ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present

ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present

by Robert Atkins

Paperback(Third Edition)

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The leading lexicon of contemporary art returns in an expanded, full-color third edition.

An indispensable guide for art-world neophytes and seasoned professionals alike, the best-selling ArtSpeak returns in a revised and expanded third edition, illustrated in full color. Nearly 150 alphabetical entries—30 of them new to this edition—explain the who, what, where, and when of postwar and contemporary art. These concise mini-essays on the key terms of the art world are written with wit and common sense by veteran critic Robert Atkins. More than eighty images, most in color, illustrate key works of the art movements discussed, making ArtSpeak a visual reference, as well as a textual one. A timeline traces world and art-world events from 1945 to the present day, and a single-page ArtChart provides a handy overview of the major art movements in that period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789211514
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/26/2013
Edition description: Third Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 986,710
Product dimensions: 7.60(w) x 11.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Robert Atkins, an art historian and writer, is a frequent contributor to Art in America and a former staff columnist for the Village Voice. Atkins is an authority on digital art, queer art and culture, and Chinese contemporary art. He is a pioneering online media producer and a founding member of Visual AIDS, creators of Day With(out) Art and the Red Ribbon. His other books include ArtSpoke and Censoring Culture.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Talking Back to ArtSpeak, Twenty-Five Years Later

When the first edition of ArtSpeak was written twenty-five years ago, the world was a different place. The cold war was winding down, but the Berlin Wall had yet to be breached or the map of Eastern Europe redrawn. China’s economic liberalization was proceeding more rapidly than its tentative progress toward democracy, which would soon be squelched in the brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrators. Outside of scientific communities, e-mail was not yet in use, and mobile phone subscribers numbered between five and ten million worldwide. Today that number stands at more than six billion, or 90 percent of the world’s population.

At the end of the 1980s many officials in China, the United States, and the USSR regarded contemporary art and artists with suspicion: In China, the officially sanctioned exhibition of “unofficial” art, China/Avante-Garde, would open and close the same day. In the U.S., legislators would respond to art about gender, sexuality, and AIDS with constitutionally questionable legislation barring so-called “obscenity” in art. In the USSR, some unofficial artists were personae non gratae, allowed to exhibit (and sell) work abroad in order to generate hard currency but not permitted to show at home.

The art world had also changed dramatically. A quarter-century ago, New York had only recently relinquished its mantle as the center of postwar art production, exhibition, and sales. By the end of the 1980s European artists, galleries, and museums had attained more or less equivalent status and economic clout. This multi-centered—but indisputably Western—art world was the foundation of today’s international art system. Characterized by a global network of galleries, collectors, art fairs, and franchised (Western) museums, it mirrors the globalized economic system of our day, with its multinational banks and corporations.

This shift has occurred with astonishing speed. Twenty-five years ago China had no commercial galleries. In 2011 it became the largest art and antiques market in the world. In contemporary art, the realignment is even more pronounced. In 2008 eleven of the world’s twenty top-selling contemporary artists were Chinese, and in 2009 the single largest buyer of contemporary art in the world was Qatar, the Persian Gulf state with a population of less than two million. The same year, French president Nicolas Sarkozy attended the groundbreaking for the Louvre “branch” in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi.

The globalization of the art world is reflected in this new edition of ArtSpeak, which features expanded coverage of the production of art in China, Japan, and Brazil, and of its distribution through art fairs, biennials, and museums. Globalism is also reflected upon throughout these entries, since its implications extend far beyond its visible manifestations. For example, while the consequences of adopting an almost entirely Western model of cultural development throughout Asian cannot yet be determined, the protection of cultural pluralism might turn out to be as critical to our future as the preservation of biological diversity.

The nature of the language we use to talk about contemporary art has changed, too. The biggest difference between the vocabulary of the late-modern era of a quarter-century ago and that of the current postmodern period is the shift away from the division of art into short-lived styles or movements. Each of the modern movements or “isms” of the past 150 years—characterized by artists of a particular place and time, sharing a common style and thematic concerns—followed hard on the heels of its predecessors: after World War II, abstract expressionism was followed by Neo-Dada and Pop, Op, then Minimalism, process art, earth art, Conceptualism, and so on. This stylistic turnover reflected the modern industrial age and its burgeoning middle class, attuned to novelty and consumption. Buoyed by a belief in technological progress and the utopian social goals of both the political right and left, these societies were guided by a faith in the future that we no longer share in our era of environmental degradation and recurrent factional hostilities.

