The generation issue: On the modern and the contemporary


When an artist born in 1976 puts into circulation a notion such as 'sculpturecommunism', and Jan de Cock has done just that, he generates an imperative to think through the connection between modern and contemporary art. This elusive, unpinnable, even volatile connection has recently preoccupied anew the traditions of critical thinking that focus on art and cultural production  - one reason being the jaw-dropping apparentness of a new totality of socio-economic relations going by the name of 'globalisation' since the 1990s.  This globalisation is not, of course, the one imagined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto (1848) as the overcoming of capitalism. Rather, this globalisation arose out of the old imperialisms, but also out of the assumed discrediting of communism as the future of capitalism. The folding of the Soviet world around 1990 and China's entry into capitalist markets were used by neoliberalism as undeniable proof of the non-existence of 'alternatives'. So, to use the word 'communism' as an artist in the 1920s, possibly the core moment of modern art, is hardly the same as to use 'communism' in the context of contemporary art in the 2010s. But de Cock does. Why is that?

To answer this question requires some reflection on the relation between modern and contemporary. The mere distinction - ubiquitous as it is, from postgraduate course titles such as 'MA in Modern & Contemporary Art' to scholarly research between a modern and a contemporary paradigm - sounds paradoxical. For the modern paradigm, in contrast to what is seen as ancient, cannot but invest in contemporaneity while the contemporary paradigm must surely entail a will to keep up with what is modern - that is, 'up to date'. 'Modern', assumed to derive from the Latin modus, is however a complicated term, of far less etymological transparency than 'contemporary', which makes explicit its reference to time. 'Modus', from which we get 'modern', stands for 'many meanings, [but] mainly: measure, bound, limit / manner, method, mode, way.'  Modern then, and by inference modern art, is at least etymologically connected to 'how' and not just to 'when'. The distinction between modern and contemporary art thus does not appear to be a mere disciplinary convention, even if it is widely considered as such, with modern art presumed to emerge in the 19th century and contemporary art in the second half of the 20th century.


With this in mind it can be argued that, as a designation for a body of contemporary art, 'sculpturecommunism' places a conceptual question mark on this conventionally asserted, chronological division between modern and contemporary as discrete periods in the history of art - and in fact, in the history of art during capitalism. What the question mark asks is: is the break valid or does the deployment of 'communism' today point to a way/manner of doing that can be carried over to the present from the past?  


What complicates things even more is that the contemporary moment, the 'now' in which sculpturecommunism is proposed, follows upon the dethronement of another term: postmodern. In its unambiguous hegemony in the decades (1970s to mid-1990s) that Jan de Cock, like myself, was being moulded into a social being, postmodernism came to signal the overcoming, disruption, end of, or clear-cut opposition to the modern - either celebrated or despised. Despite the discrediting of biographism in art history, this momentary invocation of a generational context serves nevertheless to remind us that opting to self-identify as a young artist in Europe in the 1990s, which is Jan de Cock's case, was tantamount to carrying the proverbial albatross around your neck.


Let us recall the 1990s for a moment: art schools continued to teach art while at the same time reproducing and questioning the cult of authenticity and singular vision. Europe, where the artist lived, was nominally re-integrating in the aftermath of the Soviet experiment, while 'communist' countries (such as Yugoslavia) were disappearing, leaving a very long comet tail of non-citizens in addition to the victims of haunting war crimes. Critical postmodernism's identity politics were being mainstreamed and absorbed in the guise of an ethically correct, à la mode spectacle - one institutionally endorsed. Britart and Britpop were generating and exporting the creative subject as celebrity, a trend that was to be picked up globally. And as all this was going on, the times were also branded as post-political - a position carefully cultivated through postmodernism's fascination with 'the end of...'. Not least, of course, this was presumed to be the end of art (Danto) or at least the end of the legitimating discourse of art (Crowther) as modern art, even as the latter conceded that all art would henceforth have to (read: be condemned to) draw on the modern. 


