The State of the Art
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

It is said that while in Madrid to open an exhibition of his work they took him to the Prado Museum, which he had never visited before. He passed through the vast rooms with fleeting steps and set gestures, where from the walls the works of Velázquez and Goya, Fra Angelico and Rafael, Bosch and Dürer, van der Weyden and Caravaggio cast their forms and colours, lines and lights. This swift visit was barely enough for a distracted, distant glance at the masterpieces that time has selected to show us. It took no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. At the end of this whirlwind-visit, he went into the museum-shop and looked around for more than half an hour. With keen attention, care and curiosity, he examined, among other products and gadgets, the reproductions and replicas, posters and prints of the works whose originals he could not be bothered with. Such was Andy Warhol ...

joseph beuys

Joseph Beuys, Kunst=Kapital, 1979 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Such was Andy Warhol (1928-1987), whom philosopher Anne Cauquelin called ‘a false modern, a true contemporary’. His opinion of art did not belie what he did with art and for art, rather it confirmed it with a deliberate and challenging eloquence. In one of his aphorisms, which tended to blend value judgements and reality judgements, he declared: ‘Success is what sells’, a statement joined by others such as: ‘Art is already advertising. The Mona Lisa could have been used as a support for a chocolate brand, Coca Cola or anything else.’ Or else: ‘I think that all paintings should be the same size and colour, so that they are interchangeable and no one thinks that his picture is better or worse than others.’

For this great performer and printer of the stereotyped image with which he presented himself to the world, the meaning of his words extended into the meaning of his works. He brazenly proclaimed aloud what he practiced with the most provocative disdain, confessing, ‘I will go to the opening of anything, including a toilet seat.’ In declaring that ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art’, he explained: ‘Buying is more American than thinking’, and predicted that ‘Someday, all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.’ For him, art and the business of art were inseparable and came together as a two-sided coin, each face bearing traces and signs of the other.

As we know, the words modernity and post-modernity, as historical periodisations, cultural categorisations and artistic classifications, are always apt to be discussed and controverted, giving rise to an endless industry of symposiums, seminars, debates, talks and other forms of dense and inconclusive occupation of hours and minutes. Nevertheless, we can use them to say that, in the passage from modernity to post-modernity, the artist who made these and other surprising claims (in a vein already followed by Salvador Dalí, though affording it an extreme and far-reaching dimension), announced what is currently before our jaded eyes.

In his elegant indifference, he exhibited himself as one of the great, provocative symbols of Pop Art. However, in his words and deeds, the founder of the Factory became more than just the most silkscreened face of a movement or a school. He reached the heights of a precursor who predicted (and premeditated) the future of art following his reign as king, crowned with a golden crown which shone as only fake gold can.

Andy Warhol had a gift for reaching where he wanted to be by taking the road in the opposite direction. For him, the world was the ghost of art, which was the ghost of the world, and money (as a convention-fiction more real than any reality) was the only thing linking them, with the artist as best man of this mercantile wedding or the guarantor of this creative business.

The art that followed in those years after Warhol changed the idea of art, speaks of crisis – the crisis of art –, even when it remains unspoken. Contemporary art rests upon a subsoil of crisis and critique, which turn weaknesses into strengths. So it was with the author of the electric chair, repeated ad nauseam in one of his most celebrated series, a veritable emblem on the worn-out lapel of time.

To speak of what Andy Warhol spoke of, and to do it as he did, is to speak of contemporary art: of money, sales, purchases, openings, success, advertising, marketing, communication, power, i.e. of the system within which art is made, and which defines, judges, values, enshrines and, according to some, threatens it. Is this indeed what contemporary art is? Everything that can be said about it ends with a question mark; with questions that are given as answers to other questions.

Contemporary art, along with the system that it produced in which to embed itself, is now one of the most powerful global devices to seize and understand our time. Since the founding purpose of Electra is to trace the lines of the moving portrait of ’our great epoch’, in this issue we could not fail to dedicate a whole dossier to contemporary art, incomplete and provisional as it might be.

