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  • Now Is the Time: Art & Theory in the 21st Century
  • Ian Verstegen
Now Is the Time: Art & Theory in the 21st Century edited by Christel Vesters (coordinating editor), Jelle Bouwhuis, Ingrid Commandeur, Gijs Frieling, Margriet Schavemaker and Domeniek Ruyters. NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, 2009. 192 pp., illus. Paper. English edition: ISBN: 978-90-5662-721-8.

Now Is the Time: Art & Theory in the 21st Century is the result of a series of lectures and debates held at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and now published under one cover. The book has seven sections written by European and American scholars and artists, hosted mostly by Dutch moderators. The format is always two speakers on the same topic, with a short published public exchange. In general, the participants offer a mix of viewpoints, Marxist to postmodern, which bring together a variety of approaches under the banner of overall social concern. The result is a very effective book for teaching students in the arts and humanities, with up-to-the-minute interventions on a variety of important topics.

The book begins with a generally political focus and then moves into more specific themes. The span of the essays is quite wide, and it is difficult to bring any order to the rich and thought-provoking collection. Nevertheless, it is possible to isolate certain themes. The beginning essays generally posit art production in a system of global capitalism whose diversity and inclusiveness conceals inequity and whose characteristics are shared by distressing elements of contemporary life, particularly terrorism. [End Page 185]

Thus, Terry Eagleton and Borys Groys ("Faith") present two views on how the image of faith operative today is independent of belief (Eagleton) or science (Groys). Faith, whether Western or Islamic-fundamentalist, is content to use repetition of ritual—which fits strangely and effectively with digital media—without recourse to reason. Similarly, W.J.T. Mitchell and artist Sean Snyder show echoes between American and terrorist practices. Mitchell examines the uses of "biodigital" practices (iconoclasm and decapitation), while Snyder looks at the hardware and presentation techniques terrorists have used for their recruitment videos. Both argue, at different levels, against regarding acts as savage at the risk of understanding their core logic.

Turning to "Globalization," Julian Stallabrass and Hanrou Hu suggest that the global transformation of expanded art markets and new biennials is only apparently liberating. New artists and art capitals have emerged, but to serve the new global rich; in different ways the authors expose the backside of spectacularly staged global capitalism. Here, the focus of the section, "Design," fits in well. Although Rick Poyner has more hope for "critical design," a critical, self-initiated kind of design that resists the industry and embraces gallery and art practices, Camiel van Winkel notes that art since the 1980s has increasingly assimilated the twin goals of "visibility" and "professionalism." The artist makes art that is easy to understand, presented as an ethical mandate of constructive communication.

The pair of essays on "Canon"—by Robert Nelson and curator Ruth Noack—address issues of "Globalization" in that both seek ways to foreground constructed meaning in the contemporary curatorial scene. Nelson considers positively the role of canons in our understanding of the world as a way of organizing collective agency. Noack, curator of documenta 12, accepted the historical embeddedness of the contemporary art shown there and she positioned herself frankly as a constructor of a canon. In the end, she and Nelson see canon formation as a social negotiation that individuals should consciously take part in. Turning to "Media," Kaja Silverman and Laura Marks address mediality in historical and contemporary art. Silverman uses a Leonardo exhibition to reflect on media, as Marks does Islamic art. Silverman is interested in the way in which the clear genealogy of Leonardo and progeny is frustrated in a constant state of metamorphosis, a fact underscored by the postmodern artistic practice of James Coleman, whose ephemeral installation—which has left no trace—accompanied the Leonardo show.

The last section, "Romanticism," is a fitting conclusion to the book, because Romanticism in this sense is another way of saying modernity, and Jos de Mul and Jörg Heiser locate our position, "now," in...


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pp. 185-186
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