Edited by Kristine STILES & Peter SELZ, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1996, 1027 pages
In one of his seemingly coincidental statements, Andy Warhol who was, to be sure, the most well-known character of the postmodern era in the arts, propounded: "When you think about it department stores are kind of like museums". He may have spread about himself that "I see everything ... that way, the surface of things, a kind of mental Braille", yet he did hit the mark with his above statement (in North-America, washing-machines that are still widely used in our households were displayed in museums as early as 15 years ago). As for the whole Andy Warhol-syndrome and Pop Art, they contained (as "absolute value": positively or in the negative) the primary concerns of contemporary art.
Under the title ´contemporary art´ this volume, published in 1996, spans over the whole postwar period up to the mid-eighties (with few more recent exceptions). The book does not intend to offer a revolutionary arrangement: its material is treated with the usual tendency to classification, however, with much less rigidity than the usual. In determining the categories of the classification the chief concern was to point out how individual artists reacted to the socio-political situation which arised after the world war, or to the questions of culture and art raised by the "postmodern condition". The editors have determined nine categories. These nine chapters do not follow in chronological order (which would not make much sense anyway) they rather create a sequence of reactions moving farther and farther away from traditional concepts of art. Each artist is discussed in only one of the chapters although his/her very activities could classify him in several. In cases like this, the editors have made the choice of what they wanted to emphasize in an artist, or what underestimated feature of one´s activity they wished to draw attention to.
The editors garnished the individual chapters with rather brief introductions, kind of like serving just a foretaste. The chapters themselves offer similarly terse and factual information on the artists to show, as it were, who and what might fit within the same trend, or the category determined by them. ("Who and what" only covers North-America and Europe in the present selection.) It is up to the documents to represent the given trend. These documents are, for the most part, texts coming directly from the artists; only few of them are written by art critics. There are manifestos, theoretical reflections (often in free verse), sketches from notebooks, letters, interviews, and untitled statements among them. From the huge amount of the available writings (principally but not exclusively) the ones that had initiated or terminated a particular movement, or had asserted a great influence in any other way, were selected by the editors. Consequently, the majority of the documents are famous and widely known from earlier. Thus, along with the terse chapter introductions that often bring up the same issues as the document excerpts themselves, the material to be read only rarely strikes us with revelatory information. What makes the book a great asset (and for us here in Budapest doubly so) is obviously that all this important written matter can be studied and interrelated in one volume, and that this fat book is able to accommodate less central or less famous (at least around here) figures as well. The explanatory notes and the long bibliographical list are also amply valuable.
Andre Malraux said that "modern art was born on the day when the idea of art and beauty were separated". There were several such days, one could say, that is the gap between the two ideas became ever greater as the "days" passed by. The chapters of this book report on such stages that broke more and more irrevocably with traditional aesthetics; stages after which it was not any longer the visual (or any kind of sensual) experience but the interpersonal and social level communication that turned out to be relevant in art. Such communication on its part required days bringing forth new and newer languages.
Still closely related to the Surrealists investigating man´s psyche instead of the occurences of the outside world, the artists of "Gestural Abstraction" (action painting and related gestures, Chapter 1) launched the aesthetics of the unfinished bestowing some role in the finishing on the audience as well. (However, this may not have been the role the postwar audience wanted to fulfil the most urgently.) "Geometric Abstraction" (approximately art informel, Chapter 2) got one step further away when announced that the aim of pure painting was the construction of the ´spirit form´ as well as the concretization of the creative spirit. "Concrete, systematic, methodical, and rational"- this is how they preferred to describe their activity for the word ´abstract´ sounded unwanted at both ends of the world at that time. It was rejected as a synonym for ´capitalist´ in the East where social realism dominated; and as a synonym for ´bolshevik, communist´ in the West and in the US. Instead of beauty, these artists connected art with an ´inner necessity´ (Kandinsky´s expression).
The "series of days punching an ever greater gap" is, naturally, only a guiding hypothesis since culture does not yield to some kind of an evolution principle. This is what those artists warn us about (Figuration, Chapter 3) for whom the human figure and the mimetic sources stayed of primary importance - no matter what ´abstract´ or increasingly reductive tendencies were in progress in art. One may ask though - but this volume, so resolutely abstaining from comments, does not - whether the group of the "new image painters" is merely an additional colour on the palette of the time-cut , or is an organic and relevant element? The question arises especially if one tends to agree to J. Kosuth´s expectations saying that, ever since Marcel Duchamp, what grants value to an artist is whether he/she has added to the conception of art, whether he/she has created new propositions. Just as the ready made and Pop Art accommodating it - here we are still following Kosuth´s argumentation - did "change art´s focus from the form of language to what was being said" (Material Culture & Everyday Life, Chapter 4). Pop Art ignores both the psyche of the artist or his ´inner necessity´ and the aesthetic value of the art object. Its guidelines are: "popular, expendable, low cost, mass produced, aimed at youth, witty, sexy, glamorous, gimmicky, big business" - and out of the reasons suggested by these guidelines it aspires to be the ´popular art´ of the period. For, unlike fine art, Pop Art is aware of the period, of its "culture" - but it does not pass a judgement, its social criticism is not(?) deliberate: for Pop Art, 'culture' is merely a descriptive category.
Another trend that did not choose to ignore the contemporary phenomena (Art & Technology, Chapter 5) has adopted the old artist-scientist analogy and produced scientifically construed works realized by the means of brandnew technologies. Its most important aspect is perhaps that the already existent kinetic works that had invited audience participation now became interactive due to the creative use of the technology. However, technological development also encompasses the threat of annihilation (of the self and of the world); as Gustav Metzger remarked: "the auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies". Autodestructive art also helps the work of art to avoid getting in the possession of stinking people (Metzger´s words again). By that time each trend made efforts to somehow prevent the commercialization of the art object. Even Pop Art, in spite of (or, sarcastically, besides) its alleged predilection for "big business" was trying to resist the market when using commercial art as a subject matter. The idea was that those cheap items must have been despisable enough for people not to want to hang them on their wall. (They still wanted.) Assemblage and all connected "genres" (Installations, Environments, and Sites, Chapter 6) have also grown, in fact, out of the "junk-culture". Land Art, on the other hand, shows a strong wish to stay anonymous and unmarketable. Talking about contemporary art, we must remember that the art work, in many cases, is not an actual tangible product but the process leading to one (or not even that) (Process, Chapter 7). One can note a similar attitude in Performance Art (Chapter 8) that took on expendability and, for the sake of immediacy, approached art to everyday life, which is particularly apparent when the "object" used in the action is the performer's body itself. Performance Art informs of the new and indefinite cultural situtation formerly announced by the postmodern. The new situation, in turn, requires new art, new languages and forms, and new materials. (One performance artist, Stelarc, even goes as far as claming the remodelling of the human body since it is no longer intellectually and physically compatible with the technological environment created by humans).
The last chapter (Language and Concept, Chapter 9) whose figures, according to our hypothese, have drawn the furthest away from the conventional concepts of art, is tied to the "oldest" artist, Marcel Duchamp. He was the first to start using a language which was undoubtedly different from what had been used before and which was still able to make sense. For Duchamp, 'language' does not only designate the form of art expression but an element that, along with the visual factor, constructs the whole mental image: language, in its most literal sense. In the "new and indefinite situation", Duchamp asserted, what makes an artist is not if he is able to produce handcrafted objects for "retinal" pleasure but if he is able to rethink the world and remake meanings. The writings of contemporary artists collected in this volume are a unique source of this continuous change in thinking and experience.