Still contemporary art



Excerpt, selected by the author, from the recently published book.

Among traces and remains

Reflection on what is designated as contemporary art strives to answer the question: what is happening, what are we talking about when we have as a reference the today that shapes us? Thus, Giorgio Agamben, speaks of the obscurity of the present, obscurity and not obscuration, as in lights; Jacques Lacan of art as the thought of opacity, saying that it “could name what cannot be seen”, appearing “as a way of formalizing the irreducibility of the non-conceptual, as the thought of opacity”[I] and Giles Deleuze, that the work of art has nothing to do with communication and that this is where its resistance comes from, “even if it is not the only thing that resists”.[ii]

The growing interest in art, perhaps motivated by the belief that it is a privileged way of communicating and knowing reality, also obscures the idea that art, contrary to what is often expected of it, is not for To be understood, it is not knowledge, it is a kind of enigma, or an event, immediately impenetrable, that asks to be elucidated.

We know that, after the avant-garde bets on the possibilities of the new and rupture, after experimentation was pushed to its limits, as occurred in the visual arts with conceptual and minimalist radicalizations – in which the idea of ​​creation, the image of the artist, the art system, the processes and procedures – the diffusion and generalization of art, that is, the aestheticization process, with the pre-eminence of the commodity form, provoked, as one of the most important consequences, the establishment of art as culture .

In this, what is emphasized is the way in which works and events are presented, in which style becomes the value, making it very difficult to recognize the specificity of artistic objects. Due to the widespread aestheticization, including of ways of life, “everything is art or artifice”.[iii] Thus, faced with the loss of historical perspective that gave credibility to the avant-gardes, contemporary art navigates indeterminacy, for better and for worse.

At the same time that due to the depressing of production effected by modernist operations everything became possible for the aesthetic experience, once freed from conventions, ideas that carry truth, demands of representation and the imperative of becoming an autonomous sphere[iv], the affirmation of its presence is full of ambiguities: on the one hand, the emphasis on the process and not on the work; on the other, the difficulty in articulating, or reconciling, the inevitability of the market for symbolic goods and critical reason, on the one hand, the demands of communication and on the other, the incommensurable nature of aesthetic experience.

However, modern work has left traces: although creation often claims the new, it is not difficult to verify that where experimentation shows interest in it, it recognizes not the promises of the new, but the tension of modern signs, processes or devices, still active, projected in new conditions of production, circulation and criticism. Hence, the critical impulse to trace its marks, ruins, remains – not what remains, an allusion to a transcendent reality.

Traces and remains do not refer to a supposed fragmented unity, nor only to the most immediate marks of expression of a self; they imply properly aesthetic formalization, inscription of signs in which processes of subjectivation, ways of life, possibilities of existence, becomings are recognized.[v]

The investigation into the importance of the traces of modern processes in contemporary art, the traces of modern works, the remains of the inscription of art in reality, is archaeological, and this includes the process of remembering these traces and elaborating the remains of modern work – forgotten, buried, erased. But, although remembering with Baudelaire that the remains of modernity are in the key of the eternal, being, therefore, what resists the most, and that the traces in the fungible, and, therefore, of the contingent, it does not absolutely mean that we are affirming the simple permanence of the modern or that our current situation lives off its decadence.

Expanding the question, Jean-Luc Nancy asks “if all art does not manifest its nature or its commitment in the best possible way when it becomes a vestige of itself: when, removed from the greatness of the works that give rise to worlds, it seems outdated, showing only its passage” – as in the museum, “where it remains as a past, and there it is as if in passage, between places of life and presence that perhaps, probably most of the time, it will never reach again”.[vi]

It is such a passage, in the traces of the disappearance of art itself, of the mutation of the concept of art, of the work of art and of the artist, in which the work of elaboration takes place, where the process matters more than the results. The meaning of contemporary work lies in this line: in the investigation involved in the fact that “art is today its own trace”,[vii] meaning to be continually carried out in the elaboration (Durcharbeitung) that when carried out on modern work it functions as a process compared to that of psychoanalytic therapy, in which there is an attempt to elaborate a given present disturbance by freely associating it with apparently inconsistent elements of past situations; a “work dedicated to thinking about what in the event and the meaning of the event is constitutively hidden from us, not only by past pre-judgments, but also by the dimensions of the future that are projects, programs, prospects”.[viii]

In order not to simply repeat the modern process, and in the impossibility of surpassing it, moving experiences beyond the historical circumscription that validated inventions, ruptures, negativity, contemporary work focuses on the reinscription of what remains active in an open field of possibilities. As Ronaldo Brito rightly says, there is no such thing as contemporary art; What exists is a contemporary space that does not have “a clear figure, with fully defined scopes”, understood as “a discontinuous, mobile beam, exerted in tension with the limits of modernity, interested in understanding and overcoming these limits” , establishing itself as a place “only and radically reflective (…) its material is, therefore, productive reflection on the still living, pulsating history of modern work”.[ix]

This analytical attitude, a listening process that goes through the ruins of modern projects and experiences, inquires into the possibility of other temporalities that open up to an impressionable meaning. The thematization of works, theories and projects from the time of promises, aims to configure modern strategies and probe contemporary tactics that make up a field of resonances, of intensities, that force thought, that sharpen our sensitivity to differences; probe a certain critical orientation that wants to account for what remains of art by reaffirming the power of invention that, although carried out in the modern past, would survive.

