Can You Love Adorno and Contemporary Art at the Same Time?

To professor of critical theory Juliane Rebentisch, contemporary art is mainly an academic problem.

Samtidskunstens teorier. En indføring (Theories of contemporary art. An introduction) is the title of the second volume in the series ‘Bibliotek for ny kunstteori’ (New Art Theory Library), a new series of publications created in a commendable collaboration between the publisher Informations Forlag and the New Carlsberg Foundation. The ambition of the series is, as is very briefly stated in the foreword, to create a broader public conversation about art and art theory. Such a wording implies that the conversation is currently too narrow and the participants too few. So, it seems like an excellent idea begin the dialogue with “an introduction.”

Apparently, in order to meaningfully converse during the next two years – the schedule of the series’  publication period – the general public first needs an introduction to the topic of discussion. But a word of warning is due from the start: however academically useful it is to now have philosopher Juliane Rebentisch’s little treatise from 2013, Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung, translated into Danish, readers should not expect this publication to be an “art theory for dummies”-style book. Rebentisch is a professor of philosophy and aesthetics, tenured at the legendary Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Theodor Adorno is her immediate role model, and she writes from that point of view, that particular perspective. Accordingly, the term “introduction” should mostly be read to mean an introduction for Rebentisch’s colleagues and students, i.e. people who already work with critical theory and aesthetic philosophy in their day-to-day work, but perhaps not necessarily with visual art.

If you do not know much about any of these things, this book makes for rather obscure reading. But if, on the other hand, you have been in the art world for ages, you will find little in the way of updates on the latest developments in art theory. Indeed, the theoretical introduction stops around 1998 with Nicholas Bourriaud’s ever-controversial programme of relational aesthetics. Most of the specific works discussed are also not what one would call up-to-the-minute, but rather rank among the most widely quoted examples of 1990s art.

As a reader, you will therefore either find yourself struggling to understand the book’s learned and somewhat complicated philosophical perspectives, or wearied by having to go through yet another tedious discussion of the harmful effects of relational aesthetics, of the contemptible aspects of gobbling up pseudo-political rehashes at openings, of social projects without any true social significance, of Olafur Eliasson’s pandering to the experience economy, and of the commercial cynicism of the entire biennial system.

Don’t give up, though. First and foremost, the critique of the critical practice of contemporary art is an essential part of contemporary art’s history and effect. And the fact that the author bases her introduction on what may seem like dated theory, similarly démodé work examples, and middle-aged or now-dead artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andrea Fraser, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Pierre Huyghe, and Eliasson, does not necessarily mean that she has fallen behind the times. She merely confirms that contemporary art has become a historical category, meaning a particular practice unfolding in a particular era, even if she herself rejects the idea that things are that simple.

In other words, contemporary art is not the same as present-day art. For example, Jens Haaning and Bjørn Nørgaard are both present-day artists, but few would probably describe them as contemporary artists – perhaps without being able to fully explain why. Contemporary art is a practice that, as Rebentisch shows, is closely linked to the Mauerfall generation which shaped and defined the new art scene in Europe from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s. Nicholas Bourriaud’s text is just the culmination of a development that started with Clement Greenberg’s radical breaking of new critical ground in the mid-1960s, the very years when that entire generation was born.

Perhaps contemporary art has historically had its (most influential) day. Nevertheless, it has changed our concept of art in a radical way that we still struggle to deal with institutionally, academically, and as audiences. Importantly, contemporary art still defines (and dominates) all the art that has come after, including art that distances itself greatly from the practices of the 1990s.

Rirkrit Tiravanija. untitled 1990 (pad thai), 1990. Installation view, Paula Allen Gallery, New York, 1990. Courtesy of the artist.

Twenty-two years after Bourriaud, we seem to be expending more and more energy on not being able to understand contemporary art. Instead of thinking along with contemporary art, we criticise all its comings and goings and the industry around it. We ponder the limits of contemporary art: what is and is not art when it seems that everything can be made into art? What kind of relationship does contemporary art have to reality at all? Can contemporary art be called political, when at best, it changes nothing, and at worst kowtows to a neoliberal market? What is its history? Does contemporary art have its own media? Is painting, for example, contemporary art, given that the artists of the 1990s declared painting dead and instead made video art, staged photography, and installation art the order of the day?

For Rebentisch, contemporary art is first and foremost an academic problem, and that is what the book is ultimately about. Perhaps this “introduction” could more accurately be called “the philosophy of contemporary art,” because, strictly speaking, contemporary art has no theories. It is theories. Right from the outset, contemporary art constituted an alternative academic structure in itself. When it had its breakthrough, it ushered in new journals, artist talks, and panel discussions, brought its own theorists and far-seeing texts that had not yet found their way into academia; later, alongside declarations that art is research, it turned the studio and the art school into laboratories, and the art venue became an institute.

This is not because contemporary art was speculative or anti-aesthetic, but because the power relationship between works and the thinking about them had changed after the 1960s. Artworks were no longer seen as silent objects awaiting distant scientific interpretation or the final judgment of its historical durability passed by some higher faculty of criticism. Now, artworks could think for themselves; they could suggest theses, but theses could also become artworks. For a brief moment, the distinctions between art and theory and artist and theorist became blurred. The independent curator was a natural outcome of that development – with the term ‘independent’ signifying independence from the research institution, i.e. the museum and academia. The present-day advent of so-called practice-based research and artistic research in academia is also the result of this development.

