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What is the future of the contemporary?

How does contemporary art best respond to social crisis? An excerpt from Crisis as Form by Peter Osborne

Peter Osborne 7 September 2022

What is the future of the contemporary?

To give artistic form to crisis, Peter Osborne suggests one needs to understand contemporary art’s own constitutive crisis of form.

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‘What is the future of the contemporary?’ is a question that is increasingly asked, in forums about finance as well as about art. It reasserts that insistent logic of the modern which the structure of contemporaneity itself complicates, from within. There are different ways of understanding the question. Here, I shall interpret it as an inquiry into the future of the concept of the contemporary as a critical means for grasping a new form of historical time, produced by new forms of social relations, giving rise to new kinds of historical experience. As such, ‘the contemporary’ names a structure of historical temporality on a global scale, which is a consequence of globalization (that is, the globalization of capital-based economic relations and their systems of communications).

The future of the contemporary posited here is, thus, not a new ‘content’ of some sort – it is not about ‘new contemporaries’, as they say in the artworld, where in the UK the phrase names an annual exhibition of young artists sponsored by Bloomberg, the New York financial, data and media corporation. Rather, the future of the contemporary posited here is that of the ongoing, global diffusion of a temporal structure, the basic form of which (disjunctive conjuncture) is thereby intensified and rendered increasingly complicated, cutting across and transforming previously established historical relations.

I shall approach this future methodologically, as the object of a process of conceptual construction and reflection, drawing upon two disparate but convergent sources: Georges Canguilhem’s famous account of what it means ‘to work a concept’, from his 1963 essay ‘Gaston Bachelard’s Dialectics and Philosophy of No’; and Manfredo Tafuri’s account of what he called ‘the historical project’, in the 1980 introduction, of that title, to his collection of essays, The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. It might seem strange to bring together a text by a French philosopher of science from the early 1960s with one by an Italian historian of architecture from the late 1970s, as a way to discuss the concept of the contemporary today; especially when we bear in mind that ‘contemporary’ emerges as a critical category, within a internationalized theoretical discourse, only in the course of the 1990s, in the wake of the rapid collapse in the plausibility of the concept of the postmodern after ‘1989’ – a collapse almost as sudden as that of the Berlin Wall itself. Yet, as I hope to show, these two texts address issues that are central to current theoretical debates about the concept of the contemporary: namely, transdisciplinary concept construction and critique and historical criticism, respectively.

It is thus not Tafuri’s history of architecture that I am concerned with here, although there are some connections to it, as there are to his account of the historical destruction of architecture in his 1973 book, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. Rather, it is Tafuri’s contribution to the philosophy of history: specifically, the philosophy of history as the philosophy of historical time (where ‘history’ names the speculative totalization of historical time – including all present futures); and, more specifically, the philosophy of historical time today, that is, under the conditions of capital as a globalizing social process, viewed from the phenomenological standpoint of the present as history or the standpoint of the construction of historical experience.

Tafuri is the starting point here for an argument that goes beyond anything he wrote, but which nonetheless aims to remain true to the spirit of what I take to be his central concept in this field: namely, not merely ‘history as a project’ (a quasi-Sartrean formulation) but ‘history as a project of crisis’. It is this grammatically awkward and conceptually tense construction – project of crisis/progetto di crisi – which is of particular interest with regard to the temporality of contemporaneity. ‘Working the concept’ of the contemporary into a historical concept, at the level of global political economy gives a new, living meaning to Tafuri’s definitive proposition: ‘The historical “project” is always the “project of a crisis”’.

Note that ‘project’ and ‘project of a crisis’ are each accompanied in this sentence by inverted commas, as a sign of both their technical philosophical usage and the self-consciousness of the irony they carry. This is an irony that is ineliminable from any post-Hegelian philosophy of history, even when – indeed, especially when – such a philosophy of history has been existentially, temporally and geopolitically problematized and transformed, by being converted from a narrative meta-genre into a philosophy of historical time, or better (to deploy an early Heideggerian formulation in a new context), an existential ontology of historical temporalization.

Furthermore, when one hears the key mediating term ‘project’ here, in English – Tarfuri’s progetto – one should bear in mind not only its existential-ontological connotations (the translational shadow of Heidegger’s Entwurf that became Sartre ’s projet) – as mediated in Tafuri via Massimo Cacciari, and his parallel readings of Heidegger and Benjamin – but also the architectural connotations of progetto as ‘design’ and ‘plan’. Indeed, some would argue, one may detect the connotation of ‘architecture ’ itself. History is an architecture of crisis, we might say. Or, in the spirit of Tafuri’s own architectural writings: history has the architecture of the crisis of architecture. For, in Tafuri, the concept of the project of crisis is a product of his perception of the fate of architecture, the so called ‘crisis of architecture ’ – a formulation he actually rejected, since it suggests that ‘architecture ’, in its conventional meaning, might survive. For Tafuri, it cannot/has not. ‘Project of crisis’, then, we might say, is an architecture of crisis writ large – writ large because it is addressed to the source of the crisis of architecture in history itself, that is, in the history of capitalism: in the subjection of architecture (with its primacy of the project, design or plan) to a capitalistic form of urban planning, in which the capital functions of building have primacy over all other architectural and social forms. Architecture and its crisis/end functions here, in Tafuri, as a model of history itself.

-- an excerpt from Crisis as Form by Peter Osborne 

Crisis as Form
Criticism of contemporary art is split by an opposition between activism and the critical function of form. Yet the deeper, more subterranean terms of art-judgment are largely neglected on both sid...