I recently read that we have reached ‘peak Twitter’. This happened quietly one day; whomever or whatever is tasked with tracking these kinds of things noticed that what had until that moment been generally on the rise was now generally on the downturn. Regardless of the fact that the social publishing platform had collectively brought us closer to our celebrities and politicians, provided a means for the mundane to be shared and carried the urgency of events like the Arab Spring into the international consciousness, the number of tweets tipped, for the first time, back towards earth and began a slow downwards arc. As the article put it, ‘Twitter is entering its twilight.’ Perhaps in half a decade, likely sooner, the platform will be a thing of the past. (1)
This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the primacy of one thing will always eventually give over to the primacy of another. But it does seem that the pattern that the interplay between currency and obsolescence sketches has become ever tighter and more intricate as things rise and fall in faster succession. Admittedly this patterning grants the surface of our world a more interesting texture, but it also makes it harder to access what lies beneath.
Currency is difficult like this. What’s new is coloured unavoidably by a sense of imminent change. It might even be that this is exactly what translates into the tangible energy that makes something vital and current in the first place. Go figure.
There’s a form of fetishisation that plays out around currency. To point out the obvious, most of us covet the new model iPhone, or stream the newest episodes of whatever HBO production is pulling at our attention. In most cases being ahead of the curve is a good thing; the point just before the wave breaks is, of course, the best position to hold. In the art world things are no different. Think of annual exhibitions like Primavera at the MCA, or New at ACCA, or the rounds of art prizes and residencies that favour the newest crop of artists. Currency drives generational renewal in the art world just as it does anywhere else. The thinking goes that the newer and fresher things are – the more contemporary – then the healthier the scene. The problem for many artists is a simple one: in the endlessly shifting currents of the art world the wave always breaks.
This can be difficult. Whether artists like it or not what happens outside the hermetic space of the ‘studio’ (whatever that constitutes) defines, to certain degree, what happens on the inside. By this I mean that no one practices in a vacuum. Just as certain ideas and discourses have currency at certain moments, certain practices make more or less sense at any given time. This is why artists will often find themselves grappling with similar ideas or materials as their contemporaries, making similar gestures in the pursuit of meaning. That’s currency. Even artists who are wildly and proudly out of step with their times grapple with it. If this kind of contingency makes being an artist difficult, or at times conflicted, it’s also what ties a practice to the world.
From this perspective currency provides art with a certain shape and meaning. Contemporary painting, as one example among many, has long-found increased currency in the logic of screen based technologies, or in its ability to model a temporal space otherwise lost, or overlooked, in the contemporary media-scape. By slowing time, it calls for a different kind of engagement, a different kind of thinking about things already thought familiar. Likewise sculpture, or performative based practices, or those that engender social relations, or critique institutional structures, or any other kind of practice you might mention that has become part of the radically varied field we call contemporary art. Ideally each adds something that urges us to look anew at mediums or networks or environments or social practices that already surround us. Even what we might term ‘old’ art, seen now, can achieve this.
In this way art is part of culture in a tightly bound, reciprocal sense. ‘Outside-ness’ is contingent on ‘inside-ness’. Currency, in the sense of holding a mirror up to the world, is what culture does, how it functions, and ultimately how it performs meaning. As agents of culture this is what artists do.
It’s easy to dismiss this aspect of contemporary art in terms of fashion, but this misses the point. Those most fluent in what is current find themselves able to participate at a certain level that might evade others. It’s also true that the best artists create their own currency, by which I mean they make audiences realise the immediacy of something they previously knew nothing of, or at least thought little about or had already dismissed. The only way this can happen is through a certain level of participation. Like all social networks the logic of the art world and the system of values it locates itself within are bigger than the sum of its parts. No one artist, or dealer or critic or curator controls it. It has a momentum of its own, and this momentum, contingent upon patterns in the broader culture, creates a hierarchy within which things move up and down.(2) If there is a certain energy to art practice, surely this is it: the feeling that even alone in the studio artists find themselves in collaboration with collective forces.
