Alexander Alberro: Periodizing Contemporary Art?


The FORART Lecture 2008 was given by Alexander Alberro, Virginia Bloedel Wright Associate Professor of Art History, Barnard College, University of Columbia.

The years following 1989 have seen the emergence of a new historical period. Not only has there been the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the heralding of the era of globalization, but technologically there has been the full integration of electronic or digital culture, and economically neoliberalism with its goal to bring all human action into the domain of the market has become hegemonic. Within the context of the fine arts, the new period has come to be known as “the contemporary.” Between 1989 and 1991, several factors came together that resulted in a seismic change that, I believe, significantly realigned the manner in which art addresses its spectator, indeed, in which it constructed the spectator.

The categories that allow us to think about contemporary art are uneven and have been coming together for a while. Many of them have their origins in the perceptual modes required by art of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. For instance, tactical media projects that combine documentary information and expressive politics were extensively developed by artists working in the 1960s and ’70s (such as the Tucaman Arde collective in Argentina and the Guerrilla Art Action Group in the United States) before they were adopted by counter-globalization artists working with the Internet. Similarly, a number of projects of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were characterized by their intensity and their call for expressive response, for example, the work of Kinetic and Op artists such Jesús Soto, Bridget Riley, and the members of GRAV, as well as Postminimalist artists such as Robert Smithson or James Turrell. This art prefigured some of the ideas explored in contemporary digital images and sculptural installations (by artists such as Andreas Gursky and Olafur Eliasson) that overwhelm cognition and produce sheer affect.

Causality is one of the main problems that I want to address in this response, which explores several theories of change or transition. Of particular concern is the twofold movement, in which the foregrounding of continuities—the insistent and unwavering focus on the seamless passage from past to present, from modern to contemporary—slowly turns into a conscious- ness of a radical break, while at the same time the enforced attention to a break gradually turns “the contemporary” into a period in its own right. Indeed, I will argue that this period in art we now call the contemporary has been coming together for a while, and it parallels other contemporary hegemonic formations such as globalization and neoliberalism, which come to be fully in place by the late 1980s.

By summoning the concept of a hegemonic formation, I mean to signal that I do not think that the consolidation of the contemporary is just a question of periodization. I use periodization as a tool with which to think the whole social formation, a tool that allows us to think the society in its totality. But I use the concept of hegemony defined as an ensemble of economic, political, cultural, and ideological practices that are organized in a complex way, but still within a larger, overdetermining structure of domination, as an apparatus with which to think totality and difference at the same time. Hegemony allows us to see the totality as being constructed by divisions, contradictions, and what Chantal Mouffe would call “antagonisms.” For me, the most important thing about this model is that insofar as it encompasses contradictions and antagonisms, it also opens the possibility of different subject positions that can occasion different forms of agency. Some of these forms of agency will ultimately reproduce the hegemonic social order, but others will develop as alternatives or even oppositions to it.

If, as I suggest, sometime at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s a new historical period or hegemonic formation with distinct features came fully into place, and this new period or formation has affected the way in which the interrelated categories of art, history, geopolitics, and technology are constituted, the question arises, how might we best describe this period? I want to enter this debate by exploring a number of questions concerning the crystallization of contemporary art. For instance, what exactly is the nature of the transformation in question? What motivated it or gave it justification? What is its relationship to social, political, economic, technological, and cultural developments? Will this new period be specific to the arts and limited to considerations of aesthetic change alone? Or can the contemporary be somehow described in an abstract way that takes into account the rise of globalization, for example, or the development of a new technological imaginary?

Alexander Alberro, Virginia Bloedel Wright Associate Professor of Art History, Barnard College, University of Columbia, is the author of Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity (The MIT Press, 2003). His essays have appeared in a wide array of journals and exhibition catalogues. He has also edited and co-edited a number volumes, including Museum Highlights (MIT Press 2005), Recording Conceptual Art (University of California Press 2001), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (The MIT Press, 2000), and Two-Way Mirror Power (MIT Press, 1999).

Forart Lecture 2008, press release