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The idea of the contemporary

What comes after? What happens when you’ve already declared the end of all things? Postmodernism reacted against modernist hubris, but what comes next?


beyoond modernism pixabaySteve Latham


Postmodernism questioned the unjustified faith of modernism in absolute reason, its ability to give firm foundations to thought, morals, art and politics.

But Postmodernism’s moment has passed. It defined itself by what it opposed, that which came before it. How can you conceptualise being post-the-post? Different philosophers and theorists have tried terms, like hypermodern, altermodern, remodern. But all remain dependent on that same basic dependence on the idea of the ‘modern.

Another term, however, is perhaps gaining currency – ‘the contemporary’. The notion of ‘contemporary art’ has been around for some time. But this is different.

A broader concept, of ‘the contemporary’, as such, is gaining traction. E-flux, for example, has produced a book of essays by art theorists and practitioners.

beyoond modern city ciudad pixabayOf course, they don’t all agree, but that they are discussing such a term demonstrates that it is gaining currency in current debate.

Art schools run courses on it. Curators talk about organising exhibitions around the theme of ‘the contemporary’.

Maybe you are thinking, why do we waste time with airy-fairy conversations about what to call this time we are in?

True, there are many more important, immediate, issues to panic about. But what we call an era is a necessary precondition for knowing what we are about, what we believe, where we are heading.

Perhaps we will never achieve complete uniformity or agreement. But it makes possible the articulation of goals and ambitions.

‘The contemporary’ means more than being simply up-to-date. It refers to more than particular art objects. Rather, the idea, like modern or postmodern before, aims to articulate an entire zeitgeist.

artesania-colores-pixabayThe difference is that whereas these expressed a teleology directionality or development, and an evaluation of worth, ‘the contemporary’ does not.

Being ‘modern’ means being of the mode, the fashion: being current. With it came a positive valorisation of the now, as opposed to what came before – the ‘dark ages’.

Where superstition and religion reigned supreme, now human autonomy, faith in reason, governed our affairs.

Being ‘modern’ implied holding to ‘modernism’ as a belief-system, and valuing ‘modernity’ as a social condition. Likewise, being ‘postmodern’ implied a positive orientation towards it, against modernism; instead of faith in foundationalism, the belief in reason as a foundation, came a freedom to experiment.

But this too became a positive valorisation of ‘postmodernity’ as a condition, and of ‘postmodernism’ as an ideology.

Building on postmodernism, ‘the contemporary’ entails the presentation of many viewpoints, a diversity of production from subaltern peoples previously excluded.

mentiras-de-la-moda-pixabay-3This is itself a positive valorisation of diversity. But there is no norm for evaluation, because ‘contemporary’ means simply ‘with time’.

Being contemporary represents simply being of this time – whatever it entails, whatever comes with it. So, whatever is, is. Whatever happens, happens.

We move with the flow of time, the eddies and currents of flux. We are without direction. There is no telos-end in sight.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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