Welcoming the remains, accentuating the traces of modern propositions and activities, especially the gestures of the avant-garde – without, however, giving in to certain restorative maneuvers that aim for aestheticizing purposes to eternalize the elusive, emphasizing the manner, styles of presentation of works of art and of the things associated with them – an attempt is made to clarify the contemporary situation of art, its immanent becoming and the profound transformation of the system. This work, about the ruins of modernity, develops amidst countless ambiguities, mainly those that result from its imprisonment in theaters of memory.[X] In these, history is not treated as an open, discontinuous and non-teleological process of artistic and cultural systems but as formation.

Tracing the traces of art with a view to a critical resumption or remaking of its institutional aspect is essential, but not sufficient to understand contemporary transformations, as it can only make up for the lack of ideal and utopia with totalizing reconstitutions where only practices and processes exist. singular. This nostalgic procedure comes from the insertion of fragments arising from the dispersion caused by modern work into illusory, retrospective or idealized totalities to come.

The tendency that, in the name of a standardized public reception, erects the recent past, the multiplicity of modern work, with everything it had to disperse, in a territory of consensus, which in no way contributes to facing the obscurity of the present. This is also a certain postmodern attitude that, due to the loss of the evidentiary value of art, tries to impose some substitute for the disappearance of its object.

This is why it is observed that the perplexity that comes from the indeterminacy and obscurity of what appears as art today, often secretes hopes for the recovery of ideas, processes and references as the only way out for the permanence of art. Under the name of rescue, one hears the voice of nostalgia for a time that promised some completeness: everything was yet to be done, especially reinventing art and relationships with life. Modern work itself is thus erased, especially the historicity of avant-garde operations.

Instead of archeology, focused on the reconstruction of objects, processes and problems, the rescued elements are included in a kind of museum of the remains of modernity.[xi] And with this, we proceed with a reconstitution of continuities within the horizon of a totality, confusing historical interest – reinterpretation of tradition and reciprocal links with modernity – with the recovery of facts, ideas and processes retranslated into norms, as if relating to a unity of experience. Although expressing historiographical interest, this attitude focuses primarily on referents, which, when absolutized and glamorized, neutralize or fetishize historical moments, phases, times. This quickly replaces the longing for the future with nostalgia for the past: restoration.

However, if the ongoing museographic emphasis, multiplying theaters of memory, has as one of its causes the weakening of the symbolic, especially in forms of communication that invest memory as an instance of reconstitution, it is important to reflect on the conditions evident in modernity that would justify the present reality of art as a place that is established in the interval between the updating of past forms, processes and procedures and new productive forces, such as those derived from scientific and technological advances. In this way, remembrance disconnects from the emphasis on reconciliation with foundations, concepts and forms criticized by modern experience, confirming itself as a work of elaboration of the past.

But, as Jean Luc Lyotard warns, remembering is not repairing – as if it were necessary to “identify the crimes, the sins, the calamities engendered by the modern device, and, finally, reveal the destiny that an oracle, at the beginning of modernity, had prepared and consummated in our history”[xii]. It is, therefore, in the past and in the present, not to suppress events, as these, in order not to leave the present unquestioned, expose its wound: its intractable, untimely nature.

If it is true that modernity criticized the autonomy of the aesthetic process, making negativity the principle and justification of its operations, and if the postulation of an artistic contemporaneity aims to elaborate modern virtualities, it is strange that, even after the historical conditions that They allowed artists to play with the art system and the desire for social transformation, even though they intended to give efficacy – negativity – to the same devices that promised emancipation. In this situation, in which the new no longer operates transformations in systems, experimentalism generally promotes re-updates, as if the contemporary could be understood as something beyond the modern.

Even so, it is possible to spot symptomatic works in the dispersion of contemporary artistic activity that indicate transformations; avoiding spectacularity, they do not refer to filling the void, proposing some substitute for the disappearance of the object of art, works that are not immediately susceptible to exchange. By reiterating modern processes, they aim at nexuses and tensions, disseminated in modern devices, not to re-update forms, themes and materials that recall the impulse that commanded them. Reiteration, in these works, refers to modern ruptures to elucidate them, de-idealizing them.[xiii]

These are reflective works that play with the indeterminacy of meaning; they do not operate already established rules and categories, they try to establish the rules and categories of what was done.[xiv] Sometimes acting against easy resources and virtuosity – visible in re-updates, citations and decontextualized use of modern resources – they avoid the rhetoric of excess or refined technique; now exposing the almost impossibility of articulating images, they affirm a “certain relationship between thought and non-thought, of a certain presence of thought in the materiality of the sensitive, of the involuntary in conscious thought and of the meaning of the insignificant”.[xv]

Since the avant-gardes, the displacement of art – of the idea of ​​art, of its practices and historical becoming – was responsible for the reconfiguration of artistic activity and aesthetic reflection, focusing on artistic experience, on the thought of art and on the relationships between art and life. Since Marcel Duchamp, the question has been asked: what kind of experience is one looking for in art, since art stopped offering knowledge and beauty to present itself as a continuous exercise in disorientation that has repercussions on an aestheticization oriented towards ways of living, of inhabiting spaces, of acting politically, so that for a long time now, it is in life itself, not in its representations, that the work of art is located.

