Towards a Non-Insular Contemporary Fine Art

Rafaël Rozendaal's work on Contemporary Art Daily.

Rafaël Rozendaal’s work on Contemporary Art Daily.


contemporary: I am using the term in a few different ways:

  • to denote art made from roughly from mid-20th century to today. I am increasingly finding the word used in this way even though all art was contemporary when it was made. I think the word may be suffering from the same condition as the word “modern” which I think was once synonymous with “contemporary” and “nowness” but now denotes a time period that has passed.
  • as the descriptor of a specific, unnamable look/feel that is common in fine art today.

To avoid confusion, I will try not to use this term to describe our current time.

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Contemporary fine art is insular. Why is this?

Contemporary Fine Art (CFA) encompasses not just the tangible (and sometimes intangible) art objects but also the artists, critics, curators, collectors, museum staff, art school faculty, art agents, art advisors, galleries, auction houses, other institutions, and discourses. Anyone that does not fall into one of these categories is not in CFA or is, at the very least, marginal. Arthur Danto’s observation that CFA needs an artworld to validate it means that CFA was already closing itself off (and probably had been for some time) in 1964.[1] This closing off was partially caused by or at least excelerated by the rise of concretism, the bringing together of form and content (paintings explicitly about paint, for example), in art.[2]

One can enter into CFA through universities:

  • There is an expectation that artists will pursue higher education. Most artists with gallery representation have graduate degrees. Most residency programs do not grant residencies to artists without an MFA. Some explicitly list this in their eligibility requirements. As far as I can tell, the last generation of artists for whom degrees were not necessary was the generation that came of age in the late 70s and early 80s. There are a few exceptions but they are just that, exceptions.
  • An undergraduate degree in art is generally good criteria for entry-level art-related jobs in galleries, arts administration, some museum positions, etc. It equates to “an interest in art.”
  • Museum curators must at least have master’s degrees in art history. Most have PhDs. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that anyone with enough interest could fashion themselves into a curator by working their way up from the manning the ticket counter like Frank O’Hara did.[3]

One can enter CFA with money:

  • These are mostly the very wealthy. There are exceptions like Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postman and a librarian,[4] but again, they are exceptions.

Art writing seems to be one of the easiest ways to enter CFA. It seems that this a place where an interest in art is enough. The long tradition of poets-as-art-critics continues today.

CFA has become thoroughly academicized (again?). Because of this, everyone in CFA is learning the same art history, reading the same texts, and talking about the same theories. It takes six plus years of education to acquire and understand all this material. Such specialized knowledge produces work that needs that very same knowledge to be understood. I only need to make a very small gesture towards Duchamp, for example, in my work for my peers to pick it up. The gesture needs to be much, much larger for non-CFA to notice it and even then it may still go unnoticed. CFA has isolated itself through education. That being said, this is not an argument against education. Education is important and I do not think that it is productive to consciously not learn.

A caricature of a "Futurist Serate", or "Futurist Evening," by Umberto Boccioni, 1911

A caricature of a “Futurist Serate”, or “Futurist Evening,” by Umberto Boccioni, 1911

CFA within Society

Art’s position in Western society at large has shifted since the beginning of Modernism. In 19th century France, people lined up outside the Palais des Champs-Elysees by the thousands to see the Salon. The number of visitors to the Salon is more than triple that of today’s blockbuster shows.[5] Never would a show of living artists get that kind of public attention today. What has changed? Granted, the attendees of the Salon did not have television or the internet. Art probably had more claims to the realm of entertainment. I suspect, however, that the idea of entertainment in 19th century France was somewhat different than an American idea of entertainment today (similar to the way that a play has a slightly different cultural significance than a movie). It seems that the notions of both art and entertainment have shifted.

