The solar system known to man has one sun. All the planets in spite of being individual entities, revolve around this fireball, and it dictates when days start and end, where, when and why shadows fall if at all, across these planets. The world of art too works along similar lines. Though marked by various ‘isms’, it finds itself in a state of the ‘contemporary’ unregulated by any one visible entity but regulated by many that aren’t visible to the layman. The art that is visible on the hallowed walls of institutions committed to ‘encouraging’, ‘preserving’, ‘promoting’ and ‘teaching’ art, function as peepholes. They cease to be passive observatories, for these institutions are functioning within a community that lets very few cross from the fringes to the inner world.
Art, often understood as the application or expression of human creative skill and/or imagination, would lead us to question whether imagination works within the defined, or does it instead navigate its way around what is known and negotiate a new understanding by creating something that isn’t. While art has been written about through the lens of practises and periodisation in abundance, it continues to remain a phenomena that eludes many. By virtue of its scope to permeate the various categories we live within to compartmentalise life, it is personal, the personal is political, they are social and to most ephemeral. If art in itself conjures up this thesaurus marked by subjectivity, then what is contemporary art? How is it connected and altered to the larger idea of economics, and where do institutions come into this large network of connections, while attempting to decode this phenomena?
Contemporary Art refers to specific conditions of artistic production that have flourished under the latest phase of global capitalism, also known as Neo-Liberalism in some areas. This segment of artistic production insofar is maintained by a global network of art institutions.
Contemporary Art, thus as we know it today can be seen as a product of post-socialist transition. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1991, was seen as the fall of one of the superpowers, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but more importantly the failure of the ideology it represented, Socialism. This political event rooted in history becomes an important place to find the initial beginnings of Contemporary Art, in the margins of the Western World. The manifestation of the institutionalisation of contemporary art took place at its own pace in the Western world, but did so more clearly in Eastern Europe, where the transition of political regimes were taking place from socialist to capitalist. This has also been dubbed as ‘Capitalism by Design’.
It is thus visible, how the inception of contemporary art, one that altered artistic behaviours across an entire region, modelled after the Western world was heavily rooted in the idea of capitalism, thus being directly related to economics, and politics.
Museums, both privately and publicly funded, galleries, university departments etc present an image of ‘art’ to the viewer with a sense of authority. An educated gaze might raise questions, but more often than not, the layman will absorb this as the definition of what art is in present times. Thus, altering the present narrative of this world, and its functions. After jumping down this rabbit hole, I further started linking these institutions to the larger understanding of economics. The art world too is affected by it, as can be seen by what we know as the ‘boom’ periods, when art sales sky-rocketed, this too cannot be devoid of the collectors and their collections, for they fall at the heart of this economic marriage, but how big a role does economics have, is a question I am nurturing. The Soros Centre for Contemporary Art network (SCCA) for example, played a huge role in establishing what contemporary art was in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This was a philanthropic model
which was implemented throughout the 1990s’ in eighteen post-socialist countries. Its activities created a series of changes that led to a managerial revolution in the arts. The main outcome of this revolution was the eclipse of the patron, and the rise of philanthropic initiatives.
This can be seen as one of the many ways institutions that ‘facilitate’ art, alter the artistic behaviours and the language of contemporary art on a whole. One of the manifestations that represents the poignancy of how the period of ‘transition’ for these nation-states affected art can be seen with the help of Documenta as an example. The history and the name of Documenta – a or perhaps one of the most influential spaces for contemporary art. Its history is connected to the ‘transition’ period as well as the institutionalisation that took place in the aftermath of World War II, in West Germany. Its early artistic objectives were intricately related to documenting the advance of democracy and the spread of the ‘free market’ ideology, it in a way mapped West Germany’s break with its authoritarian past. 7
In light of how the change of political and economic ideologies changed the nature of these institutions, it is important to note the interaction they have with the world at large. While the role of ‘contemporary art’ has been influenced by larger forces, it has shaped these forces in turn. Contemporary Art and its supporting structures thus become important tools in cultural diplomacy. They have the ability to represent through the means of an artwork or an artist’s concern, alternatives to a larger question.
These linkages thus hold merit in my eyes, as an artist and academic. In light of the connections one makes, it gives Barthes’ analogy of the ‘Death of the Author’ a new meaning. It questions the free will and the choices that exist behind these manifestations and decisions, is the artist being created, or is the artist creating out of free will? The very conception of contemporary art was political, and its growth ever since has only intensified its ties to the forces of economics and the politics of the globe. It would not be premature to recognise art as something that goes beyond the idea of a vocation, but as powerful collateral to negotiate and mediate the world at large.
Vishnupriya Rajgarhia is a Levett Scholar from the University of Oxford, and represented the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is currently the youngest Assistant Professor at Anant National University, previously having taught at Ashoka University as Visiting Faculty.
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