Contemporary art in three periods

Guillermo Kuitca. Work from the series “Nobody Forgets Nothing”, 1982


Considerations about Ricardo Fabbrini’s recently released book


In the aesthetic debate, there is a convention that conceives modern art as that which began in the mid-1970th century and ended in the XNUMXs, having been succeeded by contemporary or “post-modern” art. As Ricardo Fabbrini rightly points out in Contemporary art in three periods, this way of looking at art takes historical development as something progressive, with artistic expressions distributed chronologically in a single timeline with only one direction and meaning.

In the post-war period, with the end of the historical avant-gardes of the beginning of the century and the rise of the so-called post-modernism, this linear history seems to have come to an end, as demonstrated by the resumption of the Hegelian thesis of the end of art. The book we now have in our hands is, in a way, a critical response to this agonistic nature of the image.

Through the interweaving of three temporal sections, the author invites us to delve into the destiny of an art that, despite seeming to have no place of its own or a suitable time, persists. With writing that addresses numerous theoretical references without losing clarity, Ricardo Fabbrini exposes the debate regarding contemporary art while at the same time resorting to the immanent analysis of various works. Thus, the book proves valuable both for those not yet familiar with the aesthetic debate, as well as for specialists.

Starting from Giorgio Agamben, Ricardo Fabbrini deprives the idea of ​​“contemporaneity” of a strict temporal dimension, understanding what is contemporary in art is the power of negativity and resistance of certain works in the face of their time. Contemporary – and, therefore, critical – are those works that keep “their gaze fixed on the present” and “interpellate it without ceasing”. Despite the label that the arts circuit gives to this or that artist and style, the look must turn to the work itself, to the way in which it can produce an image that resists and fractures “the order of clichés or simulacra” in the midst of to the racketeering of mass culture.


In the first essay of the book, “1970s-1980s: modern and postmodern”, Fabbrini focuses on the decline of the artistic avant-gardes and the idea of ​​modern art. In this new era, “the impetus and strategies of the historical vanguards” no longer find effectiveness or meaning. The contemporary imagination since the post-war period lacks belief in the utopian-revolutionary powers of art, so praised by the avant-gardists at the beginning of the century. In this way, the late avant-gardes that concentrated in the United States from the 1960s onwards can be seen as “post-utopian”.

The almost obsessive search for the new and the attempt to break with artistic tradition, common to all these moments of modern art, now no longer took place in a disruptive way, but in an abstract withdrawal of the artistic form in its own field. Despite such differences, both the late avant-garde and the utopian-revolutionary aimed at the blurring between art and life, in an attempt to aestheticize the real by disseminating art in everyday life.

In the 1980s, the very idea of ​​avant-garde, already reformulated so much, seemed outdated. With the process of institutionalization and integration of modern art and its most radical expressions, the definition of certain artistic trends as counter-hegemonic becomes precarious. The different and the new, more than ever, are finding a predominantly domesticated place in the arts circuit. The transformative impetus, already weakened in an era without utopia, had weakened even further. In this scenario, the end of the avant-garde was associated with the end of art itself, a discussion that permeates all of Ricardo Fabbrini's work and that goes back to Hegelian aesthetics.

Using Fredric Jameson, the author shows us how the late post-war avant-gardes were interpreted as empty artistic forms and incapable of elaborating any negativity in the face of reality. In a break with modern art and the heroic avant-gardes, the so-called “post-modernity” framed the work in another regime of perception, which no longer produces the experience of the sublime and has lost the impetus to resist the real and its determinations. In addition to Fredric Jameson, Jean-François Lyotard and Jürgen Habermas would also identify such a decline, although the latter still tried to save modern art from its fate. In them, this new time weakened the impetus of negativity in art.

Ricardo Fabbrini takes a stand in this debate. According to him, it is wrong to see the end of the avant-garde as a symptom of the death of art or even modern art. In fact, we observed the decline of a type of artistic production that depended on a conception of temporality that no longer exists, namely, that based on the belief in progress and Utopia. In this sense, art is not dead. What was radically transformed was the idea (and the possibility) of a certain type of art, modern, programmatic and avant-garde.