The first of the modernist movements was Impressionism, whose name was coined by the French critic Louis Leroy in 1874, as a term of derision. The spread of the term Impressionism was gradual and haphazard, helped along, surprisingly, by its sometimes ironic use by the artists involved. By contrast, the few movements that emerged during the last decade of the twentieth century—such as the Young British Artists and the New Leipzig School—were named by dealers or publicists and greeted with cynicism by critics and artists as marketing tools. (The accelerated pace at which Chinese artists have, since the 1980s, absorbed decades of previously forbidden Western art makes the naming of contemporary art movements in China a different matter.) The twenty-first century has seen the disappearance of art movements as the basis of a descriptive language of art.

Although the “star system” continues to elevate a select few artists to critical and usually financial success, its nature has changed: today, artists are less frequently recognized as exemplars of a particular medium or stylistic approach, as Less Krasner was for abstract expressionist painting, or Roy Lichtenstein for Pop art. Instead, since the proliferation of Conceptualist art during the 1970s, artists have increasingly worked in varied media and styles. This makes them primarily artists, rather than photographers or painters or video artists. Put another way, the artist’s signature style has in many cases been replaced by a signature thinking, invisible to the eye but apparent to the mind. This anti-modernist trend away from the separation of media is reinforced by the encouragement of eclecticism and experimentation in art education. Today most young artists who produce video works also create installations or performance art, perhaps even incorporating all three within a single production.

When it comes to the relevance of ideas and buzzwords as tools for understanding, time has had little effect. (A buzzword may be a slangy stand-in for an idea or its hollowed-out shell.) We continue to associate art with the ideas that inform it and are given form by it. To ignore the realistic style, bourgeois patrons, and Protestant themes of seventeenth-century Dutch painting would be to miss what makes it different from art produced anywhere else. We similarly associate abstract expressionism with a constellation of ideas and stylistic characteristics that include existentialism, authenticity, abstraction, and the picture plane. Likewise, postmodern appropriation art brings to mind the ideas of deconstruction, authorship, and—variably—digital reproduction, semiotics, or queer theory. To decipher the sometimes complex meanings embodied in works of contemporary art and stimulate an appreciation of its production is ArtSpreak’s purpose.

Unlike propaganda, cartoons, or advertising, contemporary art can be difficult to understand. In fact, art is the most complex form of awareness or knowledge. It simultaneously engages our left- and right-brain faculties, sense and intellect, soma and psyche. IT is this engagement with all of our apprehending faculties—our ways of taking in and making sense of the world—that accounts for visual art’s richness and complexity. The process of making art is also rigorous, involving analysis, decision-making, and self-criticism.

Art is also a language. This is meant in two senses: First—and literally—it is a vocabulary of visual forms from which the artist can make a work the speaks to an audience, somewhat as words can be assembled into a text. In the second, or figurative, sense, art is the materialization of an artists’ individual “voice.” Most artists produce art not simply to make a living, but to express themselves and to catalyze communication. Some artists believe their work is “completed” by the responses it receives, whether from viewers, friends, or critics. The “conversation” about art has existed since the origins of modern art in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, where numerous reviews of the Salon were published and often heatedly debated, and careers made and unmade.

How, then, to join today’s rather different conversation? Whether at an exhibition opening or on a gallery crawl, it is natural to want to exchange ideas and opinions with your fellow viewers. There is, of course, a basic vocabulary required for understanding and discussing contemporary art, as there is for every vocation or avocation, be it biochemistry or viniculture, scuba diving or sonnet writing. Despite the complexity of contemporary art, mastering its language is not all the onerous. The new ArtSpeak remains an essential and easy-to-use guide to this basic vocabulary, one that is perhaps most usefully consulted while in the presence of art. In addition to explaining current art, ArtSpeak places it within the context of the transition to postmodernity that has taken place over the past quarter-century. Despite the epochal shift from modern industrial production to postmodern digital production, from the limited edition to the infinitely reproducible, and from the individually to the collaboratively authored for, postmodern art might seem the last bastion, even possibility, of genuinely personal expression. Yet the means of its distribution—especially the now-dominant art fair—are no less specific in their demands for certain kinds of art (and content) the a designer commissioning a mural for the lobby of a modern office building, or a medieval patron ordering an altarpiece for a cathedral.