In 1863, the first Salon des Refuses was held and attendees, the public, actually laughed out loud at the works on display which included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Most of the participating artists were hurt by the derision they received but by the early 20th century, avant-garde artists were looking for such a reaction. The ideal outcome for an Italian Futurist play was the audience rioting and throwing vegetables at the actors (if there are any).[6]

The avant-garde deliberately provoked the bourgeoisie. Their goal, or so they claimed, was to destroy art. This was toward a total integration of art and life. Once art is totally dissolved into life, an as of now unimaginable aesthetic life will emerge. It is unclear how many members of the avant-garde at that time actually believed in this fusion of art and life and how many realized that it saw it as a rhetorical device for expanding the purview of art. Both of these aims but particularly the latter necessitate a dismantling of the bourgeois notion of art at that time

The public quickly tired of the avant-garde’s games, however. Instead of “waking them up” to the possibility of new forms for art, artists pushed them away. When was the last time that art was really a concern of the general public? The Jackson Pollock story published in Life in 1949?[7] It has become so expected that artists will be “outrageous” that the bourgeoisie has ceased to be shocked. They rather quietly accept the dissensus—that the artist considers this to be art and they do not. The public, the non-CFA members, do not really involve themselves with art at all anymore. It is only really possible to outrage non-CFA members by using their tax dollars to support “art” that they deem immoral, pornographic, or blasphemous. Otherwise, they are perfectly happy to not think about CFA; it can do its own thing, be eccentric or whatever.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917


The Aftermath of the Historical Avant-garde

I will focus on Italian Futurism, Dada, and Russian Constructivism and Productivism with an emphasis on the latter. All three of these avant-garde movements occurred during the interwar period in different geographic locations. All three were also ended by the rise of totalitarian regimes. As stated above, the avant-garde aimed to integrate art and life yet it is unclear whether the true intention was simply to expand the boundaries of art. These two aims seem to move in the same direction but are actually contradictory as long as something remains not art. The avant-garde “failed” because it did not integrate art and life. It did, however, expand art. The effects of this have been problematic. What the avant-garde set in motion was an uncertainty about the definition of art. The result today is an art that is criteria-less. The only “concrete” benchmarks we have are the artwork’s market value and the education level of the artist.

All of this is because CFA incorporates its own negation.[8] Duchamp’s Fountain paradoxically negates art but is at the same time art. By negating art Duchamp actually created a whole new artistic device, perhaps even genre: the readymade. All subsequent attempts at negation repeat the readymade. It is impossible, it seems, to escape art. Even ceasing to make work is still understood as an artistic act.[9] Art has become boundless. What arises is a strange phenomenon of art that is both boundless and insular. Just as non-CFA are pushed away from art, CFA cannot escape it. The wall has become too high to climb.

Gustav Klutsis, Maquette for a Radio-Announcer, 1922, Museum of Modern Art

Gustav Klutsis, Maquette for a Radio-Announcer, 1922, Museum of Modern Art

Russian Productivism

Futurism and Dada are predicated on negation. Both strived to destroy bourgeois art. Constructivism, on the other hand, is positive. Constructivism did not attempt to destroy bourgeois art as the first step in many but rather jumped right into bringing art into the real. This jump was eased by Constructivism’s historical context. Constructivist artists were heavily committed to the revolution. Because all things bourgeois were being dismantled, it almost became a non-statement to dismantle bourgeois art. That step had already been surpassed.

The positive artistic output of the Productivist Contstructivists manifested itself in what are essentially design objects. For the Constructivists, the line between art and design was entirely erased. This is a mindset that at least I do not have access to today. Gustav Klutsis designed newsstands and propaganda kiosks. Alexander Rodchenko designed furniture, interiors, and advertisements. Vladimir Tatlin designed clothing, a stove, and a set of pots and pans. Vavara Stepanova and Lubov Popova were perhaps the most successful Productivists because they managed to integrate their practices into a proletarian working space, the factory. Stepanova and Popova designed patterns at a textile factory. Although they were not totally incorporated into the workforce as they wished, they created objects with practical use and literally injected their artistic practices into the lives of everyday people.[10] At the same time, they also transformed the idea of the artist as gifted genius into an artist-designer-worker. The Proletkult, workers’ clubs for artistic creation bolstered this idea in the other direction. Artists became workers and workers became artists. In theory, at least, everyone is artistically capable.

