The Chronicle Review

New World, New Art

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

Over the last 25 years, an increasingly euphoric, self-congratulatory literature has arisen that describes the condition of international art in glowing and even utopian terms. Lots of new phrases have been minted for the purpose. Contemporary international art, they say, is "post-postmodern," or even "altermodern"; it has moved beyond beauty and aesthetics and become "nonaesthetic," or even "inaesthetic." Art is no longer confined by national or regional boundaries but has become "transnational" or even "postnational": Artists are now concerned with "hybridities," "migratory aesthetics," and other exotic mixtures of identities, cultures, and places. Time itself is reconfigured, so that art deals in "new temporalities" such as "intemporalities" and "heterological time."

Outside of academe, the effects of this new literature are seen in biennales and art fairs, and in the enormous governmental, commercial, and institutional support they receive. Every nation, it seems, wants to be part of the new global art conversation. For artists and curators, the passport to this new international republic of art is easy to obtain: The only requirement is that the art be understood at once as national and international. But what does the art express? What is the significance of our moment, as it is reflected in art?

The challenge for the next decade will be to make sense of all that. In academe, this will be played out in a collision of fields, as newer disciplines like postcolonial studies and visual studies collide with older disciplines like art history and art theory. Visual studies looks at popular culture, mass media, television, and advertising. Postcolonial studies considers art as an effect of class, ethnicity, socioeconomic conditions, and power relations. Art history has always cared about value—it matters that Michelangelo really is a good artist, and not just a symbol of Florentine or Roman identity—and so art history has difficulty with ways of understanding art that are based on economics, politics, and social functions. The two approaches, visual studies and art history, create a kind of unstable oil-and-water mixture in academic writing.

Within 10 years, art history and art theory will lose their grip on contemporary art. The densely euphoric literature of international art, together with the swarming theories of postcolonial studies and visual culture, will swamp many older concerns. The terms of conversation will change. Specialties will vanish, teaching positions will shift and disappear.

As in all historical changes, much will be lost. My hope is that the celebratory mood of the new art and scholarship will not obscure the fact that the new art, which seems too much fun to resist, is deeply problematic. No one knows what contemporary international art expresses, or how best to interpret it.

James Elkins is a professor in the department of art history, theory, and criticism and the department of visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.