What is this art that calls itself contemporary, with a passionate obsession and sovereign consciousness of itself? Under which conditions is it made, in which circumstances is it produced, shown, imposed, commercialised and globalised? What is the engine that drives and steers it, giving it speed, acceleration and mutability? Which metabolisms ensure its life, growth and cellular reproduction?

What system do we speak of when we speak of this system composed of a proliferation of centres, museums, galleries, studios, private and public spaces, networks, biennials, triennials, festivals, auctions, openings, closings, conferences, talks, publications, performances, happenings? Which mechanisms support its symbolic, institutional and fiduciary legitimation? And which are the centrifugal and centripetal forces shaping its circles of certification, consensus and enshrinement, ensuring the consistency of its validity strata and the velocity of its valuation circuits? What are the roles of artists, mediators, curators, programmers, producers, curators, gallerists, marchands (now called dealers), managers, communication directors, publishers, collectors, patrons, critics, historians, journalists, commentators, influencers, financial funds, speculators, and how are they performed in this play whose stage is the world, taking immanence for transcendence and the instant for eternity? Amid so much proliferation, so much repetition, exhibition and saturation, where it seems that everything has already been shown and seen, experimented and explored, how is it still possible for creation, invention, novelty, originality, awe and the future to emerge?

André Malraux (1901-1976), lived through, and testified to, the great tragedies of the 20th century. Thanks to an unfaltering disposition – the very axis on which balanced his need for contemplation and his urgency for action – he nervously wrote thousands of pages on art, searching without end. Malraux was a sort of counter-Warhol, though both shared the divine gift of mystification.

While the American sought to debase, trivialise, normalise, desacralise, massify, materialise, sensationalise, exteriorise, decode, demystify, moderate (some would say: mediocratise), mediatise and commercialise, the Frenchman sought to elevate, aggrandise, exceptionalise, singularise, spiritualise, interiorise, codify, canonise, sublimate, protect, sacralise and mystify. While the former turned everything into a human comedy, the latter turned everything into a divine tragedy. Yet both shared an animal instinct of listening to the breathing of the universe.

A statement-prediction is attributed to Malraux that he might never have actually spoken or written. Thanks to this misunderstanding, which no one was ever able to put out of circulation, we are left in a mine-field at the entrance to which we could be welcomed by the slow-moving shadow of Jorge Luis Borges, who enjoyed confusing the clues and blurring the boundaries between the authentic and the apocryphal, the true and the false, the real and the imaginary. At the end of that same mine-field, bidding us farewell, is the tightrope-walking figure of Andy Warhol, who falsified his birth certificate and loved the fake copy of the images that turned the world into a repetitive hallucination. For him, frivolity was a form of lucidity, fame a substance of art, lightness a mask of gravitas, the mundane a metaphysical category, the ephemeral a condition of the eternal, and banality a characteristic of the visionary.

What Malraux was supposed to have said, but never did, was a copy without an original or an authenticated signature. More than anything else he might have said, that fake quote spread across the world and, after so many years, came to stand in time like a statue to voluntary and voluntaristic credulity. It became one of the most widespread dictums on the planet. It turned into one of the most believed and quoted truths in the world. Warhol, whose Prado Museum story might after all be as authentic as Malraux’s phrase, would have been envious of this falsity, which seemed to carry with it a truth truer than the truth of truths, given the fact that it was invented, either intentionally or at random, to faithfully reproduce the oracular, prophetic and tragic tone of its apocryphal, but plausible author.

The phrase-dictum attributed to the author of The Imaginary Museum states that ‘The 21st century will be spiritual [another version reads ‘religious’] or it won’t be at all.’ Endless exegetes made use of this to remind us that for Malraux the religious and spiritual aspect was art itself, the metamorphosis of the gods and the anti-destiny of men and women.

