Rudolf Urech-Seon Composition P, 1954 – Orient, 1958
Photograph: Katalin Deér, 2011, Verwaltungsgebäude

On contemporariness in art

Among the most elusive aspects of a work of art to discuss is its contemporariness. Which criteria do we bring to bear when deciding whether or not a work of art is in tune with the times? And what does a work’s contemporariness, once asserted, actually tell us about the work itself, if anything? What does it mean to say: “Here’s a work with its finger on the pulse!” What exactly are we talking about here? About form, materials, motif, the general theme of the piece, or how it is perceived? Being in tune with the times tends to be regarded as a badge of quality. Nor can there be any doubt of its centrality to the achievement of widespread recognition – for artists both past and present.

The question of progress in the arts

Lurking behind the question of contemporariness is the question of progress. Paul Feyerabend, the philosopher of science who taught at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich for many years, drew a distinction between quantitative and qualitative progress, defining the former as an absolute and the latter as a relative concept. While quantitative progress increases the total number of things – through inventions, discoveries, new findings and such like – qualitative progress changes their properties.

That the notion of progress is central to the arts is surely beyond dispute. But art history cannot be regarded as “progressive” in the sense of a single line of development in the course of which each new style is overtaken by the next.



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