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October 17, 2013

Frieze London: What Was Contemporary Art?

Posted by: Susan Mai

The Frieze Art Fair in London opens to the public today. Frieze London is unique in that it is one of only a few fairs to focus exclusively on contemporary art and living artists. In What Was Contemporary Art?, Richard Meyer explores the idea of "the contemporary" in art and how to approach its historical contextualization. This excerpt from the Afterward of the book explains Meyer's method in doing so: 

 

In approaching the contemporary as a historical phenomenon, I follow the example of my life partner, the performance scholar and theater historian David Román. In Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing ArtsRomán observes that “critical efforts to theorize the contemporary are often accused of being ‘presentist’: a focus on the contemporary is presumed to come at the expense of history, as if the contemporary could only be understood as antagonistic to the past, or in a mutually exclusive relationship to it.” His 2005 book challenges this presumption by showing that “contemporary performance is itself already embedded in a historical archive of past performances that help contextualize the work in history. In this way, the contemporary participates in an ongoing dialogue with previously contemporary works now relegated to literary history, the theatrical past, or cultural memory.”...Rather than trying to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of the contemporary, Román looked back through recent works to find a wealth of prior performances—from the nineteenth-century saloon songs to golden-era Broadway musicals—embedded within them. In so doing, he revealed how a performance could be both contemporary and historical, both thoroughly up-to-date and deeply archival.

What Was Contemporary Art? has likewise sought to demonstrate the dialectical relationship of (once) current cultural production to the historical past. To do so, it has focused on visual art and its reproduction in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

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