Abstract

The term contemporary has shifted from an adjective to a noun. Once a neutral descriptor meant to indicate recentness, the contemporary is now widely claimed as a period, composed of loosely related aesthetic tendencies, following and displacing modernism. In this regard, it enters a tradition of now discredited movements that includes “pluralism” and “postmodernism.” Unlike these predecessors, however, which took Euro-Amer ican art as their pr imary archive, contemporary encompasses the temporally coeval but geographically diverse expressions of a global art world—a point critics often emphasize by noting that the literal meaning of con-temporary is “with time,” which in turn is sometimes poetically glossed as referring to “comrades in time.” A framework for global art is thus furnished through the undeniable and ostensibly value-free contention that work so designated occupies the same moment in time. There is, however, a paradox in rendering the adjective contemporary as a noun: When packaged as a period, the contemporary unconsciously reinscribes a model of temporal progression that was fundamental to modernism. While discussions of the contemporary typically emphasize its synchronic dimension—calling upon, as I've mentioned, the con to suggest simultaneity across different locations and perspectives—by definition it is always advancing. Like an avant-garde, the contemporary can only go forward, but unlike an avant-garde, the contemporary doesn't have an avant: Its forward movement does not carry the productive shock of being in advance or, perhaps more appropriate, of being out of sync with its time. In its discursive structure, the contemporary is a kind of blank or denatured modernism, one that is only ever “with” its moment. And this seemingly innocuous “with” masks the dramatically uneven development of globalization. For being together in time does nothing to redress economic disparity, as the victims of collapsed Bangladeshi garment factories producing inexpensive clothes for Western corporations can attest.

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