Vavara Stepanova, Lubov Popova, and one of their textile designs.

Vavara Stepanova, Lubov Popova, and one of their textile designs.

Two Sides of a Wall

It is precisely this move towards artistic egalitarianism that is needed today. We can read the Constructivist proletariat as today’s non-CFA. The goal is to bring the CFA and non-CFA closer together. How can this be accomplished?

Firstly, it must be recognized that such a maneuver will require that both CFA and non-CFA feel aesthetically/intellectually/emotionally satisfied by the work. CFA’s current insularity and the very different criteria that CFA and non-CFA have for art works makes this particularly difficult. CFA are looking for a certain contemporariness in art. This contemporariness rests upon the theory that is promoted by art schools. It also has a tendency to manifest itself in highly open-ended works. Overdeterminacy and didacticism are unfavorable. Non-CFA, on the other hand, have no access the work because they do not have the historical-theoretical background. Works with a strong “message” are appreciated. The nearly opposite values of CFA and non-CFA make reconciliation seem impossible.

These opposite values are like the two sides of a sheet of paper or the two sides of a wall. It seems that only one or the other is possible. What I argue for, however, is a delamination of the two sides. A space between the two can be created and occupied. Within this buffer zone, both CFA and non-CFA can be satisfied by the artwork.

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Occupying the Buffer Zone

Reconciliation between CFA and non-CFA must be predicated on traits these two groups have in common. This, I believe, requires a suspension of the search for artistic meaning as we know it today. The differing values of CFA and non-CFA are actually irreconcilable and must be circumvented.

One strategy for this is through the creation of functional objects. Everyone, CFA and non-CFA use functional objects in their everyday lives. Functional objects ask to be used, they create a task for the user. Having to execute a task, the user-viewer temporarily stops trying to discern meaning. The user-viewer’s attention is focused on task completion. Ideally, the notion of artistic meaning is reoriented to be synonymous with the user-viewer’s action. By eliding action, which anyone can understand, with meaning, CFA and non-CFA can both be satisfied.


Carsten Höller, Test Site at Tate Modern, 2006

Carsten Höller, Test Site at Tate Modern, 2006

Things to Avoid

  • The artist must not pander to non-CFA. Not only is this generally unsatisfying to CFA but it creates an undesirable power relationship.
  • There is a danger that functional, task-oriented objects will fall into spectacle (Carston Holler). This cheapens art in general, perpetuates a system that is generally used to control, and emancipates no one.
  • The creation of objects always runs the risk of commodity. I am unwilling to give up on the object, however, especially given the failure of video and performance art to escape commodity. To avoid commodity, I argue that all objects must be public and owned by no one. If they must be owned, they should be the sole property of the artist(s). They should not be sold. Klutsis and Rodchenko are good models here.

Practices Today

A number of artists are making a move similar to the one I am arguing for. Not all of them are free of problems.

  • Relational Aesthetics. Relational Aesthetics, as defined by Nicholas Bourriaud who coined the term, uses the social event as a medium. The artwork is constituted by the social interaction that takes place. [11] Claire Bishop has pointed out that this work not only reinforces an existing social group (CFA) but fetishizes it.[12]
  • “Socially-engaged art.” This work, which goes by a number of names, is often characterized by artists downplaying their own authorial input to collaborate with a number of non-artists. (Despite this withdrawl of authorship, the artist’s name is still what appears on the tag when the work is shown at the next biennial.) This kind of work often crops up in marginal and underserved communities. One of the biggest problems with this kind of work is that the artist often enters into a community that is usually not their own in the role of emancipator or enlightened individual. I think that this can be avoided but it is not easy. Secondly, artists must not assume that they and their work will be welcome in the community. In reaction to this, artists may go too far in sacrificing authorship. Bishop points out that this work subsumes both aesthetics and the social/political to ethics. The work is valued for how ethically the collaboration was carried out and not for its social effectiveness or aesthetic merit.[13]