For the writer of The Human Condition, ‘The only domain where the divine is visible is that of art, whatever name we choose to call it.’ Roger Caillois deciphers, in the author of The Voices of Silence, a Promethean notion of art: ‘He maintains the certainty – half-presage, half-challenge, in equal parts protest and consolation – that while the gods did not make man immortal, the latter have a means of proving how timid the former were and, thereby, of mitigating their curse.’1 That ‘means’ is art, but Malraux’s idea of art would give Warhol cause for icy, mocking laughter.

This laughing game – or is it a cold war? – sparked by everyone’s opinion of what art might or might not be, finds shelter in the aspersion, which is at least slightly Warholian in its intention, cast by Malraux on Marcel Duchamp and his descendants and successors: ‘The Mona Lisa smiles because everyone who drew her moustaches died.’

In the end, Malraux was the forced and failed soothsayer of the art of our time, of contemporary art; Warhol was its voluntary prophet and visionary. For this art without canon, perhaps the sole absolute is money, and its religion a fiduciary one. Malraux once said that ‘art is the currency of the absolute’. And so, in one of those twists Warhol was fond of, the currency of the absolute became the absolute of currency – which is also a new form of the sacred. At the end of the day, the sayings attributed to them share a common point of intersection in a symmetry where the past and the future lie in wait.

Unsurprisingly, in this dossier on contemporary art, money, to a greater or lesser degree, is among the themes that play their part in the unextinguishable ‘quarrel of contemporary art’. This quarrel, which some have tried to quell in vain by undermining it, continues to resound in echoes, replicas, returns, metamorphoses and new outbreaks – which are themselves active on the pages of this issue.

This shows how manifold are the modes of seeing and perceiving the path leading from the Dadaists, from Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, until reaching us, passing along the way, among many others: Warhol and Pop Art and gallerist Leo Castelli; raw art and informal art; kinetic art and Op Art; minimalism and counter-culture; Pollock and abstract expressionism and Joseph Beuys and the Fluxus movement; Rauschenberg and the combine paintings and conceptual art; hyper-realism and Body Art; Arte Povera and the trans-avant-garde; Keith Haring and Bruce Nauman; Basquiat and Robert Smithson; Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter; Land Art and Ecological Art; urban art and graffiti; and Digital Art.

Some think that, in our time, art has been given the media and the languages, the techniques and the concepts, the qualities and defects, a new paradigm as well as new paradoxes, for it to be exactly what it is and what it needs to be. This is the art of a society in which everything is massified, specialised, relativised, merchandised, disenchanted, desacralised, secularised, trivialised, consumed; where everything is sensation, money, ephemeral, spectacle, fashion, network, and fame. Those who cannot understand this do not understand what goes on in the world of our time and the time of our world.

However, others believe that contemporary art holds all the impossibilities for our time to become great, lasting, perennial, profound, memorable, eternal. For these, art has turned the now into the axis around which it constantly spins, as if everything began and ended there. For that reason, they say that art is amnesiac and ludic, concealing a serious disenchantment of the world with the facile and futile entertainment of the beings that inhabit it.

Still others think contemporary art, by virtue of wishing to be contemporary and not wanting to miss the train of time, has forgotten the wise and subtle advice of philosopher Giorgio Agamben, which we quoted in the editorial of Electra 1:

Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands. They are thus in this sense irrelevant [inattuale]. But precisely because of this condition, precisely through this disconnection and this anachronism, they are more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time. […] Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.

Giorgio Agamben, What Is the Contemporary?



Marcel Broodthaers, Museum of Modern Art for sale – due to bankruptcy, 1971 © Photo: Scala, Florence / The Museum of Modern Art, New York

And there are also those who believe that to speak of contemporary art is not to speak of a moment in the history of art, nor of a period in artistic evolution or in the life of forms, but of a genre, on a par with genres such as historical painting or sacred art. If that is indeed the case, the conversation will then take different pathways leading to different places.

