Feature Articles

July Issue 2001

A View From Down Under
Looking For Contemporary Art

by Judith McGrath

It would seem in Western Australia, if you own a beach shack, preferably one that was poorly constructed of scrap timber, roof tiles and burlap in the 1950's, you could indeed be the proud owner of a work of Contemporary Installation Art. Should you spend a weekend there, you could be confused with a Contemporary Artist-in-Residence.

No this is not a Big Brother scenario nor a series of Survivor; it is billed as a 'multi-layered art project' presented by a self-labeled Artist. Seems he comes and goes from this reconstructed childhood cocoon and if you make an appointment to meet the artist on-site you too can enter a world of dust covered nostalgia gleaned from op shops, garage sales and curbside collections. No doubt the visit will involve a running discourse aimed at legitimizing the whole experience as 'Contemporary Art'.

As someone who respects the history of visual art and who appreciates well-made art objects, I find the above an insult to my field of study. This is another example of Contemporary Art disguising its credibility so well that all I'm able to see is art for the artist's sake, and artifice because the artist can't make art.

What do we mean by contemporary when it comes to the visual arts? I'm having a hard time pinning down just what constitutes the generic term 'Contemporary Art'. It's quite disconcerting considering we have Institutes of Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Spaces, Centers for Contemporary Art Practice, Contemporary Arts Services Boards, etc. Does Contemporary Art involve a specified medium, style, technique or imagery? Must it conform to, or rebel against, social, political, economic or gender dictates? Is there set criteria relating to aesthetic or some preference to geographical boundaries? Do you need a tattoo to practice it? If you can answer any of these questions please e-mail me because, as an arts journalist, it's on my 'need to know' list.

I tried tracking down a definitive explanation by first going to my collection of art reference books. Interesting and informative tomes with glossy pictures and polysyllabic words validating a post modernist exhibition that looks like the aftermath of a robust food fight. Books that extol the beauty of the Baroque as well as explain the socio-political references and religious symbolism in the work. Texts that instruct us on how to read the image of a young lady seated amid roses by a peaceful pond as a metaphor of the horrors of life in Post-colonial Paraguay (or wherever).

What amazed me more then learning of Post-colonial Paraguay (or wherever) was the discovery that neither glossary nor index of any book in my personal library includes, much less defines, the term 'Contemporary Art'. They offer long loving elucidation on Construct (of the patriarchal sociological kind), Consummatory Field (now there's a gem!), Content (with various cross-references) and Context (which involves a sentence that runs for six lines of small type on an A4 page and includes four semicolons; three parenthetical annotations (such as these) but no clarification of Contemporary as in Art.

My next move was to visit galleries and canvas owners or operators to nominate what criteria they considered definitive of 'Contemporary Art'. Their answers were as varied as the individuals. Some suggested Contemporary Art is more about 'style' then skill, others felt 'innovation' was important, and a few suggested the art object should make a 'provocative statement'.

Let it be noted here that one of these galleries exhibited bovine manure piled in aluminum roasting pans, covered with foil and baked in an oven. Seven plinths supported one roasting pan each, with foil coverings peeled back like petals to reveal the pan's baked contents. Another of these hallowed halls exhibited a collection of food-stained paper lunch bags, retrieved from garbage cans, hand smoothed and taped to the pristine walls of the gallery.

One gallery owner defined 'Contemporary Art' as anything that hadn't been done yet, which after the above examples had me wondering if there was anything left to do.

It's safe to say that a few of those canvassed obviously have the same reference books I have, since their rhetoric was decidedly familiar. What worries me most is that these well meaning and charming people are considered to be 'in the know', they are the 'leaders' of the Contemporary Art Scene in this city, yet not one of them can adeptly articulate just what it is they are leading.

Next stop, artists and practitioners. When listening to creative people talk about the contemporary art scene, terms like Cutting Edge and Avant Garde are often used. But when you think of it, the Cutting Edge isn't the severing of ties to what went before, it is the instrument that does the amputating, the blood stained blade. This means angst ridden Cutting Edge Contemporary Artists are just tools of The Establishment. Better not tell them that.

As for Avant Garde, you can't be ahead of the crowd if there is no group following. I've met more then one artist who claims to be the leader of some new movement in Contemporary Art but who never turned around. If they did, they'd see they were out there on their own.

When lost for words a good journalist heads for the dictionary. Now I have three different books of this ilk in my office; a Webster's for the Queen's own English, a Funk and Wagnall's for USA speak, and a Macquarie for Australian as she is spoke. All three list the word contemporary (from the Latin com = together: tempus = time) as either a: existing in the same period of time or b: marked by characteristics of the present era.

Webster uses the term MODERN but Contemporary Art can't be Modern Art as we've past that and gone beyond Post-Modern Art. The Macquarie expands on contemporary to explain Contemporary Dance, Contemporary Music, Contemporary History, Contemporary French but alas no Contemporary Art. Which equals a contemporary catastrophe.

That being the case I have nominated little me, or as Renoir might say 'petite moi', the ultimate definer of what constitutes Contemporary Art. Messieurs Webster, Funk, Wagnell, Macquarie take note: Contemporary Art n. 1: anything made today by those alive and calling themselves artists, 2: visual art that needn't be visually stimulating nor artistically satisfying however must be validated by verbal hyperbole, 3: art today.

Kind of vacuous isn't it. Yeah, but then so is a lot of Contemporary Art.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her web site at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).

Editor's Note: You'll be able to find McGrath's e-mail address on her web site. If you would like to send us your description of the word "contemporary" or take a shot at telling what you think "contemporary art" is or what it should be - send your comments in: Carolina Arts, P.O. Drawer 427, Bonneau, SC 29431; Fax at 843/825-3408 or e-mail (carolinart@aol.com).

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