Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On February 21, in LPAC, Professor Richard Meyers of the University of Southern California presented the lecture “What was Contemporary Art?” Meyers evaluated three instances in which the term ‘contemporary’ was applied to art and discussed what each implies about the ‘contemporary’ movement in its relation to art history.
The first of Meyers’ examples came from the use of “contemporary” in the dissertation of Rosalind Krauss on the works of David Smith. Krauss challenged several conventions of art history in her dissertation; shying from the importance of historical context and the chronology of an artist’s work and instead focusing on what Meyers referred to as the “phenomenological” and “theoretical.” Meyers also noted that the term contemporary was being applied to Smith’s art based on the records of auction labels, defined “not so much by the date but actually with the market.”
Today, a student studying art history can write their dissertation with considerably less restrictions than Krauss faced, no longer limited to artists whom have died nor needing to focus on a catalog resume of an artist’s life. Instead, more and more students are choosing to study the work of artists in the immediate past and present. Meyers is currently working on a book “Nowism,” investigating this trend. Meyers added that when approached by students who wish to study these “contemporary” artists, he responds, “If you’re interested in the last ten years, why get a degree in the history of art?”
As a second example, Meyers examined a marketing campaign for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, CA, in which sections of the city were marked off by signs as examples of contemporary art and therefore extensions of museum property. Among others a diet center was labeled “Study in Human Shapes, on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art.” Meyers recounted one anecdote of getting gas from a pump labeled “Middle East Dependency.” All of these pieces were labeled “2001,” signaling that contemporary referred to the current year. In addition, Meyers observed that the pieces assumed “the cultural logic of the museum,” ignoring select specifics of an area to focus on those more in line with the museum’s vision. The campaign met with poor reviews from curators and artists who raised the question of whether “The museum was usurping the roll of the artist, or if the artist is there to publicize or brand.”
The third example Meyers found was in the syllabus of a class taught in 1927 by Alfred Barr at Wellesley, generally acknowledged as the first class in contemporary art ever taught for credit. Interestingly, Meyers required that all students taking the class have grounding in art history, with courses on “The Italian Tradition” as a prerequisite. The class did not, however, include the typical Wellesley ‘lab’ sessions of copying works of art, nor did it include formal examinations. The course covered film, theater, architecture, periodicals, music, advertisements, dance, objects and appliances, as well as galleries and museums. In short, Barr incorporated a wide range of subjects under the heading of “contemporary art.”
Ultimately, Meyers illustrated that the term contemporary, one used as a purely relative word, has since been employed as a period unto itself, but one with curious connotations regarding art and the study of art history. Meyers closed with a challenge to fellow scholars and professors: “How are we to instill in our students and ourselves that art history is more than a conversation between educated people in an artificially lit bubble?”