Book Review

The prolific César Aira, celebrated for his outrageous bibliography of more than eighty meandering, philosophical texts, attempts in On Contemporary Art to define the threshold between art as it has been historically understood and its current catchall “contemporary” categorization. In this essay, Aira, a self-proclaimed “classical character,” explores the effects of “reproduction” on art (including photography and word-of-mouth) and how this has led to the obsolescence of a work’s individuality and the emergence of a new kind of viewing.

On Contemporary Art isn’t a critique of its subject but a discussion of its situation. Today, the idea of demarcating artistic movements has faded; after a century of artists, academics and critics culturally categorizing every new wave (die Brücke, de Stijl, Postimpressionism, Neo-Expressionism, and so on), Aira declares “the carnival of names [has] been shut down” and replaced by an empty, auction house-approved label. Per Aira, Contemporary Art is not defined by its creators or its critics but by its consumers, defined by how it’s seen—in part by foot traffic, hype, and a work’s accessibility via print and digital media. Today, we can evaluate art and form an opinion on its quality and value without seeing anything in person. A museum monograph, a critic’s review, and an auction estimate can shape someone’s perception of a work, standing in the place of firsthand experience. Subjectivity has mutated to the point that to engage with art now is to engage, perhaps unconsciously, with a multifaceted economic system. Art press is increasingly consumer-driven: coverage, whether it’s a cover placement or an interior review, has a way of authenticating the artist in discussion. A prominent portrayal not only says what the critic thinks, but declares the subject worth looking at, and therefore, to some, worth buying. In the auction world, transactions are trending more than ever before. High sale prices ripple through the news, resulting in the general public’s awareness of a work or artist simply because one person spent a lot of money. David Hockney’s $90.3 million auction record in 2018 comes to mind; did the buyer single-handedly transform the 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) into one of the most famous paintings of the twentieth century?

“For centuries paintings and statues sat tight and waited for us to go see them,” Aira writes. “They behaved like ghosts, who speak only when spoken to . . . . And they did that because they counted on time for what they had been created to do, and they could wait. Contemporary Art, by wanting to be contemporary, has nullified time by compressing it into the present, and it must be everywhere at once.” Aira believes that Contemporary Art is predisposed to this inescapable contemporary system of press, markets, and hyper-accessibility, and that contemporary artists—whether they know it or not—create works that must be considered within this new rubric. Aira simultaneously laments and indulges in our era of oversaturation and over-experience, all while acknowledging his struggle with this new way of looking. He’s a committed subscriber to art periodicals (“my collection of Artforum goes back to the seventies,” he confesses) but sees a distinct downside to the worldliness that so much exposure can instill in a person. In an age when viewers can see everything at once, art can simultaneously be everything at once. Put these together, and Contemporary Art becomes an experience of omniscience, forcing viewers to not simply evaluate an artwork on its own but to decide what to do with it, how to consider it, and where to place it among an ever-widening range of contemporaries. There’s room, now, for art to drift.

In a fittingly contemporary move, Aira’s essay is presented alongside two texts penned by young writers who typically work in the realm of literary fiction: there is a bright, introductory foreword by Will Chancellor (author of the novel A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall) and a memorable afterword by Alexandra Kleeman (author of the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine). Although there’s no discernable connection between these writers and Aira, their presence is welcome: they both perform feats of distillation and provide readers with personalized, processed interpretations of Aira’s difficult essay. Chancellor ruminates on the widening gap between the “observer and the observed” and remarks how a “new logic of images” has created new space for interpretation. “There is room here for a story,” Chancellor writes. Kleeman digests Aira’s thoughts into a short, existential work about waiting in line for a critically acclaimed exhibition. Like Aira, she acknowledges the contemporary experience:

. . . perhaps the line we were standing in was the point of the whole thing. Our line, like a swaddling cloth, encircled the entire work and set it apart from the busy metropolitan background. From within it, we generated an aura of anticipation that colored the world rosily. . . . The work generated experience within us, narrative experience, even if it refused to be made available to us as stimulus.

Kleeman’s optimism colors Aira’s essay and imbues On Contemporary Art with an almost celebratory spirit, reveling in not the loss of but the liberation from history. By compressing and expanding its core principles, art has now made space for the viewer, whose narrative gives it shape.

Aira strikes a careful tonal balance throughout On Contemporary Art. He is aggressive without being inflammatory, learned without being too pedantic. Between digressions on Duchamp, the machinations of the art market, and the occasional perfunctory attempt to draw parallels between artistic and literary trends, it becomes clear that Aira values consideration over conviction. He doesn’t condemn today’s art world but instead invites readers to recognize and explore what has become a complicated situation. On Contemporary Art is a captivating, engaging ramble, and while it may not gel into an airtight conclusion, it offers plenty of ideas that are worthy of further discussion. Readers of Aira’s novels will find this experience familiar: while not as spontaneous as his fiction, the essay builds similar momentum through its exploratory tangents, and these parts together form an enriching, thoughtful text.

About the Reviewer

Jeff Alford is a critic and collector based in Denver. He works as an archivist and writes for Kirkus Reviews, Rain Taxi, New Orleans Review, and Run Spot Run.