The new ArtSpeak features twice as many entries as the original. Many of the digital art forms discussed—from online art to virtual reality—did not exist in 1989, and the majority of contemporary Chinese art was then either below the radar screen or difficult to place in context. Hence ArtSpeak is no longer simply a dictionary of the new, but an encyclopedic account of twenty-five years of it. It is also an alternative to the abundance of online information provided by the collaboratively authored Wikipedia and search engines like Google. We may well wonder how we got along without these research tools in the twentieth century, but it must be said that accuracy, clarity, and context are not their strong suits. ArtSpeak, by contrast, remains a concise and reliable distillation of art-historical information, enriched by decades of looking, thinking, and writing about contemporary art. Whether in print or the new e-book format, I hope you will find a useful and welcome addition to your conversations and thinking about contemporary art.

San Francisco
June 2013

Table of Contents

Introduction 10

How to Use this Book 14

Timeline 15

'85 New Wave 51

Abject Expressionism 53

Abstract/Abstraction 55

Abstract Expressionism 57

Academic Art 58

Action/Actionism 59

AIDS Art 61

Allegory 64

Alternative Space 64

Anti-Art 65

Antipodean Group 67

Appropriation 69

Art and Technology 70

Art Brut 71

Arte Povera 73

Art Informel 74

Artists' Books 74

Artists' Furniture 77

Art Market 78

Art World 79

Assemblage 80

"Bad" Painting 82

Bay Area Figurative Style 82

Biennial 85

Black Arts Movement 85

Body Art 87

Ceramic Sculpture 89

Chicago Imagism 89

CoBrA 92

Collaborative Art 92

Collage 95

Color-Field Painting 97

Comics Art 99

Commodification 100

Computer Art 101

Conceptual Art 103

Concrete Art 106

Constructivism 106

Contemporary 107

Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art 109

Content 110

Copy Art 111

Crafts-as-Art 112

Culture Wars 112

Cynical Realism 113

Dada 116

Dau al Set 117

Documentation 118

Düsseldorf School of Photography 118

Earth Art 120

East Village 121

El Paso 123

Existentialism 124

Expressionism 125

Fashion Aesthetic 126

Feminist Art 127

Figurative 130

Finish Fetish 131

Fluxus 132

Formal/Formalism 134

Found Object 134

Funk Art 135

Gesture/Gesturalism 136

Graffiti Art 137

Gutai 139

Happening 141

Hard-Edge Painting 142

Installation 143

Intermedia 145

Junk Sculpture 146

Kinetic Sculpture 147

Kitsch 149

Light-and-Space Art 150

Mail Art 151

Manipulated Photography 153

Media Art 154

Minimalism 155

Mission School 158

Modernism 160

Mono-ha 161

Mülheimer Freiheit 163

Multiculturalism 164

Multiple 165

Narrative Art 166

Neo-Concretism 168

Neo-Dada 170

Neo-Expressionism 171

Neo-Geo 173

New Image 174

New Leipzig School 176

New Media 178

New Realism 178

New Wave 180

Nouveau Réalisme 181

Online Art 182

Op Art 184

The Other 186

Outsider Art 186

Painterly 188

Pathetic Art 189

Pattern and Decoration 191

Performance Art 192

Photo-Realism 194

Picture Plane 196

Pictures Generation 196

Pluralism 198

Political Art 199

Political Pop 200

Pop Art 202

Popular Culture 204

Post- 205

Postmodernism 206

Primitivism 208

Print Revival 209

Process Art 211

Public Art 212

Realism 215

Regionalism 215

Saint Ives Painters 216

Scatter Art 217

School of London 218

School of Paris 220

Semiotics 220

Shaped Canvas 221

Simulation 222

Situationism 223

Snapshot Aesthetic 224

Socialist Realism 226

Social Practice 226

Social Realism 229

Sots Art 229

Sound Art 231

Space Art 232

Spatialism 235

Staged Photography 236

Stars Group 238

Straight Photography 240

Street Art 243

Style 245

Surrealism 245

Transavantgarde 246

Tropicalism 248

Video Art 250

Young British Artists 252

Zeitgeist 255

Index 257

Photography Credits 287

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