Comrades of Time
Contemporary art deserves its name insofar as it manifests its own contemporaneity—and this is not simply a matter of being recently made or displayed. Thus, the question “What is contemporary art?” implicates the question “What is the contemporary?” How could the contemporary as such be shown?
Being contemporary can be understood as being immediately present, as being here-and-now. In this sense, art seems to be truly contemporary if it is perceived as being authentic, as being able to capture and express the presence of the present in a way that is radically uncorrupted by past traditions or strategies aiming at success in the future. Meanwhile, however, we are familiar with the critique of presence, especially as formulated by Jacques Derrida, who has shown—convincingly enough—that the present is originally corrupted by past and future, that there is always absence at the heart of presence, and that history, including art history, cannot be interpreted, to use Derrida’s expression, as “a procession of presences.”1
But rather than further analyze the workings of Derrida’s deconstruction, I would like to take a step back, and to ask: What is it about the present—the here-and-now—that so interests us? Already Wittgenstein was highly ironical about his philosophical colleagues who from time to time suddenly turned to contemplation of the present, instead of simply minding their own business and going about their everyday lives. For Wittgenstein, the passive contemplation of the present, of the immediately given, is an unnatural occupation dictated by the metaphysical tradition, which ignores the flow of everyday life—the flow that always overflows the present without privileging it in any way. According to Wittgenstein, the interest in the present is simply a philosophical—and maybe also artistic—déformation professionnelle, a metaphysical sickness that should be cured by philosophical critique.2
That is why I find the following question especially relevant for our present discussion: How does the present manifest itself in our everyday experience—before it begins to be a matter of metaphysical speculation or philosophical critique?
Now, it seems to me that the present is initially something that hinders us in our realization of everyday (or non-everyday) projects, something that prevents our smooth transition from the past to the future, something that obstructs us, makes our hopes and plans become not opportune, not up-to-date, or simply impossible to realize. Time and again, we are obliged to say: Yes, it is a good project but at the moment we have no money, no time, no energy, and so forth, to realize it. Or: This tradition is a wonderful one, but at the moment there is no interest in it and nobody wants to continue it. Or: This utopia is beautiful but, unfortunately, today no one believes in utopias, and so on. The present is a moment in time when we decide to lower our expectations of the future or to abandon some of the dear traditions of the past in order to pass through the narrow gate of the here-and-now.
Le Corbusier painting on the white walls of Eileen Gray’s E-1027.
Ernst Jünger famously said that modernity—the time of projects and plans, par excellence—taught us to travel with light luggage (mit leichtem Gepäck).