Artists (top left, clockwise): Mariko Mori, Donald Judd, Bill Viola, Jeff Wall, Takashi Murakami, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons

Introduction to Contemporary Visual Art: Theory | Practice | Institutions

Orientation to Seminar Themes
Martin Irvine

The situation of contemporary art in contemporary visual culture and cultural value systems

Four Principles for Study (brief view):

1. Art as part of a larger cultural system of media and structured cultural practices, high, middle, and low, each with their own internal rules of inclusion and exclusion, regulations, industries, professional and commercial-market identities.

2. Art as part of a cultural-economic system structured by the institutions of the artworld.

The value of art follows the laws of symbolic capital, a form of value which is accrued, stored, and fungible (can be exhanged for other forms of capital, i.e., cashed out).

Bourdieu's concept of "field" as a the social space where competitive forces play out, as a network of mutually dependent social positions.

3. Art as what is constructed within a network of activity (the "agents" or "actors" of the field), all of which contribute to the practices of the artworld network but do not need to be aware of the activities of the others.

4. Art as an ongoing process of hybridization and ongoing status re-positioning in a global and international system.

Expanded Outline

1. Contemporary visual art can be studied as a form of media and communication: it intersects with, but must differentiate itself from, all forms of visual media.

  • Visual art is an information carrier and media system that runs parallel with, and intersects with, our other media and information systems.
  • The major leap forward in thinking about art today is to study visual art as a system of meaning within our global media and communication systems.
  • Although forming a quasi-independent sector and economic system, contemporary art is more meaningfully studies within the larger syetm of visual culture that cuts across all media, high and low, and all material media and kinds of objects (from unique works on traditional mediums like drawing and painting to digital compositions with muliple platforms of presentation or display).

2. Art has to compete with all other media in our "attention economy."

  • One function of the artworld is to supply the learned differentiating codes for distinguishing art from other forms of media, communication, and visual information--including when these others forms are legitimately appropriated, used, critiqued, and circulated in artworks themselves.
  • "Attention economy" values partly determine which art receives value.

3. Art and network theory: Art, like other media, is produced and received within a social, cultural, and economic network.

  • The artworld network follows the laws of nodal concentration and network effects: value and density of information is strongest in the social and economic nodes that connect the network.
  • We will explore as many dimensions of the "artworld network" as possible to understand the current role of art in our culture.
  • The "artworld network" is the art system in operation.
  • Art can only appear to us as such within an institutional space in the artworld.
  • The contemporary artworld as a social-economic network: the structure of the artworld and overlapping social-economic-professional worlds.
    • Contemporary visual culture in all media, art, and the art world:
      • Advertising, commercial photography and design, fashion, popular media entertainment, porn
    • The world of art practices: the economic system: galleries, collectors, museums, biennials, art fairs, the art media
    • Globalization, the international art market, economics of the art sector.
  • Bourdieu's theory of symbolic capital and his critique of "disinterestedness": artists (especially those not immediately financial successful) can use the social class-defined image of being "disinterested," appearing not to care about the material outcomes of their social identity or their work, to build symbolic capital (stored value) by the prestige or admiration among other artists and agents in the cultural field.
    • Symbolic capital can translate to other kinds of wealth, can be "cashed in," in the future (street cred = deferred or stored cultural capital). No artist can be "disinterested" in any pure or total sense.
    • The bohemian or disaffected persona adopted by some artists is scripted as a desireable social class position in the art field involving the value-generating "economics of disavowal" in the artworld: art in the cultural field accrues value by prentending not to be what it is, a value transaction fungible for money in a market system.

4. A prevailing direction in art and popular culture is hybridity or hybridization: an ongoing mix of genres, concepts, materials, media, high and low culture forms.

  • Compare: art, fashion, advertising, photography, music.
  • The digital universe: visual and aural culture all in the mix
  • The paradigm of the artist today is the DJ-music producer, simultaneously sampling the past, combining styles and genres, and creating new sounds and hybrid forms never done before.

Art and Art-talk Discourses

"Art" in discourse and institutions: what are we talking about when we talk about art?