By insisting on this non-linear understanding of the unfolding of artistic language, Ricardo Fabbrini escapes the bonds of “isms” and their temporal succession in a supposedly progressive history. As he argues, art neither evolves nor regresses: it changes. The supposed end of art, in fact, is the end of the avant-garde and the modern idea of ​​art. However, the author comments that the prefix “post” would not be appropriate to define this new configuration of art, as it presupposes a kind of discarding and overcoming of modern tradition, which is not the case. As Jürgen Habermas had already pointed out in his reflections on architecture, even post-war art pursues, whether it wants to or not, “the modern ideology” and its dilemmas.

Ricardo Fabbrini also analyzes the echoes of the end of the avant-garde in philosophy, especially the French. Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, for example, would be the greatest representatives of a philosophy that approached post-utopian artistic language through the use of a discourse that was not only radically essayistic, but also deconstructivist. For many, like Paulo Arantes in his description of “French ideology”, this philosophy largely consisted of rhetorical outbursts without coherence, in a type of innocuous textual elaboration, closer to literature than to the philosophical field itself. As in the arts, this philosophy would also have lost a good deal of its critical element.

Despite this constellation of authors who identify in the different facets of the vague “post-modernism” a decline in negativity and traces of a certain neoconservatism, Ricardo Fabbrini shifts his attention from this abstract level to the immanence and logic of the works of art themselves produced from the 1970s, in order to investigate “to what extent singular works reveal, since the end of the avant-garde, a 'critical and oppositional potential'” (p.34).

Following the image used by Andreas Huyssen, Ricardo Fabbrini seeks in some works the possibilities of artistic work created on the ruins of the edifice of modernity. Under this key, we could escape the limited understanding of “modern art”, taken not as an innocuous and random set of signs, as Fredric Jameson points out, but as a “post-avant-garde art”, structured in a new time and which, therefore, , requires new strategies in the face of reality. Among the artists who exemplify this moment, we have Guillermo Kuitca, Mimmo Paladino and Anselm Kiefer.

In radical post-avant-garde art, the biggest challenge is to resist the fetishization of the image through a formal immanence that produces a still unknown landscape – a different way of becoming in the face of the homogeneous sea of ​​mass culture. Since the 1970s, the society of hypervisibility has imposed on art the urgency of producing an image that does not contain everything previously digested, but that retains something enigmatic and that forces the subject to be sensitive to differences, to that which escapes the norm. Faced with the bankruptcy of the avant-garde and its historical time, we do not have “the denial of the powers of denial of art, but the need to think about them in another way” (p. 51). Ricardo Fabbrini returns to this question at the end of the book.


In the second essay of the book “Years 1990-2000: art and life”, the author deals with the new strategies of post-avant-garde art in mixing art and life. The main theoretical reference mobilized is that of relational art, elaborated by Nicolas Bourriaud. If in the 1980s the reaction to the extreme formalism of the late avant-garde was predominant, the following decade would see a “return to the real” far from traditional artistic languages, such as painting or sculpture. To reestablish the links between art and life, the focus fell on installations, happenings and other fluid experiences that are difficult to conceptually frame. Since then, a participatory art open to the indeterminate has been insisted upon.

The return of the aesthetic experience to what is initially external to it – the real, the social and the political – occurs, in the relational proposal, not under the sign of reconciliation between art and life, but of a constitutive tension that produces in everyday life. “possible alterities”. According to Ricardo Fabbrini, Nicolas Bourriaud bets on a type of operative realism that turns to “everyday utopia” in order to create alternative spaces and temporalities.

Among some examples of relational art, we have Palm Pavilion (2006-08), by Rirkrit Tiravanija and the work-situation Turkish Jokes (1994) by Jens Haaning. In the latter, the artist installed a loudspeaker on a street in Copenhagen and another in Bordeaux. In them, jokes were broadcast in Turkish and Arabic. As a result, only speakers of these languages ​​approached and remained there, forming groups as a kind of “temporary sculpture” (p. 64).

