For better or worse, “contemporary art” carries none of this baggage. In the decades following World War II, Baker noted, the idea that progress of any kind was possible went out of fashion among intellectuals. There was no single path forward, only a multitude of different, equally valid paths—hence the “pluralism” of the late 1970s and beyond. Seen this way, contemporary art is difficult to define because it’s not really a movement, but rather a collection of artists toiling away, motto-less, in an eternal, ahistorical now.
What can you say about a period in art history whose defining quality is its indefinability? Few people have come closer to answering that question than professor Terry Smith, author of What Is Contemporary Art? (2009). When I asked him to comment on contemporary art, he wrote that “it is a bit like trying to describe time: we all know what it is, and that we are in it, but we find it hard to say what it is.” Visitors to contemporary art institutions, he added, “would notice that there are fewer paintings and sculptures than in the ‘modern’ rooms. Instead, there are many texts, videos, photo series, installations, performances, and objects that don’t look like art at all. Yet these are only the tip of the iceberg. Most contemporary art is being made outside of museums, in public spaces, for temporary exhibitions such as biennials, or is being shown online.”
You could say there’s no glue holding together Smith’s model of contemporary art, and of course, you’d be right—but that’s his point. In the absence of certainty, competing definitions of the contemporary and competing start dates emerge. Sometimes these definitions organize around regional lines: American curators, Smith explained, tend to place the start of the contemporary era somewhere in the 1960s, the usual inflection point in their country’s cultural history, while Germans “favor 1945, the year everything changed in their part of the world.” There’s a deep uncertainty underlying these vast differences of opinion: “We are coming to feel,” Smith concluded, “that what we have most in common is our differences.…Our contemporaneity with each other…is all we have.”