In short, despite the trauma of evidence (say, the Balkan wars) that history was alive and kicking, a young artist in the 1990s was inculcated to believe that art history had already happened, first as tragedy (modern) and then as farce or at least eclectic parody (postmodern). So, the question was: what position would an artist occupy in a social body that had lived through both tragedy and farce? What could possibly come after tragedy and farce? De Cock's proposition was a neologism of substance: sculpturecommunism.


In this proposition, to return to my opening question - why did he do it? - we find an acknowledgement that, rather than honouring postmodernism's 'the end of', history has re-started (indeed accelerated since the global crisis of 2008) and one might well choose to take part in it. But taking part in history, as an artist or anything else, is far from simple. It requires alertness, knowledge of the past, anticipation of a future, and a grasp of the present as a finite rather than an infinite regime of possibilities. This goes very much against what speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently concluded about the universe (which, needless to add, incorporates history and/or its absence), which he saw as the dominion of contingency, of the possibility that anything can change at any moment irrespective of trends and laws, and in short that there is nothing stopping the sky from falling on your head.  With the proviso that these are indeed logically developed thoughts that someone thought, that these thoughts reached a publisher who put them on the market, and which I subsequently bought in the form of a book, the flaw in the position presented is obvious. There are at least contexts in which laws and trends stand, producing the reality we inhabit: the publisher sold and I bought. Participation in history falls within the same parameters: history (like reality) does exist independently of whether we think that it exists or not, but it is not chaotic even as it encompasses a degree of contingency rather than be governed by a certain degree of stability. Somehow history happens. Somehow, in our times, capitalism is reproduced. It is precisely these realisations that can afford us a degree of agency, or else participation in history. In other words, participation in history involves making choices - and choices are not infinite but rather determined contextually. The finitude of choices in any given historical context carries a level of unabated responsibility because the fact that reality exists independently of us does not mean that we do not co-produce it. Our participation in reality's making will most certainly outlive us in the sense that we have no means of knowing how our participation will mutate into a future that arises out of 'the contemporary'. But why is our participation, or the subject's role in making history and producing reality, so questioned now? As Svenja Bromberg says,


There is at first a very material sense in which its advocates [of speculative realism] justify the turn to objects. We are at a point where our faith in the powers of the subject to critique and subvert reality, as grounded in Enlightenment theory, has been truly defeated, not least by capitalism's now much discussed ability to demand precisely subjective - emotional or affective - investments in its exploitative machinery. Thus, it is not only the fact that 'subjects are always already subjected', which we have learned from Foucault, Butler and other poststructuralists. But if capitalism wants us to be ever more alive, happy and truly engaged in shaping our own lives on the basis of the endless possibilities this world has to offer, then the critique offered by vitalist theories, aesthetic modes such as [Nicolas] Bourriaud's 'relational aesthetics' and more critical forms of emancipated spectatorship against an objectifying and alienating capitalist reality appear assimilated and defused. 


A philosophy therefore that sidelines the role of a mediating subject - our history participant - is revealed to be as much a child of its times as anything else. It is one choice made out of a finite number of choices afforded us historically and which I find to be in stark opposition to the choice of practicing 'sculpturecommunism'. This is because the invocation of a term where an object-centric aesthetic practice (sculpture) pairs with the invocation of a political programme (communism) born in our collective past (modernity), but increasingly addressed as a credible collective future against neo-capitalism's catastrophe of over-production, signals the development of an artistic consciousness committed to the possibility of political agency.  A thorough working out of the attributes of this artistic political agency cannot take place here, but in what follows I attempt an eclectic reading that highlights its operation beyond the tragedy-farce knot; that is a reading that strives to take seriously this agency's historical situatedness and, possibly, generational specificity.