In the production of these alterities, the figure of the artist is also redefined, compared to the prototypical model of the avant-garde. The “relational artist”, for Nicolas Bourriaud, is capable of inventing paths because he himself is a nomad who refuses to plant his roots in one place. Symptom of the transformations of the globalized world itself, now it is the artist who moves between different realities and the work that opens up to such multiplicity, in a different scheme from the teleological content of art that was directed towards an abstract utopia and outside of time, now archived.

Despite the importance of relational art for aesthetic production and debate in the 1990s, Ricardo Fabbrini also discusses the criticism that this conception received, especially that of Jacques Rancière. For him, this new conception of artistic creation replaced the focus on the artistic form with the forms of social relations. As a consequence, the tension between art and life (or social world) was dissolved to such an extent that the former became a mere extension of reality, without the possibility of criticizing it.

The public, in turn, replicates this same relaxed continuity. In front of the works, the viewer behaves like a “cultural consumer”, a user who relates to the art like the other goods offered. Furthermore, the supposedly “alternative” situations created in many of the relational works would result, for Rancière, in artificial spaces of political consensus, notably forced and residual, as a parody of real society. Politics, originally a space for dissent, would be the scene of unlimited “social tolerance”. Following Rancière, Fabbrini argues that the sociability achieved in such situations is generally “glamorized, surveilled, fictitious because factitious” (p. 73).

In addition to relational art, other formulations sought to support the importance of counter-hegemonic community experiences. According to Ricardo Fabbrini, Michel Foucault's notion of heterotopia goes in this direction. Unlike utopias, which referred to undefined and non-existent spaces and temporalities, heterotopias would be “counterpositions in real places”, effective and singular experiences that would offer another temporal and spatial regime, an escape from machinic logic and technical reason.

Among the types listed by Michel Foucault, Ricardo Fabbrini pays attention to the “heterotopias of deviation”, close to the situationist experience and its poetic gesture of opening fissures and overcoming the very notion of a work of art.

In such situations, a new relationship of forces, which escapes the common determinations of both aesthetics and the social world, becomes possible. Among the examples listed by Michel Foucault is the “great boat of the 85th century”, representing a fragmented and floating space, “a place without a place with its own life” (p.XNUMX). The French author also identified “heterochronies” capable of operating the same displacement, but in the temporal dimension. In some, like libraries and museums, time accumulates infinitely; in others, like festivals and fairs, time is fleeting, founded on its own dissolution.

Faced with such contributions from Michel Foucault, artists and critics took on the task of creating new figures of time and space that could be “experienced experimentally”, in order to “imagine other possible worlds, in the very act of living them in common , materially and affectively, for a certain time” (p. 91). This ideal of a free community also became central in the discussion of other authors, such as Giorgio Agambem and his “community of any being” or Roland Barthes and his “Utopia of Living-Together”.

However, it was once again Jacques Rancière who explored this notion in a more consistent way, understanding the aesthetic community as a kind of “sharing of the sensible”. Taking conflict as its defining feature, Jacques Rancière assumes that this community is formed by “precarious subjects” and “occasional actors” who dispute the distribution of places and arrangements in a provisional moment of suspension of domination.

In this key, the resistance of art becomes possible through the support of this conflict, in which “the unity of the given and the evidence of the visible” is fractured (p. 109). In a way, the community becomes the possible space for experimenting with the indeterminate, as opposed to the fully administered society. This community power, in short, extracts what is most revolutionary in the collective sharing of the sensitive. For this reason, it is also political, a kind of aesthetic community of becoming.

