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Why Pin-Pointing The Contemporary is Like Chasing the Dragon

One concept that’s almost paradoxical is the classification system we've given to distinguish what's contemporary. In the modern art world, contemporary is a notion frequently striven for, due to the positive connotations the word has adopted. Understood by most to to mean innovative and exciting, contemporary is sometimes used as a marketing tool to attract audiences, as it polarises the outdated, archaic and traditional.


It’s also mistaken for the word ‘modern’, which refers to recent times in a comparison to the past. Reading the accounts of several artists and critics found in Being Contemporary – A Journal of Performance and Art (1979), I find myself searching for answers. The first thing to point out about this journal, was that most of the extracts are taken from artists living in 1970s New York, a time known for the free love movement, Vietnam War protests and heavy drug use. Living in a Western society, it's important to remind ourselves that what's deemed contemporary here isn't for the rest of the world. Contemporary considers the social and political present. However, identifying the present could be likened to chasing the metaphorical dragon, as the now is difficult to pin point in its ever-changing dynamism.

And then I’m left with another question; can both the content and context of a piece of work qualify as contemporary? It could be argued that most creatives strive for originality, but that is a completely different thing from being contemporary. Every action ever done by anyone is a conscious or unconscious response to what has been done before, whether this is out of influence and inspiration or a previous experience either positive or negative. This means that it’s not possible to be original, a phenomenon proposed by Jean Baudrillard in his 1981 published works Simulacra and Simulation.


For example, a child's primary interaction with a spider might cause them to scream and run away, if already with the understanding that a spider is something to be afraid of. Perhaps this has been relayed by their parents, which in turn might've derived from their grandparents' learnt perceptions. Further societal validation might ultimately propel this fearas it's widely (but irrationally) opinionated that spiders are scary. Through life, this might cause the person to perceive and respond to spiders widely differently compared to someone who during their first encounter, might've approached the spider with enough curiosity to conclude the spider to not be a threat, as they'd priorly read science books which portrayed spiders to be remarkable. You could argue that this analogy isn't even about the spider, but our proclivities to judge and assess the unknown.


This could be said to resemble the people responsible for categorising  what's contemporary, which is often heavily Westernised. Art from the continents of Africa and Asia are more likely to be regarded as artefacts and appear in museums rather than fine art galleries, exhibited like trophies similar to those from the Cabinet of Curiosities, rather the same flair as paintings in a white space gallery. To me, this is evidence of the same mindset within Western Art that's existed since colonisation, which elevates Western art to be appreciated at the benefit of the artist, and African, Asian and Aboriginal art to appreciated at the benefit of the West.  If you don't believe me, look at the Benin Bronzes.

Some artists have tried too much to be contemporary; compromising absurdity and shock value for their voice and thinking it’s going to set them apart from others or epitomise their career. But just like the present these artists come and go, soon forgotten to be replaced by another; which is again a reflection of life around us. 

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