It’s one of those early springs when speculation percolates and pronouncements flow on the state of contemporary art. More art is on display than can be seen, much less reflected upon, and the perennial spectator sports have begun: showing, collecting, positioning, posing. Where are we today in contemporary art, as opposed to any other decade situated in the millennial cusp we’re circumnavigating? Are we cultural producers immune to creeping complacencies that crystallize into conservative blocks all about us? How much can we pry art loose from national and global politics? (Would we want to try?) What’s the antidote to the corporate-ization of art? (Do we need one?) Let’s say that market-consciousness has become so dominant and pervasive in art practice, that we don’t even see it anymore. The artist is having a museum retrospective? Or curating a big show? Publicity paves the way with magazine spreads on her country estate or his Manhattan town house. We read about their marriages, their furniture choices, the colors of their bedrooms. Here’s a real possibility: art as a function of one or another “lifestyle” industry. How adequate is that as a model of progress? We do still believe in progress, don’t we?

Perhaps the best way to approach the idea of progress is to think in terms of potential and possibility. That’s what we hope for, isn’t it? We need adequate time and space to explore our creative energies. Whether clarity of focus or intuitive fog—there are infinite states of mind at play, just as there are models of practice to explore. If there’s one thing to say, it’s that we look to art today to be fluent and fluid; to host more kinds of meaning, and more contradictory discourses, than probably ever before. That’s where our New is coming from—from a veritable collision course of referents and traces and contexts and voices, all speaking in tongues and moving in and out of different kinds of cultural spaces at a phenomenal rate. It’s this polyphony, a wild mad rush, an untamed chorus, that we’re a-tuned to most these days. That’s what’s got our attention, whether we call it the web, the matrix, the cloud, the present. It’s our Now.

Maybe it’s the morphing dimensions of cyberspace—how much time we spend there, how busy we are at adapting ourselves to it, how primary the screen has become in art experience—that underwrites the most dynamic engines of cultural and social change today. Much of art’s momentum is not in the invention of brand new genres, but rather in recuperating and recontextualizing past styles and ideologies in relation to expanded frameworks of visual culture—cybernetic, mass cultural, global. New distribution networks, new audiences, new economies—there’s lots to figure out. It’s a much wider playing field than ever before. It’s pioneer days, folks! That means you get to make it up the way you want it to be. Our visual vocabularies might be handed down, pre-programmed with associations. But there hasn’t ever been a time like this before, and that makes everything new all over again. That having been said, there are plenty of lethargies in art to deal with, whether we look to the brittleness of the museum and gallery system, or the prevailing ideas of who the artist is and can be, or the modes whereby we evaluate artistic practice and production. What almost goes without saying, but is worth stating for the record, is that it always falls to the younger generations of artists to object to the status quo, to do their own thing, and inadvertently or not, to chart the course anew. And that we call life’s work.

-Jan Avgikos, March, 2010

Nancy Barton

Jan Avgikos
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