Amid such discussions, numerous artists in the 1990s redirected the utopian imagination of modernism, aimed at a future society, towards new ways of inhabiting our world and present. Hence the propositional and laboratory character of many works, which aim for a type of living together that establishes a connection with reality based on the denial of the regressive traits of hegemonic sociability. Ricardo Fabbrini chooses as an example of such attempts the “poetics of risk” of Teatro da Vertigem, as in the experiences BR 3 (2005) and Bom Retiro: 958 meters (2012)


In the last essay of the book, “2010-2020 years: image and cliché”, Ricardo Fabbrini comments on the latest developments in the long and often announced agonistic nature of image. Faced with the unbridled proliferation of a new type of total and omnipresent image, Deleuze enunciated the “civilization of the cliché. Jean Baudrillard, in turn, listed the simulacrum as the prototype of this new image modality. In the society of total simulation and hyper-real, the simulacrum image hides nothing and presents everything. Typical of digital screens, the simulacrum is taken by Jean Baudrillard as the image of a supposedly flawless world, which coldly fascinates the viewer, without retaining any of the old romantic seduction of modern art that clings to illusion and the existence of something hidden.

Despite displaying everything, the logic of the simulacrum establishes a model without origin or reality. Founded on an unavoidable paradox, the era of hypervisibility makes reality invisible, distant and inaccessible. In this way, Jean Baudrillard diagnoses a retraction in the possibility of representing the world through images in a way other than that of the excessive apology for what exists. According to Ricardo Fabbrini, we would once again be “witnessing the agony of art, or more precisely an agony”, taken as “the decisive moment in which a conflict takes place over the fate of images” (p. 139). In the midst of so much transparency, how can you produce an image that still holds some secret?

The search for this image of resistance, for Ricardo Fabbrini, could be exemplified by the work of the blind philosopher and photographer Evgen Bacvar. Through their practice, we would have an example of “these artists’ efforts to recover the power of vision, reacting to the saturation of signs that neutralizes everything” (p. 132-133). The power of negativity in art, in this sense, would be that of the gesture that opens the image to the contingency. In the photographs of Nan Goldin and Anna Mariani, for example, we would also see a destabilization of the referential, with the establishment of a tension between the representative and the indexical. This zone of indiscernibility, in short, is the locus of aesthetic resistance that would guarantee the survival of images. Ricardo Fabbrini also identifies expressions of this impetus in cinema and contemporary theater, as in the installation Dinge Stifters (2015), by Heiner Goebbels.

Using Gilles Deleuze, Ricardo Fabbrini comments on how the philosopher chose filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard as the one who most stressed the hegemonic image and proposed a “drama of perception”. By breaking with the conventions of cinematic language, Godard extracted from cliché images “another image” that forced thought and broke with the “horizon of the probable”. In this way, he released the non-communicative force of the image. Goodbye to language (2014), according to Ricardo Fabbrini, would be a good model of an “inventory of the aesthetic possibilities opened up by digital video”, which returns to images what has not yet been thought of.

An image that resists is one, therefore, that not only preserves something, but that delays enjoyment, interrupts the flow of the total machine and the superficiality of luminous and digital images and attests, despite everyone saying otherwise, the fundamental importance of “ waste of time". Only in this way would we have “the denial of the temporality of the production of capitalist simulacra and consumption” (p. 152).

Aware of both the limits and possibilities that contemporary art faces, Ricardo Fabbrini argues that “the ethical and aesthetic challenge of art criticism is to select enigmatic images amidst the performativity of simulacra (or clichés)” in circulation. Instead of hovering over the history of the works and judging them externally, the critic starts from the work itself and its time to warn “the risk of the dissolution already underway, of art in communication” (p. 144). The enigma-image, however, does not recover the same radicality as the avant-garde, but inaugurates a new type of aesthetic negativity that, in the face of cataloging instrumental reason, establishes a zone of opacity that is not easily defined.

If Utopia was once the manifest desire that drove the avant-garde, the attestation of its bankruptcy on the observable horizon becomes one of the sources of criticism. Surrounded by a constellation of requiems, typical of an era of discouragement, the indeterminate remains open in works that take their own limits as an immanent problem, which operate fissures in capitalist and neoliberal spatiality and temporality.

Contemporary with the “latent apocalypse”, art endowed with negativity operates as an index of possible alterities. In the end, even under a new figure, it seems that something utopian survives.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.


Ricardo Fabbrini. Contemporary art in three periods. Essays Collection. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2024, 174 pages. []

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