Which best describes the current practice of art?

Post-studio, relational, postmodern, social practice, post-historical? Or, all or none of the above?

In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, the critic Ben Davis describes the “the agents whose interests determine the dominant values of art” as:

Large corporations, including auction houses and corporate collectors; art investors, private collectors and patrons; trustees and administrators of large cultural institutions and universities.

Note that he included universities among those institutions. If universities have a stake in determining the “dominant values of art”, as Davis suggests, then what we do here in the art department is not simply a reflection of the art world, but a part of shaping the discourses of the art world. In the same way that the astrophysicist and author, Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the materiality of the universe as the same as the materiality of our bodies, ie, we are the universe. We are also materially and fundamentally the art world as well. However, we might ask, which part of the art world are we invested in? Which sectors do we aspire to participate in. or which discussions do we wish to be a part of? That is a question that our faculty and students would answer with great diversity. Davis, offers five potential possibilities in the form of “roles for art’:

  • 2.5 One role for art, therefore, is as a luxury good, whose superior craftsmanship or intellectual prestige indicates superior social status
  • 2.6 Another role for art is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value
  • 2.7 Another role for art is as sign of “giving back” to the community, to whitewash ill-gotten gains
  • 2.8 Another role for art is symbolic escape valve for radical impulses, to serve as a place to isolate and contain social energy that runs counter to the dominant ideology
  • 2.9 A final role for art is the self-replication of ruling-class ideology about art itself—the dominant values given to art serve not only to enact ruling-class values directly, but also to subjugate, within the sphere of the arts, other possible values of art

Davis gives us five branches of the same trees and within these five roles that art might play in the broader culture that he describes, is a universe of possibilities. That art in the contemporary era is an aggregate of history and the present is a given; each of us extends some pre-existing trope within our own practice. What I would add to these possibilities that, what is also of interest is a sense of urgency and authenticity. Beyond what we might call “originality”, is the sense of reinvention, re-enchantment, repurposing and re-mixing of historical models into something persuasively personal.

Douglas Rosenberg
Professor and Chair, Art Department