“What Was Contemporary Art?” -- A Critico-Historical Dictionary

This Dictionary is a work in progress. It changes from day to day and from week to week as new entries are added and some older entries updated, edited or removed.

This Dictionary addresses the question “What was contemporary art?” The question is posed in the past tense for several reasons. First, because this examination has been prompted and informed in so many respects by events that took place through the 1990s in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It was in this region of the world that the emergence of the phrase “contemporary art” has been more conspicuous, thanks in many respects to various institutional mechanisms of post-socialist transition or neoliberal normalization. Another reason for choosing the past tense “was” has to do with my method, and with my attempt to attain a certain distance (even if symbolic) between me, as the researcher, and what is today called contemporary art; it is the attempt to create a kind of imaginary space in order to grasp some of the meanings that have been invested in this phrase. One more reason for choosing “was” is the recent tendency within certain art critical milieux to replace the term “contemporary art” with such terms as “global” or “world art” – something that is discussed in more detail within the space devoted for these entries.

This Dictionary employs a hyperlinked cartographical method, gathering concepts that caught my attention in the discursive field of what today is known as “contemporary art.” The key concepts are listed and examined separately using, for the most part, the method of cut and paste montage of quotations and commentaries. The entry – or the concept – in this Dictionary is given the highest priority. I call such an approach “conceptual art history,” and this is not because there is a “clever” idea that carries the entire project forward (something that early conceptual artists used to do) but because the concept is regarded as the main unit of critical and historical analysis – something akin to the German historiographical tradition of Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) although no doubt with lesser rigueur. I find such an approach more democratic in so far as it does not proceed to launch critical or art historical interpretations, taking as its point of departure an established, celebrated or legitimate phenomenon (usually a proper name that stands for a famous blue-chip or emerging artist, or a groundbreaking exhibition – the method, by the way, most favored by mainstream contemporary art historiography and criticism and by those who seek material gains in this field). The conceptual method, instead, encourages a focus on concepts which for one or another reason are underrepresented or deliberately repressed, although they are part of the discursive field. I imagine these entries or concepts to be like knots in a fishing net, knots that would allow the fisherman to catch both big and small fish, both water grass and mollusks.

This Dictionary gathers material from many and various sources. When I first asked myself “What is Contemporary Art?” I was struck by how little information was available on this topic. To a certain extent this remains the case. Despite so many museums and galleries, books and catalogues that have placed on their glassy vitrines and glossy covers the phrase “contemporary art,” there have been relatively few sources where one can find more or less satisfying answers to the meanings invested in these words. One could, for instance, pick up a “Dictionary of Contemporary Art” and discover that the dictionary does not contain an entry for “contemporary art” but only names of famous artists and artworks that are called so – an awkward enough situation, which may be compared to opening a dictionary of aesthetics and not being able to find the term “aesthetics,” or searching in vain in the dictionary for the entry “dictionary.” It was not very long ago that the English version of Wikipedia – following perhaps the example of the French Wikipedia – finally dedicated a short article to “contemporary art.” A few recent books and journals have tackled this question, producing a few discussions, debates, and special issues of journals.[1]

This Dictionary however finds that something is still missing in these books, texts, or debates. What is missing is a failure to consider concepts that have not been traditionally part of the art historical vocabulary, or a certain fear of resorting to a more historical examination of the paradigm “contemporary art.” It is as if the state of contemporaneity, which is often described as flat and devoid of historical depth, has cast its veil on those who dare to question it. In most of the debates, books or special issues there are plenty of value judgments, complains, criticism, commentaries with regard to the current “deplorable” condition of artistic production and its servitude to the culture industry, entertainment and the market. All this is no doubt helpful, but I believe that in order to better grasp contemporaneity one should also gain some historical insight as to when or how it began. For instance, today one may define a contemporary artist as a practitioner who is solicited by one or several contemporary art institutions: a MoCA or a MoMA, a center or an institute for contemporary art. There is however little research available as to when and how these institutions dedicated specifically to contemporary art emerged, why their managers chose to call them “for contemporary art,” in what respect they are different from those called “of modern art”, why they were predominantly called “for contemporary art” and not “of contemporary art,” what is contemporaneity and how it is different from modernity or post-modernity, and what, after all, the phrase “contemporary art” means – a new cultural paradigm, an academic periodization label, a marketing device or a phrase used by auction houses to push lots on the market?

This Dictionary brings in questions, concepts, and terms that one may find relevant for the current global context, although its author would like to believe that it will be particularly useful for many artists from Eastern Europe (or what used to be called so) who like me have been wondering for some time what is after all this thing called contemporary art? Unlike in the West, where contemporary art emerged gradually and indiscernibly from the heavy shadow of late modernity, and postmodernism, in the countries of so-called really existent socialism, the new institutions for contemporary art – like the art that has been categorized here since the early 1990s as “contemporary” – were popularized by concrete agents of post-socialist transition, in a manner similar to that of the importing of other institutions of the free market and free society. To these processes contributed, for instance, the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art (SCCA) – a network which during the early 1990s began the process of implementation of nineteen offices of contemporary art throughout the entire post-Soviet space. The Dictionary accords attention to such issues, as well as to many others that, although may appear not to directly concern artists from the post-socialist countries, do play an important role in what is today called contemporary art.

Octavian Esanu



[1] Within the English academic community Terry Smith was among the first art historians to address this question in 2001 and then more persistently in 2009. For a list of journals that have attempted to answer this question during the last decade see the preface in Terry Smith "What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago University Press, 2009). See also the special issues of e-flux journal dedicated in 2009 to this topic. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/96