Another thing I read recently was that an artist’s body of work projects them beyond their own lifetime, but in doing this each single work remains linked to both its moment of inception, and to the sequence of historical moments that underlie it. Alfred Gell, an anthropologist who wrote on the life of things, as opposed to people, referred to this as ‘distributed personhood’. He was trying to make sense of the quality embodied by a group or series of objects which, seen collectively, convey a presence across space and time. Bring together a group of works and you reconstitute part of that identity, however briefly or partially. Currency is reanimated: looking radically out of date, or strangely prescient, it resides in the objects and how they relate to the surrounding world. They are always the same and different, simultaneously. That’s one reason why retrospectives can be fascinating, regardless of whether or not you ‘like’ the subject at hand. You get to see a practice through the lens of a couple of decades and often you realise that for all that artists try and live somewhere beyond time, their work unavoidably adheres to it. You realise that there’s much larger patterns at play, that history makes its own decisions.
No wonder artists get nervous before a show. To make art is to enter an ongoing historical act in which your objects enter a lineage of other similar-yet-different objects—your own, other people’s—a lineage of marks and materials, an accrual of historical moments; an infinite weight of ‘then’ upon ‘now’. For any artist at any point in history this weight must at times seem unbearable. At some point it must prompt the question of how one might make something outside history. There’s no answer to this: you have to begin, somehow, on the inside. That is, you begin with what’s current and you move outwards.
There are moments in the twentieth century where we might say, ‘This is where contemporary art began’. There are certain artists, or groups of artists, or even curators or exhibitions, that might prompt this. But like all movements threaded through the bedrock of culture, to pinpoint any of these as a ‘beginning’, rather than a recognizable symptom, is misleading. We, and I include artists here, are not in control of history, any more than we can control the weather (no matter our hubris in thinking this might be possible.) Sure, the actions of many have a momentum that can create vast historical shifts, but such momentum is rarely, if ever, the domain of any one individual, or even a legislating institution like a government, or an art gallery or a university.
So the big things are out of our control. The little things we do in the face of the big things don’t so much change anything as they ameliorate our anxiety about the world and how it might turn out. Architects, if they practice with a certain social consciousness, design for a better world as if the built environment can carry the human body and its relations in a way that cushions it from more vagrant forces within society and nature. At one level legislators do the same thing, but their lingua franca is the Law, which directs us how to act and defines the relationships we have with our institutions. Doctors deal in the life and death of the physical, using the most pragmatic of concepts (that the body is a machine that can be fixed), to mitigate the most visceral (that death waits for all of us). And so the list goes on. When we get to artists (and this is a non-heirarchical list) things either get more or less complicated, depending on how you look at it. As Bruce Nauman has it in a work from 1967, an artist ultimately reveals the mystic truths of the universe. This means absolutely everything and nothing all at once. But at one level you have to believe Nauman’s take if you make work, or curate shows, or create things for people to feel. You have to believe there’s more at stake than meets the eye.
We might say that contemporary art is a discourse built between often radically different practices. It’s certainly true that people say this, and speak of a period style; like modernism before it, but markedly different in its variety and context. Even if it’s a trope of sorts, as a discipline contemporary art demands we make sense of perspectives that can have little in common beyond a drive to make things and have them assessed within a collective frame. If you are an artist you participate, simply through the act of making. You build the frame, sometimes without being aware that it is a shared enterprise from the very start. The interstices where it crosses over and repeats are where patterns are formed: points of connectivity that extend, however fleetingly, outwards into the world.
(1) Admittedly the numbers still astound. At the time of writing 466,594,678 tweets had been sent in the last 24 hours, increasing at a rate of roughly 7,000 per second.
(2) This is what Arthur C Danto set out to articulate when he coined the term ‘art world’ in 1964. His thinking was sparked by the appearance of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which at the time were near-unimaginable things to be argued for as art. Danto reasoned that if the object itself has no innate quality as ‘art’ as it is already accepted and understood, then the social structure that surrounds it is what argues for and creates this quality.