Questions about contemporary art

Text for the Gallery Nights of Cariló program, January 2005.

The question about art is always conflicting. Art is not something immutable but instead in permanent change, because there are as many interpretations of the artwork as there are spectators who look at it. Of course, there are interpretations that are closer to the author’s intentions than others, and that depends on the greater cultural understanding of the observer. There is no doubt that Michelangelo was contemporary in his time, although today we regard him as classic. He was so ahead of his time that his figures of naked men (the Ignudi) in the Sistine Chapel had to be covered up because they were considered improper. The big change came in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp exhibited his readymades, which included a urinal, a bottle rack, and even a coat hanger. What Duchamp did was ask himself if technical craftsmanship was enough to create an artistic object, or if that craftsmanship was not just a craft skill. By placing everyday objects in an exhibition, he was not saying “this is art” but trying to make the viewer reflect on the artistic nature of things. A Rembrandt painting is for us a work of art, but for someone who does not know the meaning of that painting it can quite well be a canvas useful to cover the hole in a window. By presenting this idea of reflecting on what art is, the sensible aspect of the work (the color, the chiaroscuro, the theme) is pushed into the background and the meaning is closer to that artist’s idea, which is a concept. As such, the authorship belongs to the idea, and the materialization of the contemporary artwork does not always have to be carried out by its author. So begins something very typical of the formal mechanisms of today’s art, which is the production of artworks in series, something that had already begun with photography but that from 1945 onwards was almost a trait of contemporaneity. An example of this is Andy Warhol making his serigraphs in series in a workshop he called, precisely, The Factory. Art therefore became a cultural industry, appearing an enormous number of fairs, biennials and exhibitions. So if the artist cannot produce that much, what is repeated is the same idea under different aspects. To understand this concept, one must delve into social and historical factors, because each work has its raison d’être in the context in which it was created. We have to take into account the global order, with the changes produced since the end of World War II, and the restructuring of political power that implied new ways of production and consumption. In the 21st century, with the irruption of post-modernity in the era of wild capitalism and the subsequent collapse of the hegemonic cultural paradigm in Western civilization, art is expanding its boundaries towards new behaviors that bring the aesthetic phenomenon closer to theory and philosophy. In today’s art, new languages and mediums that articulate contemporary art are emerging: conceptual art (Joseph Kosuth), action and performance art (Joseph Beuys), installations (Luis Benedit), object art (Victor Grippo), minimalism (Donald Judd) as well as video art, photography, digital art and urban interventions (Jenny Holzer). As Nelson Goodman writes in Ways of Worldmaking “Part of the problem starts from asking the wrong question. The pertinent question is not which objects are works of art, but instead when is there a work of art?

And in order to do this you need the necessary legitimization that only comes from the passing of time.