Self-consciousness, labour, art: The avant-garde and relations of production


I will refrain from speculating about what kinds of consciousness the above state of affairs has generated, for indeed there have been many kinds. Rather, I will argue that in this pool of consciousness a certain trend can be asserted retrospectively: artists' engagement with the labour of art as such. This was not easy to detect in the 1990s, when Eastern European artists, encountering the shocking hierarchies of capitalist art world, were making works such as An Artist who cannot speak English is no artist (Mladen Stilinovic, 1992) and Loser (Kaj Kajlo, 1997) - the latter prefiguring the now widespread precarisation of artistic and generally 'creative' labour both East and West. But in 2014, American artist and writer Greg Sholette can confidently claim that in today's vanguard of contemporary art we encounter an unprecedented awareness of the conditions of production of the artistic subject as such.  This emphatic exploration of self-production, of self-making, by the contemporary artist is indeed a marker that differentiates modern and contemporary art, and it is in this context that we also encounter contemporary art's multi-layered research programme on artistic labour. De Cock's work to date, and certainly the bringing together of 'sculpture' and 'communism', denotes a preoccupation with what kind of labour art could be said to preserve, its contemporaneity, if not its utopianism. As Marina Vishmidt has argued, there emerged at some point a


[...] shift from modern to contemporary art, to a situation where art is no longer a separate domain strategically asserting itself from or connecting to an 'alienated reality' at will [as in modern art], but a specialised niche within this reality - art that is contemporary with its time, a time which is strictly harnessed to the temporal rhythms of the market, or more broadly to capital accumulation'.  

The above excerpt helps us see that artists' attendance to their own labour-based subjectivity and self-production hardly occurs at a random point in the history of capitalist accumulation. Rather, it occurs when art ceases to be a legitimate 'outside' to the latter. To make it plain, if Paul Gauguin was able to escape the bourgeoisie in Tahiti, De Cock can't because Tahiti is now an 'all-inclusive vacation package' sold online by travel agencies, from whose sites I have just quoted. Yet what is important, for this analysis, is that De Cock knows this. 


Vishmidt also argues that modern art was able to perform 'a kind of mimesis' because of its 'near distance' to social reality. But this mimesis, she says, takes a strange turn 'in the history of art since the decline of the modern [...]' so that it 'ends up incorporating the social character of the artist and the productive relations that sustain her'.  The entrepreneurial character of the artist that Vishmidt goes on to describe in her article includes artists working in communities as regeneration engineers, and is seen to ultimately express an affirmation of the existent politico-economic imperative. But the loss of distance she highlights can be expanded to help us grasp more melancholy moments in art's self-examination as labour. Notably, a self-consciousness of art as labour was rarely visible in postmodernism, when cultural discourse was captivated by the spectacle of the sign, reality was proposed as an intertextual relation, and being was indoctrinated into poststructuralism's disaffiliation from the stability and indexical potential of truth. For readers who spot the proximity of postmodernist epistemology, famously captured in Jean-Francois Lyotard's 'anything goes', to speculative realism as discussed earlier in the text, it is indeed hard to see how Meillassoux's effort to reinstate 'the absolute' departs from poststructuralism's programme (which gave us postmodernism), as the difference seems to be merely one of focus. Whereas poststructuralism claimed the contingency of interpretation, this strand of speculative realism claims the contingency of the event. Yet notably, postmodernists frequently failed to read Lyotard's second sentence: 'Together, artist, gallery owner, critic, and public indulge one another in the Anything Goes - it is time to relax. But this realism of Anything Goes is the realism of money: in the absence of aesthetic criteria it is still possible to measure the value of works of art by the profits they realise'.  (emphasis added)


As history became accelerated, however - first, in 2001 through the attack on New York's World Trade Center as a symbol of global capital and, secondly, through the global turmoil that followed the financial crisis of 2008 - a different narrative of art became available. Leaving behind the occlusions of postmodernism, a discourse on a contemporary avant-garde resumed. And it centred not on the text, but on doing and the event. It is hard to see 'sculpturecommunism' as anything other than an enquiry, first, on what was at stake in resurrecting the notion of the avant-garde as poetics (doing) and, second, on what an artist's involvement could be in negotiating the actualisation of this notion, in a post-tragedy and post-farce manner. In short, what 'sculpturecommunism' invites us to consider is the possibly impossible: how in a socio-economic reality of 'no outside', a proposition might be put forward about an avant-garde free from the panic generated by tragedy and free from the cynicism generated by farce.


