New Art Now

If contemporary art is art always happening ‘now’, can we ever really make sense of the present? Michael North on the 'new' in art

By Michael North

Harry Dodge, Made in L.A., 2014 (installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles). Photo: Brian Forrest. Courtesy the artist Marketing artwork for Made in L.A., 2014.Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles They Might Be Giants, Older, 1999, music video still. Courtesy ABC Television / YouTube They Might Be Giants, Older, 1999, music video still. Courtesy ABC Television / YouTube They Might Be Giants, Older, 1999, music video still. Courtesy ABC Television / YouTube

For much of this past summer, stretches of Sunset Boulevard were lined with banners bearing the arresting slogan ‘New.Art.Now.’ Drivers catching the flipside of these banners would have seen that they were actually advertising the Hammer Museum’s second biennial, titled Made in L.A. So the punchy three-word come-on is just a subtitle of sorts, and its relative absence from the catalogue and other promotional material surrounding the biennial makes it seem an afterthought. Nevertheless, the Hammer was not alone in pushing ‘the now’ last summer. Prospect New Orleans, another contemporary art biennial, declared that the title of its third iteration would be Prospect.3: Notes for Now. The Art Now Fair in Miami Beach, which has been around in some form since 2007, is announcing its 2015 season already. And Galerie Perrotin in Paris showed the works of Daniel Arsham under the title The Future Is Always Now. The now is very now right now. And not just in LA.

Without any specific qualities or features to fall out of fashion, ‘now’ is always up-to-date and need never get old

And yet these are just recent and in fact rather late examples of what art historian Richard Meyer, in his book What Was Contemporary Art? (2013), has called the creeping ‘now-ism’ in current art history. Within that history, ‘now’ is not just a name for the present moment but the flag of the contemporary, and the contemporary is what we have instead of the postmodern, which is what used to stand in between us and the temporal illogic of the modern. If the term ‘modern’ stands for some period quite long ago, when things were very different, then it can hardly do its traditional duty of standing for the present. Thus there is no name for the present, which has gradually slipped out from underneath the postmodern and threatens to do so again in respect to the contemporary. ‘Now’ is just the current placeholder and has the advantage of being almost completely without qualities, so it seems to stand at the far edge of a process by which the present is gradually stripped of all distinguishing features, except the sheer temporal fact of happening now. Without any specific qualities or features to fall out of fashion, ‘now’ is always up-to-date and need never get old.

Of course, ‘now’ is a pretty terrifying word. One of the problems it poses is highlighted by the Hammer biennial’s three-word subtitle. At first glance, the three words ‘new’, ‘art’ and ‘now’ might be considered synonyms. From Edmund Burke to Clement Greenberg to Boris Groys, critical voices have distinguished successful art from kitsch by its originality, its novelty. For Burke, the simplest of all human emotions is curiosity, a taste for the new, and the most basic of all aesthetic satisfactions is that provided by variety, so that we are drawn to whatever is ‘continually presenting somewhat new’. 

This novelty, which is the source of art for Burke, is positioned by Greenberg, at the other end of history, as its goal, so that art is constantly stripping away the old and redundant, finally to arrive at its fully pristine origins. In his 1992 book On the New (which was published for the first time in English earlier this year), Groys makes this a cyclical process in which the profane constantly comes in to replace the sacred. In this analysis, the new is neither source nor goal but simply ‘a shift in the boundary separating the valorized, archived cultural tradition from the realm of profane things’. Neither a stable state nor a historical process but a steady churn, the production of the new still functions to delimit art from everything it is not.

In order to be counted as art, then, an object or expression must be new, and its newness is strictly defined by the temporal limits of the present moment, now. But this is where the synonymy of the three terms starts to look like a contradiction. Burke warns that ‘those things which engage us merely by their novelty, cannot attach us for any length of time’. This is apparently why he puts such emphasis on that which ‘continually’ presents the new, just as Groys proposes a cycle in which the profane continually refreshes the sacred. Just how tight must this cycle be, though, before it closes altogether? How long is the ‘any length of time’ in which the new can retain its charm? How long is now?

‘now’ is a very different sort of deictic than, say, ‘there’. It is impossible to say ‘now’ without actually feeling the referent slip out from underneath the sign

One classic answer to this question is that now contains no time at all. According to an argument first made by St Augustine, the present is but a nondimensional line between past and future, and it cannot contain any time within its own limits because if it did then there would be both past and future within it and thus another present, ad infinitum. Many centuries later, Einstein confessed that he was terrified by the idea of now, because it has such a hold on human consciousness though it does not, in a universe understood relativistically, have any real reference. 

