Aspects of the contemporary – a context for thinking about art

In another piece of writing, it was suggested that elements of thinking about art would need to be viewed within some understandings of the contemporary context. What is it about society today that shapes how art is produced, exchanged and consumed? What is unique today about the conditions within which artists work and audiences approach the art made?

What follows are some facets of the contemporary that have been proposed as defining our age (eg the period from the past few decades up to the present). Some of these might also have been put forward as descriptors of earlier periods (eg 1900-1940, or 1960-1980), but what is different now is the scale and pace associated with those elements. Other things are clearly new to the contemporary, with its electronically-driven processes.

These observations have been grouped into three broad groupings that have a high degree of interaction across each other.

Globalised wealth and financial processes

Global finance is able to cross geographical boundaries flexibly, in volumes and at speed. Finance operates by extraction from an increasing range of sources – the monetisation of everything. It is exploitative, in ways that foster faster growing inequalities. Wealth-holding acts as usable assets to create more wealth. While there are financial and social precarity for some, there are riches and security for others – resulting in a stretching of gaps between groups.

There are links between the above and networks of power and politics, rather than wealth and financial processes being isolated activities. Commerce is increasingly via organisations with no necessary geographical responsibilities or locations. There is a constant agglomeration – of ownerships, of wealth and of influence. Things are globally interconnected through trade, deals and ownership, rather than through family or kinship relationships.

Political and social connections to globalisation

There are distinct shifting patterns, including Increases in urbanisation and the influence of cities; wider-scale movements of populations; ongoing colonisations and decolonisations –political, economic and intellectual. Whilst there are similar global trends, the outcomes vary across nationally-focused countries that are in different positions on an economic/social : conservative/liberal matrix.

Old allegiances of modernism are collapsing and new ones being tested out (nationally and locally), with shifts in global trading and political influences (eg resurgence of Russia/China; UK out of EU).

There have been failures of international organisations, leading to a lack of respect for (and understanding of) these. Internationally and nationally, there are reductions in structural checks and balances, separation of powers, etc. In some cases, this has resulted in a greater social acceptance of degrees of wrongdoing.

These processes are playing out against a set of interrelated worldwide concerns: The uneven depletion of basic resources; environmental impacts of people and systems; longer-term global heating having immediate impacts re droughts, fires, floods, migrations; the emergence of new diseases and resistance to existing methods of dealing with disease; new forms of conflict; generational, geographical and cultural disparities; and others.

In the UK (as elsewhere) control increasingly sits within tighter groups and more limited circles. At government, and population, levels there is little thinking in terms of surface mechanisms being the results of economic, political and ideological structured processes. Politics is pushed forward via slogans (Left behind; Levelling up; Take Back Control; Build Back Better etc). There are descriptions, explorations and hopes rather than precise predictions and commitments. Illusions are held in place via promises – a Plan, Proposal, Review, Investigation etc – yet nothing happens quickly, so progress gets overtaken by time or events. Things tend to move, if at all, in response to pragmatic tactics rather than principled policies.

There are contradictions: Civil society is characterised by some all-pervading processes of state incorporation and co-option, yet there is a rhetoric of the value of the Small State. There is a blurring of Public and Private. There is increased centralism coupled to degrees of localisation and regional/city devolution.

The political landscape is changing as society changes. This creates an impression of a post-political society with limited potential for change through forms of political activity. At the same time, there is an increasing concern with micro-politics, as new ways of living and new views of identity opens up different possibilities for social and political change.

On-the-ground experiences

In general, in many places, there are common experiences that, collectively, describe life in contemporary society.

One outcome of deliberate or recurring austerities is the withdrawal of social supports coupled with an increased reliance on social gestures and volunteer activity. A common feature of many locations is a lack of sufficient housing of appropriate kinds, at affordable prices, and with a degree of security.

Life, learning and work are subject to more surveillance, monitoring, assessment and constraints. In an era of Big Data, there is a bureaucratic collection and use of personal information, with little understanding of how or why.

Some aspects of social life change with such scale and pace that this creates a sense that everything is inevitable: nothing can be done about things; things feel all too much. Surface simplicities cover hidden excesses. Especially at times like these, taken-for-granteds get called into question. Generational experiences are moderated less via communal cultures/ shared experiences. Rationality does not feel to be enough, or necessary, to tackle issues of the day. Stances, beliefs, feelings and subjectivities get used as starting points for discussions and actions.

No-one seems accountable within the spaghetti of relationships and authorities, with a lack of transparencies and clarities. The greater scale, reach and complexity of issues produce varying resistances. These in turn easily generate more militarised policing, anti-protest compliance legislation, and inconsistent enforcement.

The electronic automation of routines in jobs, decision-making, choices and options comes with little understanding of the mechanisms involved: life is determined by black box processes, algorithms, artificial intelligence, etc.

Things thus always appear to be on brink of being out-of-control, producing heightened generalised anxieties at personal and social levels.

With the accelerated use of the internet and smart devices, on-line activity can feel as important as activities in real life in terms of information, contact, transactions, and personal and social attitudes. There are more channels of communication; things get less easy to find; there is restricted access for some. There can be more information and less intelligent knowledge.

Electronic storage capacity supports the accumulation of ‘stuff’ – more things, words and pictures than ever before – and quickly supplanted by even more. Media becomes saturated with images and words: Life gets filled with images of images of images. There is wider accessibility to many things – open source, open access, lifestyle influencers, citizen journalism, YouTube and blogs – easily liked via surface responses. It may not be real, yet it is all there is. People struggle to keep up.

Society is characterised by fewer grand narratives. These are replaced by lots of small narratives with non-linear developments. This fits with the more diverse and multicultural nature of contemporary societies. Objects and attitudes are seen as coming with deep historical contexts. Whilst these can be discounted by some, there is increased recognition of gazes (white/ male/ etc), of visibilities and invisibilities, of the ways things are seen and made to be seen. Widened varieties of cultural forms carry varied ideas of ‘good’, ‘worthwhile’ etc. One development has been the hybridisation of cultures but also some polarisation of social attitudes (including extremism and fundamentalism of various kinds) alongside a recent overall liberalisation of social attitudes.  

In contexts like these there are no fixed truths but a range of constructed truths as alternative narratives. Outside of some personal bubble there can, to some, appear to be few trusted sources of information. The general trend makes it harder to sort news and fake news, and the very existence of fake news becomes the news.

Reductions in the influence of traditional organisations and structures can sit alongside increases in individualism. Not only is there a heightened sense of Self in contemporary society, there is also a recognition that the self can come with multiple, unstable, fluid identities. Along a number of axes, boundaries collapse, distinctions blur and shift. It is harder to categorise things (including art/not art).

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