The art that emerged from modern experimentation, said Rauschemberg, was intended to “act in the void that separates art from life,”[xvi] that is, to explore the artistic inscription of the old theme of the relationship between art and reality today, when the idea of ​​reality has been so expanded that there is no longer the possibility of being the referent to any possible totalizing representation, as in the art of representation, of so that it is always saying that what you are seeing is not what you are seeing, this is the secret of the between.

Therefore, in this reflection, the term “contemporary art” does not obviously refer to all that would be produced artistically in a period that would follow the modern period, the one in which we live. The designation is intended to be a sign of a reiterated border act, which always tends to thematize this limit, “between what is admissible in the field of art and what is not, or is not yet (…) in order to make it perceptible and conscious (…) This constant questioning of the boundaries of artistic admissibility – the constantly renewed interrogation – is taken up by the dynamics of relations between the artist who tries to be transgressive, the indignant public and the institution (galleries, museums, cultural administrations , critics…), striving to redesign an expanded border”.[xvii]

So: if art, says someone, “should descend upon people like a cloud”; and if, as another says, “thoughts are clouds”, reflection can only intensify attention on the singularity of the things of art and on the specificity of the “thought carried out by works of art”, in an attempt to cross, if possible, the borders of opacity and indeterminacy – “the irreducibility of the non-conceptual”.[xviii]

*Celso Favaretto is an art critic, retired professor at the Faculty of Education at USP and author, among other books, of The invention of Helio Oiticica (Edusp).


Celso Favaretto. Still contemporary art. São Paulo, n-1 editions, 2023, 304 pages.


[I] See AGAMBEN, G. What is contemporary? and other trials. Trans. Vinícius N. Honeslo. Chapecó-SC: Argos, 2009, p. 62; See SAFLATE, V. The passion of the negative. São Paulo: Unesp, 2006, p. 274. (

[ii] DELEUZE, G. “The act of creation”. Trans. José M. Macedo, Folha de S.Paulo – More!, 27/06/99, p. 5

[iii] See LYOTARD, J.-F. Postmodern moralities. Trans. Marina Appenzeller. Campinas, SP: Papirus, 1996, p. 27, 31.

[iv] AMEY, C. “Aesthetic experience and communicative action”. New Cebrap Studies, no. 29, March, 1991, p. 143.

[v] See DELEUZE, G. Conversations. Trans. PP Pelbart. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. 34, 1992, p. 178, 183.

[vi] NANCY, J.-L. “The trace of art”. In – HUCHET, S. (Org). Fragments of a theory of art. Trans. Mary Amazonas Leite de Barros. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2012, p. 289.

[vii] id. ib. p.304.

[viii] LYOTARD, J.-F. The postmodern explained to children. Trans. Teresa Coelho. Lisbos: Dom Quixote, 1987, p. 97; L'inhumain. Paris: Galilée, 1988, p. 35.

[ix] BRITO, R. “The modern and the contemporary: the new and the other new”. Contemporary Brazilian Art- Text Notebooks-1.Rio de Janeiro: FUNARTE, 1980, p. 6,8; test included in Critical Experience (Org. Sueli de Lima). São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2005, p. 79, 85.

[X] JEUDY, H.-P. Communication tricks. Trans. LF Baêta Neves. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1990, p. 17.

[xi] JEUDY, H.-P. Op. cit., p. 126.

[xii] LYOTARD, J.-F. L'inhumain. Paris: Galilée, 1988, p. 36.

[xiii] Idem. “The modern and the contemporary: the new and the other new”. Contemporary Brazilian Art. Textbook- 1, P. 6-7; Critical experience, p.81.

[xiv] LYOTARD, J.-F. Op. cit., p. 26.

[xv] RANCIÈRE, J. The aesthetic unconscious. Trans. Monica Costa Netto. São Paulo: Ed. 34, 2009, p. 10-11.

[xvi] COMOLI, J.-P. L'art sans qualités. Tours: Farrago, 1999, p. 63.

[xvii] Cf. GALARD, J. Exorbitant beauty. Trans. Iraci D. Poleti. São Paulo: Ed. Unifesp, 2012, p. 61.

[xviii] Cf., respectively, TEIXEIRA COELHO. The man who lives. São Paulo: Iluminuras, 2010, p. 191; LYOTARD, J.-F. Pilgrimages. Trans. Marina Appenzellee. São Paulo: Estação Liberdade, 2000; RANCIÈRE, J. The aesthetic unconscious. Trans. Monica Costa Netto. São Paulo: Ed. 34, 2009, p. 13; SAFLATE, V. , loc.cit.

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