When all of this is weighed on a scale that is constantly moving, perhaps it would be useful to remember, when contemplating the issues of contemporary art, that we are in a terrain that must be probed and excavated in order to be built upon, as we often come across geological data or archaeological findings, both expected and unexpected, that force us to halt so as not to lose or destroy what we have just discovered. But it is equally necessary to look at the sky and its meteorology filled with signs and uncertainties, the predictable and the unpredictable, possibilities and threats, illusions and disillusionment, brightness and darkness.

In this era in which a growing suspicion growls at its heels, contemporary art trusts in the mistrust that many feel about it to generate its identity and life insurance policy. To speak about contemporary art, with a horizon-renting lucidity, it is necessary to put away the preconceptions of those who dread the new and the conceptions of those who despise the old. It is imperative to avoid premeditated catastrophism and professional triumphalism. It is crucial to prevent the mistakes of unknowing ignorance and the scams of calculating interests. It is essential to negotiate the conservative thickness of solemn and glum essentialisms, as well as the advanced superficiality of facile and fallacious constructivism. It is vital to push away the liturgy of rabid misunderstanding and the litany of ecstatic self-sufficiency.

It is advisable to heed Yves Michaud, who collaborates in this dossier alongside António Guerreiro, Jovan Mrvaljevic, Gregory Sholette, Camille de Toledo and Paul Werner, all of whom were selected for their intelligent and opportune works on this major theme of our time, approaching it from different angles. Over two decades ago, amid the controversy that occurred in France and which promises to continue, Michaud wrote:

My diagnosis of “the crisis of contemporary art” leads me to disagree with its nostalgic adversaries and its paid worshipers, but I unabashedly claim the right to love this art and to defend it, as much as I claim the right to criticize this or that aspect of it that I might consider weak, overrated or fabricated. My spirit is not religious, or superstitious, or prophetic, nor is it an esprit de corps: I love contemporary art because I just love art, for pleasure and not to obtain my salvation, or build tomorrow’s legacy, or celebrate the demiurges, or impose my taste or be a member of the chic crowd.

Yves Michaud, La Crise de l’art contemporain2

Art and aesthetics have always been written about and since Hegel these writings have not ceased to accumulate. Furthermore, this torrent has swollen whenever the topic is contemporary art. Everything and its opposite have been said. All that has happened, or not happened at all, has been written about. There have been analyses, arguments, diagnoses, polemics, accusations, defences, prophecies.

From Benjamin (the epoch of technological reproducibility, aura and trace) to Adorno (Cultural Industries), from Braudillard (the conspiracy of art, simulacra and simulations) to Houellebecq (the map is more interesting than the territory), from Ortega y Gasset (the dehumanising of art) to Marco Fumaroli and Jean Clair (the impasse and art without art), from Aby Warburg (’Mnemosyne Atlas’) to Erwin Panofsky (iconography and iconology), from Hans Belting (is art history over?) to Georges Didi-Huberman (what we see and what sees us, the resentment against contemporary art), from Hans Ulrich-Obrist (interview project) to Catherine Millet (when art criticism exposes itself), from Bonito Oliva (the dematerialisation of art, the nomadism of languages) to Nathalie Heinich (a new paradigm), from Boris Groys (the revolutionary tradition of art, art and new media) to Andreas Huyssen (heritage, ruins, nostalgia and future), from Marc Jimenez (the history of the prejudice against contemporary art) to Peter Osborne (contemporary art is a post-conceptual art), from Anne Cauquelin (the aesthetical doxa and the anti-contemporary vulgate) to W.J.T. Mitchell (visual culture and digital media), flow rivers of words where art often bathes.

More than the art (or the arts) of the past, contemporary art has been accused of having made a deal with the Devil, or with the minor devils that the Devil used to disguise himself so as to tempt us. Many certainties and many suspicions, many answers and many questions have been a part of this accusation. These questions have taken to the air and should be made to land.

