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The book has seven sections – “Belief,” “9/11,” “Globalization,” “Canon,” “Design,” “Media” and “Romanticism” – written by European and American scholars and artists, hosted mostly by Dutch moderators

Now Is the Time:  Art & Theory in the 21st Century

by Christel Vesters (coordinating editor), Jelle Bouwhuis, Ingrid Commandeur, Gijs Frieling, Margriet Schavemaker, Domeniek Ruyters, Editors
NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009
192 pp., illus. b/w.   Paper, € 29.95
English edition:  ISBN: 978-90-5662-721-8.

Reviewed by Ian Verstegen
Philadelphia, PA


Now Is the Time: Art & Theory in the 21st Century is the result of a series of lectures and debates held at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and now published under one cover. The book has seven sections written by European and American scholars and artists, hosted mostly by Dutch moderators. The format is always two speakers on the same topic, with a short published public exchange. In general, the participants are a mix of viewpoints, Marxist to postmodern, which bring together a variety of approaches under the banner of overall social concern. The result is a very effective book for teaching students in the arts and humanities with up to the minute interventions on a variety of important topics.

The book begins with a generally political focus and, then, moves into more specific themes. The span of the essays is quite wide, and it is difficult to bring any order to the rich and thought-provoking collection. Nevertheless, it is possible to isolate certain themes. The beginning essays generally posit art production in a system of global capitalism whose diversity and inclusiveness conceals inequity, and whose characteristics are shared by distressing elements of contemporary life, particularly terrorism.

Thus, Terry Eagleton and Borys Groys (“Faith”) both point in different ways how the image of faith operative today is independent of belief (Eagleton) or science (Groys). Faith, whether in western or Islamic fundamentalist, is content to use repetition of ritual – which fits strangely effectively with digital media – without recourse to reason. Similarly, W. J. T. Mitchell and artist Sean Snyder show echoes between American and terrorist practices, in Mitchell’s case the uses of “biodigital” practices (iconoclasm and decapitation) while Snyder looks at the hardware and presentation techniques terrorists have used for their recruitment videos. Both argue, at different levels, against regarding acts as savage at the risk of understanding their core logic.

Turning to “Globalization,” Julian Stallabrass and Hanrou Hu treat that global transformations of expanded art markets and new biennials is only apparently liberating. New artists and art capitals have emerged but to serve the new global rich and in different ways they expose the backside of spectacularly staged global capitalism. Here, the focus of the section, “Design,” well fits in. Although Rick Poyner has more hope for “critical design,” a critical, self-initiated kind of design that resists the industry and embraces gallery and art practices, Camiel van Winkel notes that Art has increasingly since the 1980s assimilated the twin goals of “visibility” and “professionalism.” The artist makes art that is easy to understand, presented as an ethical mandate of constructive communication.

The pair of essays on “Canon” – by Robert Nelson and curator Ruth Noack – address issues of “Globalization” in that both seek ways to forefront constructed meaning in the contemporary curatorial scene. Nelson positively considers the role of canons in our understanding of the world, a way of organizing collective agency. Noack, curatory of documenta 12, accepted the historical embeddedness of the contemporary art shown there and she positioned herself frankly as a constructor of a canon. In the end, she and Nelson see canon formation as a social negotiation that individuals should consciously take part in. Turning to “Media,” Kaja Silverman and Laura Marks address mediality in historical and contemporary art. Silverman uses a Leonardo exhibition to reflect on media, as Marks does of Islamic art. Silverman is interested in the way in which the clear genealogy of Leonardo and progeny is frustrated in a constant state of metamorphosis, a fact underscored by the postmodern artistic practice of James Coleman, whose ephemeral installation – which has left no trace – accompanied the Leonardo show.

The last section, “Romanticism,” is a fitting conclusion to the book, because Romanticism in this sense is another way of saying modernity and Jos de Mul and Jörg Heiser locate our position, “now,” in the title of the book. Giving a genealogy of romantic ideas, de Mul endorses Schiller’s definition of romantic desire as an “eternal oscillation between enthusiasm and irony.” Heiser seeks out more artists to explore a similar opposition between romanticism and conceptualism. Good art combines both. For de Mul, the path between enthusiasm and irony is a “tightrope.” For both, instructively, this means that we are neither modern nor postmodern. In light of the global focus of the book as a whole, this suggests that oppositional discursive practices won’t save us but those moored in modernity itself that haven’t left us and indeed inform the rest of the world’s activities.

Last Updated 5 September, 2010

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