What maketh thine ‘contemporary’ man?
At some point in the possibly very near future, ‘contemporary’ isn’t going to be quite so fresh any more. Though we seem to have survived better than one might have thought without any particularly good labels, at some point we’re going to want to sum up current generations of art and design with something a little more succinct than ‘po-mo’. Perhaps the Modernists had similar worries.
“All this stuff we’re doing, it’s admittedly fantastically new isn’t it? But what happens when times change and it’s not quite the bee’s knees any more? Not quite so—modern?”
We seem to have dodged that bullet by checking whatever people checked before thesaurus dot com and the joys of shift-F7 and grabbing a suitable synonym, but the problem has—once again—crept up in a surreptitious¹ sort of way. It was inherent to the Modernist mindset that what they were doing was going to be the last time anyone would have to do such a thing—these values were infinitely pure and applicable to any disciple and were going to last forever and ever. They could certainly afford to expend a term or two and make future conversations for young design students all sorts of confusing.
Of course, no one could be so naïve as to think that all that has happened in the last generation or so could be so roughly described in a word and its potential prefix. Things have happened: Big Things. Attitudes have evolved, manifestos jeered at, and artists get away with most things as long as they pay for some good marketing. Nonetheless, people will want to group together, lock in, and define a series of micro-movements that currently seem so disparate, but really fall quite nicely under the same oddly-shaped umbrella—once you stand back far enough. Some people already do.
The categorisation of art and design faces the same problem biological classification might’ve, had there not been a whole lot of convenient extinctions in the intervening years. Where the ability to classify flora and fauna so nicely is derived and defined by the gaps between them, art and design movements don’t fall prey to any such predatory desires, and the bits in between movements are sometimes the most interesting to keep.
Styles are conveniently limited to whatever is the best thing anyone has thought of up to the current point in time. Previously, what with the limitations of technology, life-spans, and long distance communication, cultural movements tended to be limited to the imaginations of the small number of people who were able—or had any desire to—work on any one thing at one time. These limitations are long since gone, and with them the ease with which we might categorise.
The cultural, artistic, and design-related movements that exist in a contemporary context are not only a complex pastiche of and response to every one that has gone before, but of everything that is going on at the same time. No longer do we stand only upon the shoulders of giants, but upon the shoulders of those all about us; upon their backs, their faces, and—rather impolitely—their children. The creative and communicative tools available to any one person allow responses within minutes of another’s creation, or even in real-time alongside them.
What is created today is defined by so many gradients of dimensionality, is imbued with so many borrowed ideas and mixed, messy ingredients, that it might be likened to a certain George’s Marvellous Medicine. So many haphazard ingredients make up the final potion that it might sometimes be surprising that anything of worth is created at all.
Thankfully, something of worth is created, and the results are often marvellous, which is what maketh thine contemporary clime such a joy to behold, and within which to be a participant.
¹If you must know, I searched “sneaky”.