Is This the End of Contemporary Art As We Know It?

Has COVID-19 accelerated the demise of the artworld? What lies ahead? Artist Liam Gillick and ArtReview’s J.J. Charlesworth assess the sudden halt in shows, fairs and biennials

Liam Gillick, Means of Consumption…, 2018, matt black vinyl on wall. Courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

J.J. Charlesworth If we’re in a moment of crisis right now – both in the artworld and in the social, economic and political world – there seem to be two differing responses to it: there are those who look anxiously to the breakdown or interruption of the economy, of cultural institutions, of social life, and hope that we might find our way back to the ‘old normal’. Then there are those who cheer on the disruption, since it appears to (inadvertently) serve the purpose of accelerating tendencies that were already pushing towards a crisis, and in which the ‘old normal’ was anyway unsustainable, regardless of the appearance of a virus.

But either way, the sense that we’re at the end of something, or at the beginning of something else, is hard to escape. But before trying to think about where this might be headed, it’s worth considering where we’ve just been. Periodising can be tricky, but it seems necessary now if only because, for better or worse, it looks like many of the infrastructures that have characterised the artworld of the last decades may not survive this disruption. There’s been much argument in recent years about what makes art contemporary art, and part of that is an argument about periodisation – was contemporary art what came out of the 1960s, with the first challenges to an institutionalised Western-dominated modernism? Or was it post-1989, with the end of the Cold War and the beginnings of globalisation? I’m tempted to say that we’re at the end of the period of contemporary art, which for me is most aligned with the era of globalisation. It’s during this period that: international networks are regenerated and facilitated, by new opportunities for travel, but also new forms of communication; the artworld economy expands along the lines of exchange opened up by the expanding global economy, producing the mushrooming of art fairs; and in which, in parallel, institutional temporality is wired to a critical practice of curatorial event-making – the spread of the biennial and ‘large international exhibition’, which outruns and then retrofits the models of museum institutions, which themselves have proliferated.

Liam Gillick I think we might agree that many people were already struggling to function in states of crisis for varied yet very concrete political, social and historical reasons for a long time. The ‘artworld’ – that planet no one admits to being involved with but a lot of people seem to land on at one time or another – has a general new crisis different from all the other ones in the world but also quite similar. We can say there is a concrete economic crisis in the art market and the major art institutions. This is also true elsewhere. Think of the ‘crisis of tourism’, if it has such a name – and it is deeply related to the stress at most large art institutions right now. The recent crisis at the Basel watch fair is also related to an ongoing battle over the sites of high-end capital exchange that predates the pandemic. I think it can be agreed that the circumstances that led to this artworld being formed in the first place closely track and reveal changes in advanced capitalism over time.

I am sure some people would like to go back to the point where the only crisis worth writing about was the endless ‘crisis of criticism’. This present crisis for the artworld is specific, economic and structural but also happens to coincide with a moment of great potential to change a lot about the way things have been organised up to now, at least here in the US, where the legal frameworks for nonprofits help perpetuate a double pyramid of power and exclusion – which I will come back to later.

When you mix up the economic crisis of art, the scientific crisis of communication and the desire for concrete social change, you get a very complicated moment of potential that is not easy to navigate. But let’s imagine that there is an important ‘artworld’ and its survival is at risk. What art is made on this ‘artworld’? We know that the artworld is the place where contemporary art goes to live once it has been fabricated. And we know that the people who make this contemporary art are known as contemporary artists. The term contemporary artist is very convenient, as it does not describe any specific type of art but alludes to a certain way of being in the world. There are no written rules or manifestos for contemporary art. That’s why it can be co-opted and manipulated but also used as a free-zone of potential for people who don’t think much about art at all.

I think it is important here to hone things down and look at the structures that are currently ‘in crisis’ and try and establish how that happened. Is it a bad thing? Are we at the end or the beginning of something? Have the cultural elite just gone into hiding for a while? Is it not true that some people have made more money than ever this year and the rich grown richer while the poor grow poorer? I don’t see much change there.