From a cosmic perspective, that is to say, there is no now, because there is no moment in which all temporal perspectives can be uniformly synchronised. Some of the philosophical and scientific dodginess of ‘now’ is apparent even in ordinary speech, for ‘now’ is a very different sort of deictic than, say, ‘there’. It is impossible to say ‘now’ without actually feeling the referent slip out from underneath the sign. They Might Be Giants make hay with this in a song called Older (1999), which begins, “You’re older than you’ve ever been”, and ends with a repeated, “And now you’re even older”. If art remains new, and thus remains art, only within the temporal confines of now, then perhaps it remains art for exactly no time at all. 

The Hammer Museum ironically plays with the terrors of this situation on their website for the biennial, which features a calendar in the form of a timeline. On it the current date is marked as ‘Now’, and everything below that date is marked as ‘The Past’, and everything above it as ‘The Future’. Helpful sliding links are provided that allow the time-traveller to quickly ‘Scroll Up for the Future’ and then just as quickly jump ‘Back to Now’. This suggests, in a slightly undermining way, that the subtitle of the biennial is correct only today, 25 August 2014, say, and not on any of the other dates on the timeline, though they all fall within the time-span of the exhibition. What will happen when there is no future to jump forward into and ‘now’ becomes inaccessible? To be accurate, in any case, it seems the timeline should be more finely calibrated, for it is hard to think of a date, a full 24 hours, as now. The line marking ‘now’ should be hair-thin and not as thick as a day, and thus the time-span within which the art on show can be considered new should vanish into nothing. But these are all questions that this interesting calendar is meant to evoke. This jokey timeline reinforces the sense given by the blocky type and screaming colours of the posters that ‘New.Art.Now.’ is not just a subtitle but an ironic comment, a kind of take-off on the rampant ‘now-ism’ of the current art scene. It suggests that ‘now’ is already a little outmoded as a synonym for the contemporary. That ‘now’ is now old.

A rather different sense of the relation between new and now can be gleaned, however, from at least some of the artists included in Made in L.A. Harry Dodge, for example, supplemented his drawings, videos and sculptures in the show with a pamphlet, excerpted from a work-in-progress called The River of the Mother of God, v.2. In it, Dodge complains about the human tendency to push ‘later away from now’. In reality, ‘everything is next to itself. And is happening at once.’ A drawing of this situation features a long tube curled so that the two ends speak to one another. This is an image, for Dodge, of ‘what might be thought as present, of presence’. It’s a bit of a jolt to see these words, almost 50 years of disapproval after Michael Fried’s notorious ‘Presentness is grace’, 50 years in which Derridean deconstruction of presence has worked its way so far into the educated consciousness as to have become invisible. But what Dodge has in mind is even older, the continuous present of Gertrude Stein, the expanded present of William James. What is described here is a kind of time that is not a line but a constant pooling of nows, getting deeper and deeper without differentiating itself into past and future. In this time, in which now has something to do other than keep the past and future apart, there is a constant ability ‘to have leaping or new thoughts’.

Contemporary art practices that deemphasise image-making in favour of manipulating, staging or reassembling prior materials do not abandon the notion of novelty but substitute a different definition of the new

It makes sense then that Dodge, like many of the artists represented at this biennial, works in video, assemblage and what might be called ‘word art’ rather than conventional image-making. For the image traditionally inhabits the restricted now that gets steadily less new over time. Instead of producing images, it might be said that artists like Dodge produce information, as long as information is not understood as Walter Benjamin once defined it. For Benjamin, ‘The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new.’ But this is to limit the notion of information to the message itself, whereas the original formulation of information by Claude Shannon identified it with the system that produces messages. Shannon once called the quantity he measured ‘surprisal’, a word that emphasises the stipulation that redundant or expected messages carry no information. The capacity of a signalling system to generate new, unanticipated messages is therefore measured as information. 

Novelty in this sense does not emerge full-blown from nothing, nor is it recruited from the ranks of the profane, but it inheres in the power of a system to generate novel combinations. Contemporary art practices that deemphasise image-making in favour of manipulating, staging or reassembling prior materials do not abandon the notion of novelty but substitute a different definition of the new. As art historian David Joselit puts it, ‘What now matters most is not the production of new content but its retrieval in intelligible patterns through acts of reframing, capturing, reiterating, and documenting’. Perhaps it is one of the larger purposes of such work to remind us that this is one of the principal ways in which new things have always been made. In this way, some new art may actually free itself from the limits of now. 

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.