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Contemporary art is postconceptual art

RP 183 () / Article

Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, London and New York, 2013. vi + 282 pp., £60.00 hb., £19.95 pb., 978 1 78168 113 8 hb., 978 1 78168 094 0 pb. Numbers in parentheses in the main text refer to page numbers of this book.

‘The coming together of different times that constitute the contemporary, and the relations between the social spaces in which these times are embedded and articulated, are … the two main axes along which the historical meaning of art is to be plotted’ (27). What does this sentence indicate? A task, a description, a condition under which art is contemporary? In his stimulating new book, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Peter Osborne highlights the problem of contemporary art from varying perspectives, but always in relation to a critical stance, a stance that operates in a kaleidoscopic fashion, through rapidly turning combinations and modes.

The aim of the book is to render the idea of contemporary art critically intelligible. From its opening pages, this criticism appears as internally divided. The specific and complex historical quality of our present, its contemporaneity, must be disclosed as the (critical) condition of possibility of an art which, in turn, is itself disclosed through its capacity to occupy and critically (transfiguratively) reflect the transnational spaces and heterogeneous temporalities of global capitalism that ‘constitute the contemporary’. On the one hand, the critical element of the book pertains, then, to a specific unstable historical transcendental – contemporaneity as a qualitative condition of the historical present – which shows art’s configurations to be determined by this condition. It is thus transcendental in manner. On the other hand, if sometimes in a more subterranean way, the uncertain but continuing critical and metaphysical dimensions of art – its immanent, problematic criticality – unfolds these dimensions, transforming them into ‘new historical temporalizations’ of that contemporary condition. More radically, at the end of Anywhere or Not At All, this critical drive of art is described as ‘the negating and the puncturing of horizons of expectation’.

Yet the commitment to immanence that characterizes Osborne’s criticism can in no way satisfy itself with such oscillations between ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’: instead, it aims to establish and render intelligible the meshing and permeations of these two moments. This interweaving points to the futurity of contemporaneity, to the inner folds of its disjunction:

If modernity projects a present of permanent transition, forever reaching beyond itself, the contemporary fixes or enfolds such transitoriness within the duration of a conjuncture, or at its most extreme, the stasis of a present moment. … It is with regard to the disruption of these normative rhythms that the contemporary appears as ‘heterochronic’ – the temporal dimension of a general heteronomy or multiplicity of determinations – or even as ‘untimely’ in Nietzsche’s sense. The contemporary marks both the moment of disjunction (and hence antagonism) within the disjunctive unity of the historical present and the existential unity of the disjunctiveness of presentness itself. (25)

This of course is pure Benjamin. And, as such, one could characterize Osborne’s kaleidoscopic manner of criticism simply by paraphrasing ‘The Author as Producer’: Anywhere or Not At All is an attempt to situate the critical intelligibility of contemporary art within the conditions and processes of contemporaneity, rather than to ask the ideological question of how it positions itself in relation to these conditions (is it in accord with them, is it reactionary, revolutionary, etc.?). There is, however, a crucial difference. Benjamin’s criticism of New Objectivity in the 1930s was not a dismissal, but a recasting of the political tendency of literature, a claim that an author must not be a reproducer of the apparatus of production without simultaneously working to transform it in the direction of socialism.1 Deriving his insights out of our present situation, Osborne ascertains that the specific futurity of the contemporary no longer holds any such contract with an impending future. This is no great scoop, but still, Osborne is one of the few to draw out clearly the question this implies, namely: what, then, does qualify the futurity of the contemporaneity which is critically reflected by art?