This does not mean that contemporary art is merely an airy flight of fancy – which, for a number of years, is what many perceived it to be – but rather that art gives us an opportunity to comprehend something about our world through aesthetic approaches and objects. The ‘concept’ part of conceptual art should be understood more comprehensively as ‘thesis’, not just as a vague and intangible ‘idea’. The thesis does not necessarily come before the work; the work creates the thesis. One can, of course, put forward theses about absolutely anything. Rebentisch herself makes a fine analysis of one of contemporary art’s great predecessors, Robert Smithson, illustrating how the artwork as thesis can, with great clarity, reveal much about intricate relations between culture and nature which neither analytical texts nor the silent object could have produced on their own.

But where does this leave the classical scholar who insists on maintaining a seemingly objective distance to a non-communicating object? Rebentisch certainly suggests that theory should preferably unfold at an appropriate distance from the work, despite making several detours around network thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Douglas Crimp. But she also discusses these problems from a personal perspective: How can she possibly deal with today’s situation and the question of which role she should essentially cast herself in? How can she be a critic in the original academic sense of the word, maintaining a cerebral reason-able distance from art, when art has long since caused the categories and divisions of labour found in classical criticism to collapse? In short, how is it possible to maintain a critical distance from something that requires one’s full commitment as a spectator? And, perhaps even more urgently for a professor of critical theory: Is it even possible to love Adorno and contemporary art at all at once? How can a “political” work be an aesthetic pleasure when the Frankfurt School has taught us that art is basically inadequate, naïve being; that the aestheticisation of politics is fascism, and conversely that the Western face of totalitarianism is a woman in a bikini on an American beach?

Theodor W. Adorno, self portrait, 1963.

Although Rebentisch is torn between an academic aversion to the mixing of categories, personal fascination, and outright nostalgia – 1990s art represents her own youth – she actually comes up with some clever and informed, if somewhat elaborate, definitions of what contemporary art is:

“Since the 1960s, artists have increasingly turned against notions of aesthetic autonomy that isolate art from the society in which it arises. This applies in relation to the Greenbergian reduction of art to a field, cut off from everything else, that carries out its discussions with its own means of production […] By contrast, contemporary art is an art that operates within the conditions in which it finds itself. This concerns, as we have seen, a changed attitude towards the visual culture that surrounds it which art no longer regards at a distance as its highbrow Other, but in a sense deconstructs from within”.

In this connection, she points out an extremely important nugget of art history fact that for some reason is often forgotten, namely that contemporary art does not descend in a straight line from conceptual art and minimal art; its legacy goes by way of the Pictures generation (Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, et al.) of the late 1970s and 1980s. Strictly speaking, this is the difference between Nørgaard and Haaning. Douglas Crimp’s curation of five artists in 1977 at a gallery in Tribeca is perhaps the most crucial stand-alone event for the generation of artists Rebentisch presents as the contemporary artists.

She brilliantly explains how the Pictures generation no longer related only to the materials and exhibition venues of the visual arts in themselves, but rather to images in the general sense (and to the media and wider spaces of display). Communication replaced sublime enigmatic silence in art; visual culture replaced art history as canon; mass media replaced the art world as an exhibition space. To bring up one of Crimp’s frequently quoted axioms, this was no longer about images as representation, but as re-presentation. The semi-autonomy of the art space could be used to isolate and reflect on existing images and thus create critical counter-images. This was institution-preserving institutional critique, or “critical complicity,” as the strategy was later called. Here lies the political crux of the matter: to deconstruct visual culture from within is to deconstruct the media, which constitutes images of politics and therefore the ordinary voter’s access to the realm of the political. In short, pictures become politics.

One may conclude that contemporary art has not only caused hierarchies of taste and image to collapse, but also hierarchies of knowledge. Contemporary art has come up with plenty of theories about contemporary art  in itself, often better than those provided by scholarship.  However, Rebentisch either disagrees with that view or is blind to it, for throughout the book she seems to subordinate art to her own academic points. This approach is symbolically accentuated by the fact that the book is completely devoid of images and visual examples (which, in fairness, may also have something to do with copyright and budget requirements). Works of art are only briefly referred to academic points – they are not read and interpreted (except for some good explanations of key works from the 1960s, such as those by Smithson).

This might have been remedied somewhat by a concluding discussion that synthesises all of the phases that make up the narrow origin, history, and geography of contemporary art. Sadly, no such discussion is provided. Even so, Rebentisch delivers a clearer and more complete narrative of contemporary art’s genealogy than we have seen in a long time. Yet, if one wishes to launch a general theoretical conversation about contemporary art, it would be best to start by talking and thinking directly with that art. Accordingly, it should be pointed out that this series of publications opened with a translation of visual artist Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art (Verso, 2017) – which is not just about the historical basis of contemporary art, but also the consequences of the reality heralded by 1990s art.

Sherrie Levine, Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp), 1991. Polished bronze. Photo: WikiCommons.