There are, of course, more positive examples:

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, commissioned by Dia Art Foundation

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument, 2013, commissioned by Dia Art Foundation

  • Thomas Hirschhorn’s work, such as his Gramsci Monument of 2013. The monument consists of a number of pavilions built by the residents of Forest Hills, a New York City Housing Authority development in the Bronx. The pavilions include exhibition space showing historical artifacts pertaining to Gramsci, an internet corner, a workshop, a stage, a lounge, and a bar. Hirschhorn ran a program of lectures, workshops, and art classes for the duration of the piece. When the piece came down after its planned two and a half months, many Forest Hills residents expressed the desire for the work to be permanent. Hirschhorn manages to connect with non-CFA while also avoiding an undesirable power relationship. It is worth mentioning that this work is largely task-oriented.

My own work operates similarly:

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  • Build Set. Like a child’s building toy, Build Set offers users a series of interlocking pieces with which they can create structures. Because Build Set is aimed more at adults, there is a wide variety among the kinds of pieces and the ways that the can be connected. Furthermore, the size and weight of some of the pieces offer more of a structural challenge to users.

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  • Public Object Stack. Public Object Stack presents users with a family of abstract, somewhat geometric forms and a structure that can be manipulated to hold the forms in various ways. The forms have some interlocking parts, encouraging the building of small structures. In some cases, the forms can also interlock with the structure itself. A vaguely instructional video prompts users to curate and arrange.


Artistic Futures

Both Build Set and Public Object Stack are functional objects. They ask the user-viewer to complete a task other than determine its meaning. In this regard, they can be understood by anyone. At the same time, these objects function metafictionally as prototypes for mass-produced objects in a potential future. In this mid-range future, everyone’s artistic potential is activated by objects such as these. Ultimately, art would again become a part of the public consciousness. Not only that but art would be a part of every person’s everyday life. Whether they are making art, writing about it, or curating (whatever form curation ultimately takes), every person would take part. The only distinction between the occupation “artist” and any other occupation would be one of volume and time spent making art.

Should the form of task-oriented, functional work I am advocating become a dominant one, I suspect that the distinction between art and design would collapse. While I think this form of art is important and deserves more institutional attention, I don’t believe that it should become dominant to the point of marginalizing other forms of art (as Abstract-Expressionism did in the 50s). To continue the war metaphor, not everyone can be the avant-garde—the front guard—that is just poor tactics. I am not being entirely pluralistic; some forms of art, like much of the contemporary fine art today, are not useful. Others, however, rear guard they may seem, make important contributions to the body of art.

[1] Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 19 (Oct. 1964): 571-584

[2] David Leddick, Intimate Companions (New York: St. Martins Press, 2000), 4-5

[3] Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993), pp. 207-8

[4] Herb and Dorothy, directed by Megumi Sasaki (2008; New York: Arthouse Films, 2009), Netflix

[5] Ross King, The Judgement of Paris (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2006) p. 17

[6] Christine Poggi, Inventing Futurism: The Art and Politics of Artificial Optimism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1

[7] The recent trend of non-art celebrities involving themselves in CFA may bring more public attention to CFA. I don’t think that this will break down any walls, however. Furthermore, I suspect that the whole thing falls into spectacle anyway.

[8] Suhail Malik, “Institution” from the series “On the Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art” (presentation, Artists Space, New York, June 14, 2013), video,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christina Kiaer, “‘Into Production!’: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism,” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, March 2009,

[11] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, (Paris: Les Presses du réel, 2002)

[12] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October Fall 2004, No. 110: 80-106

[13] Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum, 2006, 178-183


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