The initial shock of Duchamp and Warhol’s rupturing of aesthetics has long worn off—still, it reverberates. It’s become commonplace to refer to our own era, in art and otherwise, as postmodern, though no one can really agree on what that means. Mr. Davis goes with the “semi-post-post-modern condition,” in which grand narratives, from economics to culture, have been discredited, though no credible alternative has arisen. He blames lazy, out-of-touch academics.
Among Mr. Davis’s targets is the philosopher Jacques Rancière, who in his latest book, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 304 pp., $29.95), attempts to dramatize what’s at stake in the aesthetic. He offers up 14 episodes, from 1764 to 1941, in which there were shifts in what was presented and understood as art, and how these demarcated, and even facilitated, larger changes. He maintains that “social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution.” Mr. Rancière is short on specifics about how this all works (the translation by Zakir Paul veers between thrilling and indecipherable), but he does succeed in exploding the idea of modernism as a single, tidy movement—shifts in perception happen when codes of art are blurred and erased, not when they follow logically, as the critic Clement Greenberg had it.
One of the more interesting paths out of the po-mo morass is offered by philosopher Peter Osborne in Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (Verso, 288 pp., $29.95). He sets his sights on the term contemporary art and decides that its key feature is not so much that it is postmodern as that it’s post-conceptual, marked by the coming and going of Conceptual art in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s a shift similar to Mr. Danto’s, but Mr. Osborne (who also goes after Mr. Rancière for his focus on the aesthetic) emphasizes specific criteria for evaluating the contemporariness of contemporary art. Since “art is a privileged cultural carrier of contemporaneity,” he reasons, “it has become incumbent upon any art with a claim on the present to situate itself, reflexively, within this expanded field.”
The clarity of his thesis is not helped by huge doses of Heidegger, but in effect Mr. Osborne argues that truly trenchant contemporary art is marked by very specific (and nebulous) characteristics that reflect its contemporaneity, like the crossing of mediums, the malleability of historical and geographic borders, “an infinity” of possible materials and other attributes. And, importantly, they have conceptual elements while not being wholly subsumed to pure idea. (Historical role models, for him, are Gordon Matta-Clark’s wild architectural projects, which live on in their documentation, and Robert Smithson’s radical land works, which change over time.)
As Mr. Danto notes, philosophers—and, I would add, art critics—always face the danger of mistaking changes in style for real distinctive philosophical attributes of art’s character. But it feels like Mr. Osborne’s onto something. By the high standards that he sets, the firm majority of what is labeled contemporary art today would fail to measure up. Which sounds about right. And at the same time, he is perhaps not so far from Mr. Davis and even Mr. Rancière when he argues that “contemporary art models experimental practices of negation that puncture horizons of expectation.” Put simply, art, the most endlessly mutable of all disciplines, can make suggestions, enacting experiences not possible in other realms.
The modern era, whatever it was, lasted two centuries. It will take some time to sort out the present one. All the while, as Mr. Danto writes, some aspect of art remains steady, a notion Reno sums up in The Flamethrowers. Making art, she says, “was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.”