Let’s say that the system of production and reception that we think of as the contemporary artworld is definitely a post-1989 product. Its spaces of exchange scattered once the original models of the Basel and Cologne art fairs and Documenta and the Venice Biennale multiplied and replicated themselves at various other centres throughout the world over the last 30 years. These two aspects of contemporary art consumption and distribution are often spoken of together – as if they were interchangeable. The problem is that the two just show us the different extremes of art’s economy. The art fair is a simple market for exchange. Art fairs elude the artist as exhibition maker and with few exceptions are indifferent to curatorial advances. The economy of the fair is driven by rental income from galleries and admission tickets sold to the public. Serious collectors do not contribute to ticket income, as they are invited as VIPs.

Biennales tend to be run by a foundation or a city or a specific nonprofit organisation and exist within a specialised cultural policy to promote a place, region or abstract set of more or less worthy social desires. They often have heightened progressive social aspirations, and the invitation to curate one usually involves making some accommodation with politicians and cultural leaders who have their own agendas.

Liam Gillick, A Depicted Horse Is Not a Critique of a Horse…, 2018, matt black vinyl on wall. Courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

Why am I writing of fairs and biennales? The pandemic has brought fairs and biennales to a sudden halt. The contradiction of the two often opposing aspects of each is that the specialist audience for them is often the same. The sudden arrest of the art fair and the biennale has halted the momentum of those who are above or beyond such things but have tended to gather at them regardless. These flaneuristic stages have been shunted into the future. And with that has gone informal moments of exchange that are hard to account for. At the same time ongoing traumas and structural defects in the organisational aspect of contemporary art have grown raw and clear. I would argue that the suspension of informality, constant travel and contemporary art’s traditional ‘accommodation’ of that which is new has helped to bolster and clarify institutional problems that are hardly new.

Let’s try not to be cynical for a minute and imagine that there is something like a real critical discourse around art itself outside of the journals and academia. Often this discourse is not about art but is actually the things around art – what leads to it and sloughs off it. This amoebic discourse is fed by the primordial soup of art as it is delivered to fairs and biennales. When those event states stop, the soup doesn’t stop being made. But the consumption of the soup, and the endless negotiation over whether it is good or bad or even soup at all, stops. So too do the endless exchanges that take place in the context of primordial soup. The discourse around art since 1989 is not decisive. This is a legacy of critical theory and postmodernism. It is why art has potential and the artworld is so elusive and meandering. Contemporary art is the result of theory and feeds theory. Maybe in fact we do actually have a crisis of criticism after all. Without recharged theoretical models we cannot discover the nature of the crisis.

JJC I’m glad we’re discussing the possibility of regenerating theoretical models, and of the ‘crisis of criticism’, even if in the face of the other crises it may sound trivial. I suspect it’s fundamental. There’s a joke in a Victor Burgin essay from the 1980s that goes, ‘We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish’. It’s a Lacanian joke about subjectivity and discourse. But it also applies to the formation of institutions that are generated by discourse, which then reproduce the discourse and determine who gets to be ‘in’ it. Maybe it’s analogous to your ‘primordial soup’. But since we’re talking about the interruption of institutions that are sites where discourse is constantly being negotiated, included or excluded, it’s worth noting that there was already a crisis of discourse in institutions before this current crisis. What’s energising about this moment (though it’s frightening too) is that, suddenly, the ‘primordial soup’ of discourse you’re referring to has, for a while, stopped being mediated by this material economy of institutions.

What the onetime debate over the ‘crisis of criticism’ tended to miss is that its crisis was really to do with a redistribution of who had institutional power over critical discourse in art – and how contemporary artistic production became institutionalised after the 1960s, as public institutions of art began to produce a continuous exhibition culture of contemporary production. It’s in this same period that artists became closely involved in the formation of critical discourse around their work. Artists do not leave the business of meaning to critics anymore. These developments go some way to producing the institutional culture we’re familiar with, so that extensive critical production is now a permanent feature of the biggest curatorial-institutional projects and the most influential artists. This is why the ‘crisis of criticism’ first appears during the 1970s, since it is from then on that critical discourse relocates to the juncture of reflexive artistic practice and a new economy of reflexive institutional presentation.

