Kettle’s Whistle. The Dawn of the Post-Contemporary Art Age
Take a stroll around gallery exhibitions and art fairs around the world these days and the increasing tendency of dealers and curators to dig into the past seems to be still going in full swing. In all fairness, it has to be said that for a long time the whole phenomenon was quite refreshing. It was great to see artists who have pioneered work that caused major paradigm shifts being finally acknowledged and reappraised. It was especially good for the so-called “minority” artists-people kept at the margin of the cultural debate for years because of gender or race who better late than never eventually got their fair share of attention. Not to mention the elimination of generational barriers-an occurrence that replaced the tendency of looking out exclusively for the younger and the brightest who dominated the late 1990s and early 2000s. Add to the fray the fact that the old hands are often sitting on a robust amount of work, and you can see how the concept, on top of everything else, makes both financial and historical sense. However, when contemporary art stalwarts start exhibiting, next to their usual roster, artists like Alberto Giacometti, Carlo Carrà or Piet Mondrian, it is legit to ring the alarm bell. This is no longer about being profitable or versatile, it’s about crossing a bridge that will inevitably force us to leave something behind. Frieze Masters is no TEFAF, but seeing galleries that made a name for themselves for their innovative programs being there in the hope of reaching out to a new pool of collectors feels more like they are trying to be something they aren’t rather than an affirmation of maturity.
A lot of those who chose to navigate less slippery slopes and stick to the post-war period have not seemed to fare any better. It is possible that their career-reviving mission stands for major sensibility and broader horizons and resonates with the gallery program or the curator’s intentions. Regrettably, one of the side effects is that it also indicates scarce originality and strong myopia. After all, we are not talking about disingenuous newcomers, but experienced operators who pride themselves on having the pulse of the present. If these artists are so good now, why were they missed out on the first time around? Were they really so way ahead of their time that such temporal distance was needed before assessing their real significance? Or is there something more to it than just that? And what if it’s the era of contemporary art that is perhaps coming to its inevitable end? It’s admittedly an apocalyptic if provocative proposition-many times in recent history, for the sake of sensationalism, nostalgia and frustration, the definitive obliteration of formats, styles or even entire civilizations have been hailed and punctually contradicted as time went by. Yet, the question, no matter how dramatic, doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Let’s start with a simple technical consideration. Every period in art sooner or later comes to an end and is replaced (or augmented) by the arrival of something else. A novelty that doesn’t adhere to the current aesthetics or codes comes up. It’s partially incomprehensible, but it has undeniable energy and momentum. Just as the unfolding of the events, the response is equally predictable. First there is marvel, curiosity or resistance. When acceptance comes, it’s quickly followed by celebration and proliferation. Finally, there is exploitation and repetition. What was new is suddenly old, the initial revolutionary values get diluted, and the new force, borne out of rebellion to what was once alternative itself and is now drifting towards conservative areas, takes over. It happened with Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism and Modernism. These movements dominated for an average of six to eight decades, and although their place in history is guaranteed, they all sooner or later had to give pace and space to a new wave. Contemporary art, it is normally suggested, started in the climate of post-war reconstruction of the early 1950s. It’s been almost 70 years. So why not start considering that maybe time is up?
Every cultural moment starts with the persuasion that it is built to last. What makes it so strong is precisely the focusing first and foremost on the present. When was the last time you walked into a contemporary art gallery or museum and experienced shock, confusion and perplexity and left with the sensation of having seen something that you can’t just say is good or bad because you can’t understand it? When was the last time you felt on the wrong side of the fence or that you didn’t entirely belong? Scary as it might sound, cherish the moment and make a mental note of it if you did. You might have witnessed the beginning of something special-the dawn of the post-contemporary art age.
Michele Robecchi is a writer and curator based in London. A former managing editor of Flash Art (2001-2004) and senior editor at Contemporary Magazine (2005-2007), he is currently a visiting lecturer at Christie’s Education and an editor at Phaidon Press, where he has edited monographs about Marina Abramović, Francis Alÿs, Jorge Pardo, Stephen Shore and Ai Weiwei.