When it comes to art, there are at least two kinds of 'no outside' that must be considered in connection with De Cock's proposition. Connected as they may be, the 'no outside' of the art institution calls for a differentiation from the 'no outside' of global and biopolitical capitalism. As regards the art institution, one recalls curator Maria Lind's performance in Hila Peleg's film A Crime against Art (2007). Set in Madrid's ARCO (an art fair), Lind reads from a report formulated in 2005 concerning the condition of art in 2015. It is a dismal report, which states that by 2015 art will have been completely instrumentalised, used to fill the gaps of an increasingly withdrawn state from its obligations towards its citizens; and artists who refuse to play along will be marginalised and made to live in very difficult conditions. Writing in April 2014, I hardly need to offer an opinion as to the fulfilment of this prophecy. It is in this context that we must then read Peter Bürger's statement in his recent recalibration of his famous thesis on the avant-garde, that 'the avant-gardes […] did not strive for the destruction of the art institution, but rather its sublation'.  Sublation is a rather nebulous concept but the argument goes that what the avant-garde strove for did not occur; instead the institution placed those who wished to overcome it on pedestals. As Bürger asserts, the failure of the 20th-century avant-gardes to change life became the cause of their conventional, institutionally defined success. In this narrative, success was tantamount to assimilation. Further, the avant-gardes' emphasis on 'rupture' was metabolised into the 'anything goes' of postmodernism, which was in turn canonised as the art of the 1980s.


This situation put some strain on artists who emerged in the 1990s, as the discourse on art was shifting towards two antithetical approaches to the 'everyday', a concept that stood for 'life'. On the one hand, the everyday was approached as already appropriated by the media, which returned it to the masses as what Guy Debord had called, already in 1967, 'spectacle'. On the other hand, the everyday was approached through an increased demand for direct participation and the interactions of embodied subjects in physical proximity, precisely in order to defy the distance inherent in the spectacle, as elaborated by Nicolas Bourriaud and Grant Kester, among others.  Yet after 2000 it was becoming clear that neither of these two approaches were immune to processes of depoliticisation. By 2013, as de Cock states in his Sculpturecommunism Manifesto, to politicise one's artwork would mean that an artist sees herself, or here himself, as 'a dissident and an accomplice, a radical artist and a traditionalist'. Rather than 'anything goes', the positions are now clear. And they are two - a stunningly finite number of choices indeed. Together they spell out the fundamental antinomy that contemporary art has to confront.  This antinomy is the salient factor in the self-production of the contemporary artist and features strongly in his/her labour. For, of course, the labour of the artist today is hardly exhausted in his making the sculpture. Rather, the artist's labour extends into all that could be described as 'relations of production', Marx's term for referring to the totality of social relations that the worker has to enter in order to sell his labour-power. And so:


With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic - in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.   [emphasis added]


The above was written, however, in 1859, let's say at the point of emergence of modern art under the aegis of industrial capital. In 2014 post-Fordism (a stage in capital's history where the factory model gives way to society as a total production site), the apparentness of economy, the loss of distinction between discrete spheres such as 'economy', 'science', 'life', or 'art' pulls all sorts of things to the surface. Among these we find the artistic self-consciousness of a subject manufactured through a split. 'Dear Customer', the opening words of the Manifesto for Sculpturecommunism go, to be followed by 'please forgive me for saying that you are no longer king. The corporate industry has been using you as an object, as an ideology for the masses. The entire practice of this culture industry is based on a single principle: profit, not beauty.' True, the squeezed middle class, about which we've heard so much since 2008, needs to be reminded that the customer is no longer king (and queen): that the promise of more, more and more consumer choices, has turned to mere phantasm; that the planet has been saturated in garbage; and that it is possible that capital will even have to negotiate what Massimo de Angelis has called a 'commons fix'.  This is a most interesting articulation of capitalism' current impasse (read: life after the 'crisis'), as it essentially sees that not even the commons, as the ground for communism, are spared the dismal fate of participating in capitalism's reproduction.