But now, all that more complex critical division of labour has become disconnected from the accumulated quarter-century of evolving artworld economies – the international entanglements of funding, curatorial career-building, patronage resources, art markets, cultural policies and so on – which have suddenly become very fragile. So the virus crisis highlights the already existing crisis in discourse, which tended to be contained and moderated by the functioning of the system. The lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated the battle over radical discourse, throughout the shifting constituencies of artists, just as much as among now-malfunctioning institutions; the politics of race, workplace diversity, decolonisation and restitution may have surged into the public conversation in the lockdown months, but they were there already, along with other issues such as climate crisis. Only a few months ago the agenda was Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, after all…

So the question for me is whether this will lead only to the replacement of one set of discourses with another, while leaving institutional hierarchies, power structures and patronage largely unaltered. Which opens back onto the question of what is ‘progressive’, both in institutional terms, and in the discourses legitimised by institutions.

LG Lasting change will not be achieved unless some structural aspects of the way contemporary art is disciplined and managed are altered. There have been ‘turns’ in the last 30 years where the system was tested. We have seen the rise of the curator – in the contemporary sense. The rise of research and the documentary as a model, and stressed battles over participatory practice. These ‘turns’ have generally been intended to carve out new semiautonomous zones of activity that bypassed accepted disciplinary structures of the established artworld – sidestepping instead of fundamentally changing. A good example might be the educational turn from the mid-1990s onwards with the establishment of various free art schools, exhibitions as sites of education, and general appropriation and redirection of educational models. It was a way to make more direct contact with a public rather than confer with a specialist audience.

In relation to the idea of real change, we need to look at the way things are currently organised and try and understand what could be done instead. It is interesting that the two economically stressed aspects of the artworld’s economy, the biennale and the art fair, are weakly expressed in the US. But what is happening right now is very much affected by American modes, habits and structural inequalities. The American context is influential in two ways. America’s general model of capitalism is incredibly powerful, particularly its enduring consumer culture, of which art is just an elite part. At the same time the country appears to have waned in terms of political influence. The structuring of the grand economy of art is hypercapitalist in a way that follows American principles of consumption. It would be pointless to call for change in such a simple system without changing the whole of society – as many are demanding.

Liam Gillick, Neo-Classical Economics…, 2018, matt black vinyl on wall. Courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

What confuses the issue a little is that the American system has ways to relieve stress and allow for nonprofit activity that has a tendency to soften various blows. One aspect of the American way that allows a delicate truce to exist between established institutions and radical voices is what could be pictured as two pyramids tip to tip. The double pyramid exists as the structure of a small radical nonprofit but is also the organising principle of the Museum of Modern Art. The base of the first pyramid is all the workers, educators, installers, guards and administrators – those who have been sacked first due to COVID-19. Further up are the various curators of differing ranks, and finally at the apex is the director. At that point a new inverted pyramid begins and balances delicately on the first. At the tip is the president of the board of trustees. This inverted pyramid widens as it goes up, with the executive committee and various other committees, until you get to the base at the top with all the ordinary board members and financial patrons.

This model is what will need to be changed. This will take legal brains and tax expertise, because the current model is synchronised with the entire system of nonprofit organisation. This moment of radical rethinking must go alongside the creation of new organisational models that can reimagine how things can function on a daily basis.

In a political sense America is also influential. Calls for change in the US are based on clearly expressible, widely perceivable structural inequalities that cannot be denied. The demands are not new. They are supported by an extensive literature and exist in a critical historically conscious context. The clarity of American inequality allows it to be perceived as a structural potential applicable to other contexts with unique histories. But I am concerned that without new legal frameworks nothing lasting will come of this potential opportunity. The pyramids will remain tip to tip and the foundational assumptions about how art functions as an economy will remain in place. This is not a question of private versus state funding; it is about organisation and the creation of new models.

JJC If you’re right that there’s a legal-institutional formula to this, this model has evolved out of the economic conditions of the last 30 years. But what’s in the institutions is the effect of the normalisation of a 50-year trajectory of ‘radical’ art. It is a historical period, and its dynamic period of contestation and assimilation is over, and its unresolved issues – of minority culture contradicting elite culture, of its feudal organisation modes contradicting its commitments to progressive politics – all seem to be pulling in opposite directions. As someone who’s instinctively suspicious of institutional power, and how it assimilates once-radical energies, I think you’re right that institutions have to change. Maybe, though, the change is that they have to disappear. What I see at the moment is a lot of big organisations, run by small cliques of senior managers and patrons who, having steadily lost view of their cultural or social mission, are frantically trying to accommodate and recuperate the chaotic energies coursing through society outside. My worry is that this response will only result in the installing of another cadre of favoured artists, curators, senior managers, funders and patrons to replace the old ones.

