OMG Embarrassing Yourself Is the Best Art: A Review of E-Flux Journal

Janey Smith


1. What is contemporary art?

2. Contemporary art is now. It is the thing that is unfolding in the most lively manner. It represents the most current climate of artistic thinking and energy. It is a bundle of superlatives that say yes and no to everything, and at the same time. So, what is contemporary art?

3. Contemporary art is globalization. It is beyond borders. No city museum or national framework can contain it. It also invades former ethnographic museums. To be fair. The novelty of contemporary art defies any safe categories. So, what is contemporary art?

4. Contemporary art no longer rests on the West as its singular model to be applied worldwide. It approaches art from a perspective of a multitude of models, perspectives, methodologies, and localities. Contemporary art is confusing. It fuses different experiences and historical trajectories together. It is like a big soup. So, what is contemporary art?

5. Contemporary art always appears to be familiar. Like a grandmother or a friend. It is made up of art that is embraced by the international art market as a hot item (like a grandmother or a friend)—not particularly for its artistic value, but for its ideological and sociological revelations. It is dependent on market forces, which have set themselves up as dominant, and virtually the only system of evaluating and crediting artworks and the success of artists. If people don’t want to buy your art at a high price, you’re not necessarily not  an artist. So, what is contemporary art?

6. Contemporary art is discussed and received, not from an artistic and conceptual point of view, but on the basis of certain criteria such as size, production budget, market price, and the preferences of collectors. Popularity is important. If a lot of people like you, then what you do is art. If your video receives a million views on YouTube, nothing needs to be said. And if anything is said, it only makes you more of an artist. So, what is contemporary art?

7. Contemporary art is more international thus more national. It is like taking the world and putting it in your apartment and declaring “I live here [name of country or whatever], I am the world.” Thus, your problems become more important than the world’s problems, without ever losing site of the rest of the world’s problems. And that’s okay. What would the world be without you and your problems? So, what is contemporary art?

8. Contemporary art is great. It can be anything. But what should it be? Calling something contemporary art is not the same thing as calling something art. It is one thing to ask what is contemporary about contemporary art and another thing to ask what is artistic about contemporary art. What makes art, art? What makes art we call contemporary art, art? I feel like contemporary art has something to do with not knowing what we’re doing? But it seems like contemporary artists know what they’re doing? So, what is contemporary art?

9. Contemporary art is obviously difficult to define. It’s neither this nor that, it seems. And it may even be something closer to a kind of confusion—as to its own future, its extents and limitations, and especially its sense of belonging.

10. Perhaps contemporary art is the most important thing right now. I mean, that if a thing is named contemporary art, it is like the most important thing, possibly even the only thing, right now.  But, does that tell us anything? Here today, gone tomorrow? Is that the important thing that contemporary art has brought to us? And if so or if not, why should we care?

11. Imagine a world without art. What would we do? What would we talk about? Where would we go? Whom would we know and how would we ever get to meet them? Thinking about a world without art gives me chills. It would feel like it was the end of the world.

12. But the world never ends and neither does art. Modern art ended (or did it?) and someday contemporary art will end. But, what will come next?

13. It’s interesting. It seems like contemporary art wants to be something else, something bigger, something badder. It seems like it wants to be popular culture. We all want to be popular it seems. But what’s different is that contemporary art wants to make these times so super important that it appears almost desperate to become popular, to infiltrate, inhabit, and shape culture. It’s like a great big yes that says no to nothing. Like I said, anything can be contemporary art. So, what is contemporary art?

14. Maybe contemporary art is a new art movement? But that would be weird. When modern art was around there were all these art movements. But whenever contemporary art is around it seems to absorb any other proposal for an art movement. When there are no other art movements it seems like everything we do in the art world is contemporary art. This is weird because contemporary art is no art movement at all. Why? I don’t know. I guess I just feel like if contemporary art were a movement it would have distinctive features that differentiate it from other art movements. But everything now is contemporary art. If contemporary art is not an art movement, then what is it?

15. Maybe contemporary art is the art of being contemporary? To be contemporary is to be savvy, reactive, dynamic, aware, timely, in constant motion, aware of fashion. To be contemporary is a great way to fit in. If you are contemporary, then you conform to a really nice consensus on what is here and now, and of what we have right in front of us, and of what they have right in front of them over there too. It is neat because to be contemporary these days means you never have to be critical and that you have no big plans for the future, and like online culture you are always there, not saying anything important.

16. Maybe contemporary art functions by bringing us—our endearing idiosyncrasies and local vernaculars—together in terms everyone has agreed upon? Or maybe it functions like how we understand capitalism to work, through one-to-one relationships that are seemingly too small-scale to be complicit with anything really big, masking the hidden ultimatum of an innocuous protocol—and if we begin to discern its shape, either it shifts, or we become obsolete: out of fashion.

17. What more can we say about contemporary art? It appears at this moment, but has no fixed place in time. It seems to float free of historical determination (e.g. where are we going, what’s the goal), conceptual definition (e.g. where idea is more important than material aspect of art), and critical judgment (e.g. this is good, this is bad, why). It brings production, distribution, and consumption together and makes them almost indistinguishable. It leaves no stone unturned in mixing up genres and disciplines and political forms of expression and ways of embarrassing oneself, all to further the cause of art (i.e. you). It’s hard to resist comparing it to the effects the Internet has had on culture.

 e-flux journal: What Is Contemporary Art? is available to buy here or to read online here.


 e-flux journal: What Is Contemporary Art?

Sternberg Press


216 pages/$16















All images, except book cover image, from Ai Weiwei’s Studies of Perspective, 1995-2003.

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