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Too Much Contemporary? Too Little What Came Before?

That is a prospect we–American consumers of art exhibitions–face, and it is that subject and its consequences for our culture that I take up in an opinion piece published this morning on Aeon, the digital magazine that covers science, philosophy and society as well as the arts.

The headline is Why does contemporary art make for wildly popular blockbusters? but it is equally about the consequences of the art imbalance that is already occurring and is likely to get worse. Important note: I am not against contemporary art–I love a lot of it–but I think it must be viewed, overall, in the context of art that came  before it–not in every exhibition, obviously, but art in context.

My Aeon article is an essay, an idea piece, and therefore lacks a nut graf that I can copy here, but here are a few excerpts:

…with museum directors under pressure to boost attendance, Holbein loses out to Damien Hirst, Manet to Christian Marclay, Braque to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Klee to Jeff Koons. Even museums whose collections extend back to the ancients are stressing contemporary art. In the past few years, some museum directors and fundraisers have told me that it has become difficult to find money for exhibitions displaying what some are now calling ‘pre-contemporary art’. Sponsors, be they corporations, foundations or individuals, are simply uninterested….

…in the visual arts…curators and directors struggle to make ‘old art’ seem ‘relevant’…but contemporary art gets a pass on that score because it is made in the present…

…when these factors combine to crowd out attention to some of the world’s greatest works of art, our knowledge of past civilisations is diminished. Knowing less about different times and places means our knowledge of human nature grows thinner, narrower. We become, in short, less sophisticated….

That’s bad, no matter what you feel about museum exhibitions these days.



  1. The term “new classical” seemed oxymoronic to me. As much as I detest labels, Contemporary Visual Art seems more capable of staying relevant. A lot of Contemporary musicians try to re-package classical themes while Contemporary music in general gradually fades away into background noise……

    • Well, I said “newer classical” rather than “new,” but I get your point. It’s hard to find the proper language–in the book world, people quarrel with the term “literary fiction,” intended to distinguish it from popular fiction, and while that is not about new or old, it’s still problematic for some people.

      I am open to suggestions in terminology.

  2. Andrew D. says

    I do love Henry Threadgill. Hard to imagine him pushing anyone aside except maybe Arnold Schoenberg.

    But back to art. Yes, and while it’s true of Western art, it’s even more so in terms of non-Western older art. It’s thrilling to see the number of people interested in Contemporary art. And unfortunate that so many interesting older artists go unrecognized. I recently saw a painting by Niccolo di Landi (Siennese, 1447 – 1500) I’d never heard of. It was at the National Gallery. Is he a great artist? Maybe and maybe not. But definitely interesting.

    At some point tastes may change. While you enumerate many of the reasons for the current fascination with the Contemporary, it will be nice when, should the day come, people become more diverse in their interests.

    • Oh how right you are. I have been a member of the MMA for more years than I will admit, but while I understand the budget issues, I do not like the almost desperate PR. Is it really true that the whatever generation does not appreciate history?

  3. It seems to me that a lot of Contemporary Art has little relation to the art before it, in fact they may be very unfamiliar with what has been accomplished, so it is easier to just do your thing without paying much attention except to what where the last big splash occurred. The so called visual art serve primarily as entertainment and investment properties and less often penetrate beneath then surface. Incidently this is not the case with Literature, Drama, Modern Dance, and other forms, but then again, as they say it is a very different commodity in a mercantile environment.

  4. Your article was fantastic. I really agree with you on the open interpretation part. Is it possible that our postmodern culture doesn’t want to be reminded of moral absolutes, as well? Classical music doesn’t communicate moral truth, but older art often does. I think this may be a significant part. What do you think?

    • I don’t really agree with your thoughts about music. I’m no expert there, but many musical pieces have political undertones and weigh in on contemporary events. Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Dvorak’s New World Symphony come to mind.

    • Scarlett Clay: I agree with much of what you say here. Regarding classical music and “moral truth,” I would only add that what it can convey more directly than the other arts is a sense of life, the felt experience of life or some aspect of it. As one writer has observed, what the composer “expresses” in music are “his deep . . . significant emotions. . . .” In his classic study ‘Beethoven: His Spiritual Development,’ J. W. N. Sullivan writes that “Beethoven does not communicate his perceptions or experiences [or specific ideas of any sort, I might add]” but, rather, “the attitude based on them.”

      On the matter of older art often conveying “moral truth,” I would note that contemporary traditional art can also do this—though, like historical art, not directly as words can. In this regard, you might find of some interest the work of Stephen Gjertson [], a Classical Realist painter and friend. – L. T.

  5. In a sidebar accompanying your essay, ‘Aeon’ asks “What are the consequences of the museum focus on contemporary blockbusters?” We come at the question from radically different perspectives, but I found much of value in your discussion. It deserves wide circulation.

    For now, let me comment briefly on the concluding phrase in your quote from ‘The Art Newspaper’ regarding its finding that in 1997 “only around 20 per cent of the shows organised by US institutions were devoted to the art of their time.”

    A 2007 Met press release similarly quoted Gary Tinterow, then Curator of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, as declaring “we are thrilled to exhibit “[Damien] Hirst’s [shark,] ‘The Physical Impossibility [of Death in the Mind of Someone Living],’ a work that epitomizes the art of our time.”

    In 2011, ‘New York Times’ critic Ken Johnson wrote noted that MFA, Boston had celebrated the opening of its new contemporary art wing, “which would seem to represent a major commitment to collecting and exhibiting the art of our time.”

    The term is ubiquitous in the critical literature. Aside from my view that most of the work in question is most often not art, my quarrel with the phrase rests on the less contentious notion that Classical Realist art by members of the Florence Academy of Art and New York’s Grand Central Atelier is just as “contemporary” as that commonly referred to as “the art of our [or their] time.” I propose instead that it be known by the once time-honored term: “avant-garde.”

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

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