At some point, we’ll have to ask whether there are not other formations of artists and supporters that could take shape elsewhere; something that isn’t the intensely hierarchical structure you’ve described (which, by odd coincidence, replicates all the worst characteristics of neoliberal societies – an insulated propertied elite, an interfacing managerial class and a wider population whose common experience is underemployment and precarity). But this may require a very different vision of the purpose of artistic activity, and of the nature of cultural freedom in an increasingly unfree society. Maybe it just takes a board of trustees to say, ‘This isn’t working. Let’s shut it down and maybe try something else.’ Somehow I doubt that. It would make more sense for artists to say this first. And then your question of ‘what constitutes a contemporary artist’ is up for grabs again.

Liam Gillick, First Fully Automated Production Line…, 2018, matt black vinyl on wall. Courtesy the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

LG During this exchange I wrote three different scenarios. I wanted to discount simple ideas – such as everything going back to the way it was. The first two were somewhat extreme, involving new viral strains, blindness, anger and self-destruction.

The final scenario seems less extreme in retrospect, where the virus and the calls for change are met by demographic shifts and political opportunism. The final scenario is that a combination of things happen to the contemporary art system that has very little to do with COVID-19 or the oppressive nature of white supremacy. Three different factors result in the complete diminution of the contemporary art complex. Firstly a generation of people born between 1945 and 1960 begin to die in larger numbers. This is just what happens. It’s to do with the aging process and nothing to do with the virus. It is this generation who have been the collectors of contemporary art, and they begin to disappear. Along with them the last of the Baby Boomers, born in the early 1960s, start to leave their jobs in the cultural sphere and think of other ways to occupy themselves under a calmer tea-candle.

The remaining specific audiences for art – both producers and users – energise themselves in many different ways. Generally the spaces of contemporary art are now used for discussion and education rather than the display of complex installations or art-historical gags. This attracts more government funding and increasing official support, as it also begins to provide a parallel education system for art that allows the closure of art departments in schools and universities that are otherwise costly to run and offer little in return that can easily be financialised or assessed. This process is a bit like the selling-off of school sports facilities that happened in Britain 30 or so years ago. Having a dedicated art department in a college or school suddenly seems a throwback to an earlier moment when competition was valued more than cooperation, and individual creativity was rewarded in a winner-takes-all way.

Art in its new contemporary form is about as relevant as some arcane forms of rock music would have seemed to a punk. The idea of teaching it without the ability to truly dedicate time to the super-subjective potential of any artist now seems laughable and impossible. Contemporary art becomes another historical style with a specific history for study – alongside Rococo and Fauvism. Art fairs become sales conferences akin to those that take place with new technology – selling systems, complexes and educational tools. Biennales become massive conferences where papers are read and poetry is recited on any subject that can be imagined. Art as a material practice continues of course, but on a financial footing more familiar in the world of poetry today. And here is a parallel. In the 1950s and early 1960s, to be a poet was to operate within a world with self-described infinite freedom to tell a truth, and with that the ability to command respect. Those artists who filled the contemporary artworld in the last 20 years are no worse than any of the people who headed towards the Village or Haight-Ashbury in the 1950s and 60s, and no less deluded. At that time to be a poet was the thing. It was a way of suggesting access to a world of ideas with little control or discipline, and even brought a little danger. The bloated indulgent onanistic rock star of the early 1970s begins as a poet and mutates into a coked-up Dionysian peacock before shrinking away once more. In this scenario the artist regresses in the face of infinite examination and resorts to showing their work to each other in some endless drunken studio visit. As the potential of poetry and status of poets declined over time, poetry remained. But its makers went back to what they had always been doing. They wrote poems and they talked to each other about them. They published them. And sometimes people read them.

Liam Gillick: It should feel like unicorns are about to appear is on show at Alfonso Artiaco, Naples, until 24 October

Most recent


We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. This includes personalizing content. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy.