Surely, like supermarket chicken wings, the word “contemporary” should have a use-by date. If we think about the term contemporary at all, we probably mean stuff made in the last 60 – 100 months. You can see the word used in this way right back to the 1940′s and beyond. I think it’s time to move on and start thinking for ourselves a bit more.
“Contemporary” is a lazy term because it appears to absolve the viewer from deciding for themselves if the work is any good or not. It’s a quick way to count work in or out when we don’t have the courage to say if we like it or not. This infatuation with the last 60 – 100 months is nearly as unhelpful as the infatuation with the previous 60 – 100 years, which is known as “retro”. But even less helpful is “cool”, meaning stuff made in the last 60 – 100 hours.
Computers couldn’t function without a completely regular timeline. This timeline has to be rigidly followed and unflinchingly shared with other computers. But humans can be much more promiscuous with time, which is why we are more interesting to talk to. So instead of asking “Is it cool, contemporary or retro ?” I’ve been trying to think of different questions that could be asked of the art we see and make :
- Does it feel authentic ?
- Does it connect to me, here, now ?
- Does it disrupt the assumptions I am making here and now and does it leave me looking at things slightly differently ?
- Does it leave me asking interesting questions, or does it merely present me with another answer ?
- Am I slightly less complascent after looking at it ?
For me, Hogarth is a contemporary. William Blake’s books are contemporary. Charlotte Salomons gouache sketchbooks are contemporary because they are all role models for me in the studio and signposts when I am looking at other peoples work.
For me Goya’s Pinturas Negras are contemporary – they feel closer to Frank Auerbach than Auerbach ever feels to Chris Ofili.
And don’t try telling me that Caravaggio isn’t nearer to Francis Ford Coppola than Coppola is to Guy Richie.
I feel we need to stop being frightened by the ticking of the clock and start trusting our own reactions. Try to feel braver about making judgements for ourselves about what connects work together and even more important, what connects it to us.
This is largely from a conversation I had with my philosophical best friend Hugh Aitken last night over a bottle of Highland Park. Having friends who are smarter than me is treasure beyond measure especially when as in his case they are also wondrously earthy and emotionally wise. Safe journey North dear Shug, and come back soon.