How are art and the discourse on art connected and hierarchised today? What is the meaning of the serial and saturating accumulation that prefixes culture and art with particles such as post, neo, ultra, hyper, trans, meta? Is art the light which spins, flashes and shines atop the building of capitalism, transformed by it into aesthetical capitalism? Did art ransack the vault, or was it money that took hold of art’s treasure chest? In this time of contradictions, constraints and connections, what is the presence of the various authoritarian and vigilant ‘correctnesses’ in art, be they moral, political, cultural or social?

Even when at the service of just causes, could manifesto-exhibitions and the flags that art flies (ecology, salvific or anti-salvific humanitarianism, anti‑speciesism, feminism, LBGTQ, anti-racism, post-colonialism) be new forms of art dirigisme, censorship, servitude and obedience? Has art not been at the service of God and the Church, the Prince and the State, the Bourgeois and Society, the People and the Revolution, the Leader and the Nation? What is the ontological effect of technology turned art technique (Video Art, Sound Art, Internet Art, digital art, etc.)? What is the contemporary relationship between art, State, institutions and powers? Is art supported, conditioned or directed by that relationship? What is currently the great aim of the ‘Cultural State’? What are museums of contemporary art for, and what are their visible and invisible ends? Is contemporary art a new and covert form of ‘official art’?

Has art now traded creation for creativity, vision for visibility, implication for explication, value for price, exhibition for ostentation, otium for negotium, quality for quantity, form for format? Will contemporary art voluntarily impose upon itself a self-subjugation and self-exploitation of which it is not fully aware, calling it fulfilment and success, just as individuals do according to philosopher Byung-Chul Han? Has art lost a critical distance regarding what it is and does, what it proposes and defends, trading it for a deceitful self-complacency which translates as condescendence, benevolence and unjustified, excessive self-esteem?

What is the meaning of the overvaluation, hyperbolisation and superlativisation that noisily populate ‘artistic events’, or the appreciation of trivial artworks, loudly acclaimed as marvellous, fantastic, phenomenal and brilliant? In its self-proclaimed desire to attain difference, could art be pursuing sameness? Is there a parasitic relationship between this art and other disciplines and areas of knowledge and action (philosophy, literature, politics, sociology, cinema, audio-visual, sciences, architecture, technologies, creative industries, design, fashion)? And is that a sign of art’s sterility, anaesthesia, anomia or astheny? What would be the word that characterises the relationship between art and power, money, fame, luxury? Are the institutional networks of art tribal forms of endogamic power and corporative modes of a vicious circle?

Is the great purpose of art now the spectacle? Does this art serve all propagandas and all profitable advertising? Are the political denunciations, moral indignation and social protest of art now indigent, opportunistic, fake, powerless, useless or spurious? Is this art mostly concept, discourse, citation, authorised plagiarism? And are those the signs of its incapacity or even impossibility? Is this an art incapable of constructing and powerless to destroy? Is art now the commonplace of all common-places? If art is not mere entertainment or a disguised form of it, does it still know what to do? Is art a lie that does not tell the truth? Could its disorder be a false order? Is art a process because it yields no result? Is art now a parade of art-stars and brand-works, promoted within the same promotion regime for all commercial products? Is there an artistic equality and mediocrity allied to economic disparity and ostentation? How to explain that such acclaimed democratisation might have generated such a reproachable elitism? Is contemporary art pure, hardcore business which has seized the millennia-old, prestigious name of art to sell itself successfully? Could it be said of contemporary art that everything in it has meaning; which is precisely where its meaninglessness lies?

And there are multiple other questions raised by different voices: Was it not in our time that art became acutely and productively self-aware? Was it not in our time, more than in any other, that the image freed itself from its conscious or unconscious coercions, its voluntary or involuntary bonds? Is it not in contemporary art that the unknown hypotheses and possibilities of art have found greater affirmation? Is not the current pluralism of art (concepts, media, supports, styles, durations, accesses) the clearest practice of the freedom to do whatever one wants and not do whatever one does not want? Did the globalisation and polycentrism of art not bring us geographies, experiences, ideas, visions, representations as well as sensibilities and feelings that were unknown, ignored, dilapidated or exiled?