I see a similar kind of acknowledgement in De Cock's sculpturecommunism, where the artwork (sculpture) is taken to sites of non-art-market social relations, the sites of everyday life and work, initiating transitory encounters that preclude neither the eventual return of the artwork to the art market nor the people's return to their production chains. And by 'people' I don't mean just those that the artist, his collaborators, and his sculpture meet, but also the artist himself. This is then a truly contemporary updating of the use of 'communism', much different than its use in modern art. The Sculpturecommunism Manifesto outlines the process:


The installation will become the site for portraying local people with their temporary gifts. Some of the gifted sculptures will be soldin order to finance the multiplication of souvenirs: souvenirs to be known as works of sculpturecommunist photography. These beautiful non-valuables - ex-situ democratic works on paper - should be hung at all possible places, at no cost, for all, and without the permission of the recipient. Endlessly multiplied, with love, to be given away with the compliments of the makers.

The gifts are temporary, the encounters fleeting, their documents (photographic images) in circulation. This is the naked social truth that sculpturecommunism provides so as to initiate rather than embody critique. No doubt De Cock's generation is already aware that the artwork that embodies critique is just as saleable as that which doesn't: any qualities presented as inherent to an object contribute to that object's identity as a commodity. Triggering however a public enquiry on the finitude of choices the artist faces when he seeks to keep communism on the agenda but also reproduce himself 'in conditions not of his own making' (to paraphrase Marx), communism as a word spoken like so many others today, does perhaps achieve a degree of history participation. Rather than live and work in tragedy or farce, this artist decides to live and work in pragmatism, in making apparent the historically specific limitations his work and actions are determined by and through. For whether 'communism' can be something else in the years to come will never be a matter of contingency. And it will surely not depend on art as fully integrated in the extended regime of production (which is the art we have) but rather on collectively reacting against the possibility that our lives remain pure relations of production in the service of modernity's master.


  •  Indicatively see Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London, Verso, 2013; Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009; Dan Karlholm, ‘Surveying Contemporary Art: Post-War, Postmodern, and then what?’, Art History, vol. 32, Issue 4, 2009, reprinted in Art History: Contemporary Perspectives on Method, Dana Arnold, ed., London, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  •   See Modus Definition in Latin Word List, Accessed 14 June 2014.
  •   See Paul Crowther, Critical Aesthetics and Postmodernism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  •   See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London, Continuum, 2008 [originally in French 2006]. For a critical review of the book see Paul Hallward, ‘Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency’, Radical Philosophy, 152 (Nov/Dec 2008).
  •   Svenja Bromberg, ‘The Anti-political Aesthetics of Objects and Worlds beyond’, Mute (25 July 2013), Accessed 13 July 2014.
  •   Indicatively see the arguments presented in Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, eds., The Idea of Communism, London, Verso, 2010.
  •   See Greg Sholette, ‘Occupy the Art World? Notes on a Potential Artistic Subject’ in Economy: Art, Production and the Subject in the 21st Century, Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd, eds., Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2014 (forthcoming).
  •   Marina Vishmidt, ‘Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated’: Art Practice as Business Model’, e-flux journal 43 (March 2013), Accessed 8 May 2014.  
  •   Ibid.
  •   Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985, trans. Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, 8.
  •   Peter Bürger, ‘Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde: An Attempt to Answer Certain Critics of Theory of the Avant-Garde’, New Literary History 41/4 (2010), 699.
  •   See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Paris, Presses du réel, 2002 [originally in French 1998] and Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004.
  •   From Marx and Engels’ Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, available at Accessed 14 July 2014.
  •   Massimo de Angelis, ‘Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?’, ephemera 13, 3 (2013): 603-615.