  • Foucault and discursive practices, construction of objects
    • Following Foucault's model of objects and concepts being constituted in the discourses that form them, we can look at the cultural category of "art" from the way it becomes objectified in the various discourses that circulate around it.
    • Foucault: discursive practices (like art criticism and art theory) are constitutive, generating objects of knowledge that do not preexist the discourses that form them.
    • Discourses are embedded in institutions, so to understand how art and the artworld function, we have to take an institutional view.
  • Multiple art discourses: tiers or layers of discourse and objects
  • Populist and journalistic discourse
  • Social class-based language markers
    • The way art and culture are treated in populist middle class discourse: post-romantic views of orginality and transparency of aesthetic objects (art works, literature, theater, film, etc.).
  • Professional art historical and art theory discourses
  • Professional art market discourse
  • Museum and public institution discourse

The Artworld Context of Art Today

  • Everyone agrees that the dominant feature of today's art world (since the mid-1990s) is the lack of a dominant feature, school, style, or approach. It's a plurality/pluralism without a center.
  • Although there's no dominant movement or trend, there are dominant centers geographical and economic, following the laws of nodal concentration in other networks: NY, London, Berlin, Paris, Beijing.
    • From a network theory viewpoint, the artworld is a distributed network of nodes, coexisting, mutually dependent, unknowingly cooperating.
    • The artworld is a network with key nodes that concentrate and aggregate activity and transactions: art making, art presentation, art validation and valuation, art sales (example: Brooklyn and NYC today).
  • Different universes of art activity (commercial art market, museums and non-profit art spaces, institutionally funded and subsidized art projects, art schools, art fairs, art bienniels, etc.), but one economy binds it all together.
  • The one constant is the artworld as a self-replicating system for defining, producing, receiving, and valuing art.
  • Where can/does art happen?
    • Art spaces, art contexts: overdetermined spaces, the "white cube" effect, institutional socialization of places where art can appear.
  • What makes art? The matrix of conditions for the possibility of art today.
    • There is no "there there" outside the network. The work of art is invisible outside the artworld social network.
    • Roland Barthes "The Fashion System" discovery: the chief role of fashion as an institution is to continually encode new items with the signs of "fashionableness," the differentiating indicator that something is fashion.
    • The artworld system functions much the same way to continually encode new works as art as distinguished from, or counter to, non-art. The codes only work in an institutional and learned cultural context.
    • Art and non-art: defining and continually reinstalling this binary structure, the cultural category of art as such, is one of the primary functions of the artworld.

Major transitions in the artworld, 1960s-2008

  • Major movements like abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, video and performance art, new photography now presupposed in the contemporary art lexicon or vocabulary of media, styles, and techniques.
  • 1960s-70s: Moving art off the walls and pedestals and into "lived space"
    • Minimal art "specific objects" as non-painting and non-sculpture
    • Installations and performances in sanctioned art space contexts
  • 1970s-present: Influence of photography: lens-based art coming into dominance: photography, video, all forms of hybrid photo processes and techniques.
  • Quest for new materials, industrial materials, non-"art" materials
  • Emergence and acceptance of digital media, digital production techniques, hybrid digital and and conventional materials
  • The increasing power of the Biennials, curatorial-driven exhibitions, and and institutionally-funded art: intersecting with, or attempting to counter, the commercial art market.
  • 2000-present: Internationalization of the art market and concentration of market power in major cities and major art fairs (the Biennials, Art Basel, NY Armory Show, international art fair cycles).

Art in a Post-Internet, Post-Digital world: Some Implications

  • Art to c. 1992 has assimilated, accommodated, and ironized mass media, video, advertising, pop culture, but now art coexists with a digitally mass-mediated, multimedia image-saturated world.
  • Properties of digitally mediated era
    • illusions/constructions/ of simultaneity (real time), speed, telepresence replaces presence
    • proliferation of images and images created for the screen
    • surface over depth
    • accelerated obsolescence of images and art work
    • problem of the commodification of objects with no originals and no copies
  • Globalization of information, commerce, intellectual property, and the art market itself
  • Artist's increasingly aware of role as social agent mediating an already mediated world, taking an ironic stance toward the artworld, art history, art materials, art spaces.

The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld

  • Danto on "artworld" as a social-philosophical interpretive framework that transforms mere objects into objects of the artworld, i.e., art.
  • Becker on art worlds as social networks

    "Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.

    ....[B]y observing how an art world makes those distinctions rather than trying to make them ourselves we can understand much of what goes on in that world.... The basic unit of analysis, then, is an art world. [Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1982)]

  • Bourdieu and socialization of artworld competence, institutionalization of social class expectations, competencies
    • Bourdieu: art is intelligible, recognizable as such, as a form of cultural capital, which accrues meaning and value collectively for the social classes who "own" it.
    • What art is, and where it is to be seen and validated (museums, galleries) is learned as something "owned" by members of the class.
    • "A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded" (from Bourdieu, Distinction).

