Contemporary stagnation

Jonathan T.D. Neil on periodising the 'contemporary' in contemporary art, from the December 2015 issue

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

‘We cannot not periodize.’ So goes one of Fredric Jameson’s maxims from his short theoretical essay ‘A Singular Modernity’ (2002). I find myself returning to this text often in order to come to terms with the advent of what we call the ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art. If periodise we must, then what to do with the contemporary?

A quick look at university syllabi on the topic, most from art-history departments, shows no genuine consensus. (Market analysts generally accept that contemporary art is work made by anyone born after 1910; not helpful.) For some, our contemporaneity begins in 1967, with the publication of Michael Fried’s Art and Objecthood, which set the terms of debate, and the stakes, for what qualified as serious or advanced (at the time) contemporary art; and perhaps more significantly, with the civil rights and global student movements, which marked a social and political upheaval that many still view as a decisive break. Others, notably architecture critic Charles Jencks, would date it to 1972, specifically 3pm on 16 March, when the first building of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St Louis, Missouri, was dynamited into oblivion. Pruitt-Igoe had been built on the high-modernist architectural principles set forth by figures such as Le Corbusier, and with its demise, so went the legacy of Modernism. Jencks took his date to mark the beginning of Postmodernism (at least in architecture, where the term first carried the most currency), but that is just what the contemporary was called then.

In art, the neoliberal economic order brought huge new wealth in search of social acceptance and distinction, as well as a pluralism of forms, politics and practices that either ignored or affirmed the dominant economic culture

More recently, the period from 1989 to 1991 has served as the contemporary’s start date (see Suzanne Hudson and Alexander Dumbadze’s Contemporary Art: 1989 – Present, 2013, which gathers essays and position papers on the period from critics, historians, curators and artists). The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought, according to Francis Fukuyama, ‘the end of history’, after which global geopolitical alignments would be determined not by ideology, but by markets and people’s access to them. The neoliberal economic order brought down restrictions on international trade and capital movements. In art, it brought huge new wealth in search of social acceptance and distinction, as well as a pluralism of forms, politics and practices that either ignored or affirmed the dominant economic culture.

But given 25 years and a more macroeconomic look, 1989 doesn’t appear so much as a break as it does a high-water mark for trends that had begun nearly two decades earlier. Jencks’s year if not his date, 1972, looks more like the beginning of something and the end of something else. On one measure (from the National Bureau of Economic Research), multifactor productivity in the US averaged a respectable 2.26 percent over the 50 years leading to 1972. Between 1972 and 1996 it dropped to 1.04 percent, after which it briefly rebounded on the rollout of the Internet until sinking back down to a paltry 0.83 percent after 2004. Employment, though up and down through the five recessions the US has experienced since 1970, has been on a general downward slope due to the increasingly common phenomenon of the ‘jobless recovery’. And what the OECD calls ‘social spending’, the various benefits that low- or no-income people receive in the US, doubled from around 10 percent of GDP in 1970 to almost 20 percent in 2014 (this number stands at around 22 percent in the UK).

Much of this decline is charted by the Nobel Laureate economist Edmund Phelps in his book Mass Flourishing, published earlier this year, which holds up the ‘modernist economies’ of the West in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, mainly in Britain and the US, as hothouses of ‘indigenous innovation’. Neither increased access to capital, land, trade or commerce, nor headline inventions or investments in science explain the ‘takeoffs’ of these nations roughly 200 years ago. Only the dynamism of their ‘economic culture’ does.

I like two things about the term economic culture. First, it holds at bay any charge of vulgar Marxist analysis that views the plane of the economic as some ultimate determining instance of the sandcastles of culture. Second, it invokes history, and so periodisation. Economics may be structural, with aspirations of being a science, of developing and discovering certain laws of production and consumption and value, but culture has a history, and so demands the messiness of empirical context and locale. Economic culture invokes how economics is lived, and what is meaningful about that living, not just today, but in the past.

What Phelps offers is a macroeconomic history of modernity and modernism, a period when the economic culture in the West was characterised by dynamism and grassroots innovation, which translated into productivity, employment, inclusion and ‘mass flourishing’. That period is over. We’ve known this from the cultural standpoint for a while now, but we haven’t quite understood it from an economic perspective, even if we have bandied about the catchphrase of ‘neoliberalism’ to make ourselves sound informed.

The international biennials of contemporary art, which eke out their differences either through links to this or that globalised ‘condition’ or through the lifestyle branding brought by their lead curators (or both), fail to stir anyone to genuine political or social action. The international fair circuit, with its highly conventionalised rituals and products, are stuck on repeat. Museums march on, building more, showing more, but somehow come off looking and feeling all alike. At the very least the art of the modern period, like its attendant economic culture, was suffused with purpose. Today it’s something else. I’m not for a return to modern art. But purpose would be welcome. What the economist Tyler Cowen has dubbed ‘The Great Stagnation’ may just be the period we’re in, on both fronts, in art and the economy alike. 

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue.