biennial and global art fair.
The stylistic crisis of contemporary art
Since the heyday of modern art, style has been an expedient way to examine ideology. One could advance that style is a form of ideology. To address matters of style, none is more qualified than the critic (critical discourse is in rapid decline and what’s left can barely offset contemporary art’s avalanche of publicity). These six diverse blurbs suggest a common denominator of redundancy, expressing a viable consensus that contemporary art is homogenized.
Jonathan Jones for The Guardian: “… a lot of contemporary art looks simple because it is idiotically one-dimensional, poetically bankrupt and perceptually banal.” 20 Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker: “Not only is there no leading style, there is no noticeable friction between one style and another. Thousands of works co-exist in a pluralism of the salable.”21 Kathryn Tully for Forbes: “… the market’s insatiable demand for contemporary art exerts a lot of pressure on successful artists, dealers, auction houses and galleries to offer more second-rate work.” 22 Barry Schwabsky for The Nation: “Call the style retromodernism… a synthesis that evokes the spiritual and intellectual strivings of classic modernism, but betrays a modernist faith in progress, replacing it with nostalgia.”23
Kimberly Bradley for Hyperallergic: “Now that BB8 is up and running, however, it feels in many ways like yet another ‘global’ exhibition whose messages feel, biennalized… tame and too laden with unnecessary explanation to pack enough punch on a purely aesthetic level. ” 24 Lara Cummings for The Guardian: “I can’t recall a Biennale with so little visual power, originality, wit or bravado. It feels more like a glum trudge than the usual exhilarating adventure.” 25
Here is a common denominator for contemporary art: “one-dimensional,” “Retro,” “Biennialized,” 26 “no leading style,” “glum trudge,” “little visual power,” “second rate work,” “too laden with meaning and unnecessary explanation,” “pluralism of the salable.” As this “common denominator” is reiterated time and again, contemporary art becomes more homogenized.
The ideological crisis of contemporary art
Art historian Joaquín Barriendos’s recent criteria for “global art” 27 suggests the following: X is global art if: a) X is presented as cultural spectacle, b) X is presented in the globalized museum, c) X is presented in the globalized biennial, d) X is presented as art-fair art. Contemporary art often strives to fit these four categories.
Biennial and art-fair art redundancy is important to examine:28 A central purpose of the biennial is to enhance the diversity of the plural. However, the plural cannot counter its mounting conflicts of interests with Global Inc. First, the biennial is a reluctant proxy of Global Inc. since the claimed space of the plural turns out to be subverted by its own global inclusion. Second, both the biennial and Global Inc. reap significant financial gain from this plural/global aporia. The art-fair art phenomenon is no different. International art fairs have mushroomed from 69 in 2005, to 269 in 2015, to reflect the market’s global gains of €9.8 billion in 2014 (a conservative estimate).29 The surge of fairs necessitates homogenization. The art fair’s selection process begins with “quality criteria” conveyed to the fair’s selection committee, which appoints curators to discover galleries meeting fair standards. “Branded galleries” (i.e. galleries that accumulate a high degree of “symbolic capital”) stand at the center of the selection process. Now “quality” is distributed from dealer, to artists, to artworks, meaning these “branded” galleries don’t fulfill art fair “quality criteria” themselves, but bequeath it instead. Larger fairs set standards of “quality” that satellite and regional fairs follow in order to gain marketing momentum. Then juries from international fairs take their cue from “branded galleries” commanding “symbolic capital” and “market power” to mobilize an audience of collectors and press. Ultimately, “quality” is distributed globally back from where it started; only now legitimized as global art-fair art.30
Contemporary art has been in crisis because its ruling epoch (the postmodern) borrows its normativity from the modern. Stubbornly looking back and rejecting futurity exhausted the transformative will of the postmodern, and Veblen’s perspective on the relationship between economic value and beauty becomes pertinent in that the postmodern made beauty profit dependent. Contemporary art’s current “demand” mirrors the postmodern surplussing, a defense mechanism, whereby “beauty” disguises profit leverage and aesthetics becomes advertising. Meanwhile, contemporary art rushes to cash in (through the back door), perpetuating redundancy & homogeneity. How much more can the status quo sustain itself? As long as the postmodern keeps up appearances, the contemporary will play along, unless the postmodern is already shifting from below. Will that be the dawn of a new epoch? We will have to wait and see.
1 Eileen Kinsella, “What Does TEFAF 2016 Report Tells Us The Global Art Trade?”
https://news.artnet.com/market/tefaf-2016-art-market-report-443615, artnet.com. Accessed, May 2, 2017.
2 The recent emergence of “zombie art” (or crapstraction as some pejoratively call it) is an example.
Critic Jerry Saltz describes the trend: “… something’s gone terribly awry… in today’s greatly expanded art
world and art market, artists making diluted art have the upper hand.” Jerry Saltz, “Zombie Art: Why Does
So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” http://www.vulture.com/2014/06/why-new-abstract-paintingslook-the-same.html, www.vulture.com. Accessed, May 17, 2017. Art homogenization is a manifestation of
redundancy. Moving the example up a notch to the natural world, homogenization and lack of diversity
become equivalent; both pointing to a poorer environment.
3 Sigmund Freud, The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J.
Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1989), 2978. Sigmund Freud, “Repression 1915,” freudians.org.
http://freudians.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Freud-Repression-19151.pdf Accessed, May 6, 2017.
4 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, (Vintage Books, New York, 1955), 51.
5 Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 16.
6“Of all the luxury goods, works of art are the purest form of uselessness, or ‘purposeless’ expenditure, of
economic ‘wastefulness’ in its socially most distinctive shape. Access to them requires substantial material
and cultural resources.” Frank Schultheis et al., When Arts Meets Money: Encounters at the Art Basel,
(Könl, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter König, 2016), 96.
7 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, September 23, 1995), 130.
8 “The accumulation of surplus in the relatively few hands of the super-wealthy intensifies the financial
component of capitalist growth and increases the power of the financial capitalist class fraction over not
just the industrial fraction, but everyone else as well. Control over investment capital and financial
technical expertise gives finance capital and its banking representatives tremendous power—over policy
making, over economies, over employment and income, over advertising and image-production…over
everything.” Michael Hudson, From Marx to Goldman Sachs: The Fictions of Fictitious Capital,
http://michael-hudson.com. http://michael-hudson.com/2010/07/from-marx-to-goldman-sachs-the-fictionsof-fictitious-capital1/. Accessed, May 1, 2017.
9 We favor the neutral definition of epoch given by German historian Leopold von Ranke, for whom each
historic unit is unique and individual. An epoch must be seen as valid for its own sake and not for its
results. See Thomas Gil, “Leopold Ranke,” in Aviezer Tucker, ed. A Companion for the Philosophy of
History and Historiography, (John Wiley and Sons, June 28, 2011), Chapter 34.
10 The postmodern epoch has not ended, the general consensus being that it’s shifting (since epochs
presuppose continuous shifting, to avoid circularity, “shift” here means qualitative change). Epochs are a
form of “virality” (to use a social-media term). Virality is expressed as a non-intentional process of
complex interacting properties. Since the early 2000s diverse theories have attempted to frame what comes
after the postmodern. Paul Virilio’s “hypermodernism,” Raoul Eshelman’s “performatism,” Jeffrey
Nealon’s “post postmodernism” and Eric Gans’ “postmillennialism” present general outlines of the
“shifting.” But some of these theories repeat the “repression” symptom we discuss here, rehashing
“postmodernism 2.0” for the millennial generation. See, John Armitage’s “From Modernism to
Hypermodernism and Beyond,” http://www.kyoolee.net/From_Modernism_to_Hypermodernism_and_Beyond_-
Interview_with_Paul_Virilio.pdf. Accessed May 27, 2017. Also see, David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris,
Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century,
(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).
11 Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick G.
Lawrence, (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987), 7.
12 Theodor W. Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory,” ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert HullotKentor
(Minneapolis, 1997), 32.
13 The consensus of “late” Middle Ages to early Modern history harks back to Leopold von Ranke in his=Geschichte der romanischen und germanishchen Völker von 1494 bis 1535, (Berlin, 1824). Cited in
Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography, An Introduction (Routledge, 1999), 76.
14 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, (University of Minnesota
Press, Minneapolis, 1989), 82.
15 Ibid, 60.
16 Ibid, xiii.
17 Ibid, 62.
18 Ibid, xii.
19 “More museums were built between 2000 and 2014 than during the previous 200 years. In 2016/2017, no
less than 1,200 new museums will open in the world’s five continents and Contemporary art will
undoubtedly play a major role in that movement.” Thierry Ehrmann, “Editorial by Thierry Ehrmann,”
artprice.com. https://www.artprice.com/artprice-reports/the-contemporary-art-market-report-2016/editorialby-thierry-ehrmann. Accessed, May 6, 2017.
20 Jonathan Jones, “Why Does Contemporary Art Looks So Simple,” www.theguardian.com.
Accessed, May 2, 2017.
21 Peter Schjeldahl, “Temptations of the Fair,” www.thenewyorker.com.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/12/25/temptations-of-the-fair. Accessed, April 28, 2017.
22 Kathryn Tully, “Contemporary Art: Too Much of a good Thing?” www.forbes.com.
Accessed, April 25, 2017.
23 Barry Schwabsky, “Frieze Frame: On Art Fairs,” https://www.thenation.com.
https://www.thenation.com/article/frieze-frame-art-fairs/. Accessed, April 22, 2017.
24 Kimberly Bradley, “Has Biennial Culture Gentrified The Art World?” https://hyperallergic.com.
https://hyperallergic.com/130040/has-biennial-culture-gentrified-the-art-world/. Accessed, May 1, 2017.
25 Laura Cumming, “56th Venice Biennale Review – More Of A Glum Trudge Than An Exhilarating
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucasxu-bing-chiharu-shiota. Accessed, May 4, 2017.
26 “‘There is no point in pretending anymore, Biennials are as commercial as art fairs’ was the point
stressed by curator Mike Coetzee at the Talking Galleries Symposium in Barcelona this week.” Edward
Winkleman, Selling Contemporary Art, How to Navigate the Evolving Market, (Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
September 1, 2015). Chapter 3.
27 Joaquín Barriendos, “Art Globalization Interculturality,” http://artglobalizationinterculturality.com.
http://artglobalizationinterculturality.com/lines-of-research/the-rise-of-global-art/. Accessed May 5, 2017.
We are adding “art-fair art” to professor Barriendos three-point criteria, something Barriendos would not
28 “Art-fair art you know what I mean, art with a lot of sugar and a lot of whatever is necessary in that
market to sell. I was at the booth of my gallery at Frieze New York, and I considered my work… I must
recognize that I did it for selling.” Ibid, Edward Winkleman, Selling Contemporary Art, Chapter 3.
29 artprice.com. “The Contemporary Art Market Report, 2016.” artprice.com.
Accessed, May 7, 2017.
30 Ibid, Frank Schultheis et al., When Art Meets Money, 40.
Alfredo Triff is professor of philosophy at Miami Dade College and lecturer in art history at the University of Miami. He has written art & cultural criticism for different publications including, The Miami New Times, The Miami Sun Post, and El Nuevo Herald. Triff blogs for mbourbaki.blogspot.com.