Search online for a definition of contemporary art and you’ll find most articles begin with a variation on this theme: it is the art of today… except no, it’s not nearly so simple. Besides its complex relationship to mass media, the global art market, and the many styles and movements it includes, the very fact of its now-ness makes “the art of today” a hard thing to pin down.
According to Associate Professor Leora Maltz-Leca, contemporary art is not a thing defined by time and place, but actually a process through which, since the 1960s, artists have grappled with the complexities of history. And in the spring seminar The Gradual Contemporary, 13 grad students joined the History of Art and Visual Culture department head in exploring this provocative premise while considering how it relates to their own studio practices.
The Gradual Contemporary arose from the desire of faculty and MFA students for an advanced course with an intense focus on contemporary art theory and history. To provide a holistic view of what contemporary art does and what the stakes are for artists working today, Maltz-Leca built the seminar on a combination of her own lectures and those of several visiting critics and scholars. She argues that despite the many ways of thinking and working these artists employ, “at some level, they are united by a single logic: the impulse to process history.”
How can artists raise awareness of global issues too often ignored by politicians and news media? What does it mean to do so within the institutions of fine art? And what are the ethical dilemmas involved in such efforts? On April 9 students wrestled with big-picture questions like these during a lively discussion with Maltz-Leca and Ara H Merjian, an associate professor at NYU. “What are the limits of empathy?” Merjian asked students in considering how the work of artists like Leon Golub pays witness to war crimes, torture and other atrocities. “What are the limits of the imagination in how history affects bodies?”
“I felt so strongly about this class that I took 18 credits in my final semester,” says graduating painter Molly Kaderka MFA 18 PT, who values Maltz-Leca’s willingness to take on very difficult subject matter. “Leora gave a lecture on the first day and I thought, ‘I need this’—like I couldn’t afford to miss it. This class has really shifted how I think of contemporary art and what the project of contemporary art consists of.”
In addition to leading the seminar, Maltz-Leca also organized the 2018 Graduate Commons lecture series The Gradual Contemporary: Conversations in Contemporary Art, which featured seven public talks during the months of April and May. Part of the appeal of the seminar’s “group chorus” format, she says, lay precisely in being able to share what was happening in the classroom with the greater community of RISD grad students.
Organized in collaboration by leadership in Fine Arts, Liberal Arts and Graduate Studies, and with support from the Robert Lehman Foundation, the series featured speakers like Merjian, art historian Claire Bishop and Our Literal Speed (OLS), a “text and art undertaking” in Selma, AL that claims that “in the 24/7 global information avalanche, art has to do everything in order to do everything.” Noting the charged Q+A sparked by the OLS talk, Kaderka says she was happy the collective took a strong stand on the future of art, regardless of whether it upset some in the audience. “As a grad student and an artist,” she says, “I find controversial statements like that to be really provocative.”
“My hope,” says Maltz-Leca, “is that students emerge from the class with a sense of contemporary art as a vast arena of possibilities” that they can explore throughout their careers. “At the end of the day,” she says, “the potentialities of making remain endless precisely because there exist no rules except those of one’s invention.”
Kaderka says it’s too early to tell how The Gradual Contemporary will change how she thinks and works, but she’s excited to see where everything she has learned takes her. “The questions we raised don’t have easy answers,” she says, “but artists working today need to take them on.”
visit our Livestream page to watch talks in the Gradual Contemporary lecture series