Was it not contemporary art that brought a new form of desire into the pleasure of the object? Does contemporary art not open up a new physical and metaphysical manifestation by hijacking the body from its skin and deviating the Earth from its orbit? When it uses technology, like dreams and nightmares were once used, does art not release an energy that runs toward it? Does this art not give movement to art, adding mobility, velocity and a vertiginous quality to it? Does contemporary art at the same time not bring the invisible to light and the material to immateriality? By creating, better than ever, the means that its ends call for, is this not the most artful art, thus reminding us that the Greek word teknè simultaneously meant technique and art? Since contemporary art and current art are not synonymous, is not asking where the former begins and ends, where its entry and exit are, to ask for its meaning?

Does the art of our time not assimilate, digest, take advantage of, recycle, transmute, transfigure and revive the major and minor myths (in the sense Barthes gives it in Mythologies), the memories lost or gained, the worn-out or numbed forms? By excavating the dark tunnel of reality and the sinuous canal of critique into utopianism, does art not prevent the repetition of the sacrificial rituals that in the past sucked the air of out the world? More than in other epochs, by giving immanence to transcendence, time to eternity, the divided to the undivided, the fragment to the whole, the material to the spiritual, the human to the divine, the animal to the human, the relative to the absolute, price to value, the absent to the present, the empty to the full, the far to the near, did contemporary art not shed light on the false enigmas that fed the centuries? By exposing its fragility, incoherence, hesitation, doubt, blockage, blindness and search, does contemporary art not give art another, broader dimension that was lacking?

These and other questions, coming from anxiety and impertinence, do not abate. To them we could add many more, coming from astuteness and disquiet. The truth is that in order to think art, and the time in which it is made, answers are not lacking if the missing questions are not lacking.

Contemporary art is a large spider, as formidable as those of Louise Bourgeois, weaving its web to seduce, capture and imprison those upon which it preys and who prey upon it. In the fictitious and resistant infinity of its threads lie the flows and phenomena that are the foundations and the fractures of its flashes and failures. If there is a subject that convokes, brings together and induces other subjects, other aspects, other themes and topics, then this is it. A dossier on contemporary art can never be finished, it can only be abandoned.

Our magazine dedicates the ‘Subject’ of this edition to contemporary art. Aside from critically thinking a theme at the epicentre of the intellectual debate of our time, it also contributes in order to reiterate and renew the cultural and artistic identity of the EDP Foundation, MAAT and Electra, where contemporary art has a meaning with multiple signifiers – an irreplaceable locus of memory and continuity, fidelity and finality, drive and future.

Artists make art and art makes the artists that make it. Each have their poetics and praxis. ‘How people see my painting is not my problem, it’s theirs. I don’t paint for other people; I paint for myself.’ This was declared by Francis Bacon, one of the most renowned and highly valued painters in the world, in an interview given in 1991–1992, at the very end of his life. When he was asked about money, the author of a new portrait of Pope Innocence X (made, in Warholian fashion, from a reproduction of Velázquez’s portrait), Bacon replied: ‘I’m quite happy to have it. In the beginning I could never have imaged I’d make money with my painting. I was lucky people like my paintings and buy them, although I really don’t understand why they do it.’

In Bacon’s seemingly anachronistically insolent answers, there is at once a serene message and a restless interpellation meant for all who lend their gaze, ardour, conviction and disquiet to art.

In Francis Bacon’s words, there is an invitation for all who read them not to answer to the fast, chaotic and vertiginous movement of the world with a resentful, fearful and resigned intellectual passivity. Sometimes, the refusal of that passivity is called art.

1. TN – English version for this essay
2. TN – English version for this essay


francis bacon

Francis Bacon, Self-portrait, 1970 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Courtesy Marlborough Gallery