  • Cf. Umberto Eco on interpretive competence and the cultural semiotic encyclopedia: cultural meaning as a second-order language, a system with a learned structure, codes, and rules of inclusion and exclusion.
  • Foucault's view of disciplines and institutions that circulate power, hirearchies, rules of includion and exclusion.
  • Main point: art works do not preexist a world of discourses and the social-economic institutional world in which they are embedded, created, recognized, interpreted, valued, and exchanged for money.

Art after the Grand History of Art: the era of Post-Postmodern

  • Rejection of telos-governed (goal- or utopian end-point) theory and criticism. Undoing the legacy of prior Hegelian thinking (subsumed in Marxism), which constructed cultural histories as moving toward some inevitable goal, some final state of fulfillment or completion.
    • Declared finalities: "The End of Metanarratives," "The End of Art History," "The End of Art" "The End of Painting". Declared "ends" a tactic for making a space for a new beginning, with its own narrative justification. The cycle recycles.
    • "Art" deconstructed as social category; current artmaking and art theory as art "post-art."
  • The problems of contemporary art history-writing post Po-Mo.
    • How to write a history of the current moment when the authority of history is rejected or ignored, and the notion of a coherent historical narrative of art has been abandoned.
    • Yet, as Jameson stated, "history is available to us only in narrative form."
    • Post-Postmodernism: the history of "no metanarratives." The received Po-Mo story is that the old modernist metanarrative (progress, going from origins to goals and end points) has been replaced by a distrust and elimination of "master narratives" or "metanarratives" about the history of art.
    • But now the story-line for art seems to be replaced by an all-inclusive, multicultural triumphalism. Other views of the arts promote a seemingly self-effacing, but ultimately dishonest, metanarrative of art theory, often produced in academic careerist contexts far removed from art making and the art market.

However we try to make things intelligible, we have at least this set of conditions to consider today:

  • In the segmentation of the artworld institutions, we have the quasi-independent solar systems or parallel universes of commercial art (galleries, auction houses) and institutional art (festivals, international shows, museum shows, funded art projects, often with public and private sponsorship).

  • The mass-cultural reception of the current art scene in current categories (varied though predictably class-based as leisure, entertainment, personal enrichment). Art in leisure and entertainment for the middle class, art as part of attention economy in mass-mediated culture.

  • The commercial art market, gallery and dealer business, auction house industry, and what people of various classes and financial means actually buy; the power of wealthy collectors.

  • Museums and public entertainment (internal museum industry disarray on roles and business).

  • Art production/art making by artists in their studios or site locations.

  • Roles and identities of an artist, and making a living as an artist.

  • Multimedia, multiple media, materials as self-conscious commentaries on physical properties of art media: available media and materials widely expanded, from traditional to industrial, plastics and synthetics, organic, found, digital, to the point where anything used by an institutionally accepted artist will be validated.

  • Digital media entry into context of "high art" or "fine art": questions of product identity, status of ephemeral and one-time projects, web art projects, analogies with existing objects (e.g., archival ink jet prints of digital photographs), copyright and ownership issues.

  • Institutional contexts and art production (cultural bureaucracies, foundations, museums, funded festivals).

  • State, public money sponsorships (in the U.S., at national, state, and local levels, internationally at national, foundation, and corporate sponsorship levels).

  • The decentered but still urban bases for art (the world art scene is bigger than NY, Paris, LA, Berlin, and London, but itís still centered in "global informational cities" with a concentration of cultural capital and financial infrastructure).

  • Ongoing reconfiguration of the normative hierarchy of cultural prestige; fragmented postmodernism still playing itself out with fairly ordinary hierarchies of prestige, money, and power.

  • High/low culture hybridization and art/entertainment category blending for marketing and attention economics in culture.

  • "Gender, race, class" contests for art status ongoing, but identity categories seem more open and fluid.

  • Multicultural competition for art status and media recognition, globalization and the emergence of a kind of U.N. approach to major art festivals (Documenta, Biennials, etc.).

  • Ongoing reconfiguration of visual culture around the screened image (computer, video, film, and TV) and photography and video of all kinds

    • Are we approaching a moment where a valid image is now what appears, can appear, on the screen, not the traditional two-dimensional space of the painting, drawing, or photograph (except inasmuch as images on these media can be screened, scanned, digitized, dematerialized from their source medium)?
    • Ironic displacements from popular and mass culture, simple surrender to the technology of the image?