IN PRAISE OF PLURALISM
An introduction by Jonathan P. Watts, May 2012
Pluralism n. 1 a state of society in which members of diverse social groups develop their traditional cultures or special interests within a common civilization. 2 the holding of two or more offices or positions. plurality n. the state of being plural or numerous.
In the face of Pluralism in the early 1980s, American art historian Arthur C. Danto declared the ‘end of art history’. As Danto explained, Pluralism carried with it the ‘implication that there was no longer any historical direction. That meant that there was no longer a vector to art history, and no longer a basis in truth for the effort to spot the historically next thing.’
Notionally, the coming of Pluralism would be liberating: a final blow for category distinctions between what art is and what art is not; between good and bad; worthy and unworthy. Politically, Pluralism is democratic — inclusive. Fractured, lacking cohesiveness, it can be contrasted with its opposite: Monism — a philosophical view that attributes oneness to reality, a unity to all existing things by a single concept or system.
In 1985 the filmmaker Tina Keane and film historian Michael O’Pray curated The New Pluralism, an exhibition at Tate Britain that surveyed British artists’ moving image made between 1980-85. No singular dominant narrative emerged, leading to Keane and O’Pray claiming that the sheer diversity of work was ‘in a state of flux’. Boundaries between video and film had dissolved. Work presented variously ripped and remixed television imagery; personal issues became prescient; issues of race, gender and sexuality made the agenda.
Pluralism is not merely limited to art. It had widely been used to describe a diversity of forms and voices in other media too, including music, philosophy, politics... To pick one recent example from literature (20 years after The New Pluralism exhibition): describing recent developments in British nature writing, last year the writer and broadcaster Tim Dee called it the ‘New Pluralism’. He calls it this because so many genres seem to qualify as nature writing, they ‘tumble together’, as he says. Biography melds with travelogue, fiction blends with fact, hokey speculation with scientific tract.
To what extent is the issue of Pluralism a live one? Pluralism is not ‘new’ as could be deduced from Dee’s naming. Arguably, it is the very basis of our lives today in a diverse multicultural Britain. In art terms the cliche that ‘art is art if I say it is art’ might be a consequence of Pluralism, but more importantly its effect has been an end to ‘pure’ artworks, an end to ‘isms’ and easy historicization.
In 2010 the New York-based art journal e-flux published their ‘What is Contemporary Art Issue?’ The editorial begins with a story. It tells of how e-flux’s attempt to develop a wiki archive for contemporary art is thwarted by... Pluralism. When it came to designing a simple menu structure to allow readers to navigate the archive there seemed no coherent organising principle. The archive could not be structured around a movement — there have been no significant movements in the past 20 years. It could not be a medium — contemporary artists work with many different materials, often combining them in hybrid ways. The lack of apparent objective structure or criterion that would make the archive intelligible ‘completely derailed’ the project. It was abandoned.
The intriguing point at play is that art works continue to go into museums and galleries, are bought by collectors, is taught in art schools. Although there may be no obvious way to classify the diversity of works produced by artists today, work enters into very concrete settings for continued reception and production of art, where its identity, it seems, is taken for granted.
The e-flux editorial accepts the difficulty of historicizing the recent-past. One can interpret a group of artworks — draw on a frame of reference — in order to situate and understand. Yet, to impose a narrative on a group, a story that unifies, might stop meaning short (as Keane and O’Pray recognised early on in ’85). Interestingly, a proposed solution by editors of the What is Contemporary Art Issue? call for some way of determining what is art and what is not art: Perhaps it is time to approach the notion of contemporary art as a fully formed cultural project with certain defined parameters, complete with logics of inclusion and exclusion not so different from those of the modernist project.
If Pluralism heralded a radical — liberating — dissolution of boundaries, would it not be a conservative gesture to call for a logics of inclusion and exclusion? The editors of e-flux suggest that such a move need not necessarily direct contemporary art back towards Monism. It would instead develop new criteria for valuing contemporary art, make it intelligible, and in theory affirm the possibilities for new directions in art production. Yet, how does one close the floodgates? Rather than understanding Pluralism in art as ‘anything goes’ (besides, a lazy position) I would agree with the co-editor of Frieze magazine Jörg Heiser who values art with an identity that is not clearly distinguishable, does not try to be ‘pure’, that does not allow itself to be historicized — a vision of art continuous with Pluralism that is Impure and, as such, rich and radical.
Why this little-archaeology of Pluralism? It strikes me that the work in the Future Exhibition resists this archival logic described by e-flux editors. In the best way.
Please click here to see Jonathan's blog
This introduction was part of the Future Exhibition publication of May 2012 which received great response from institutions and organisations in the arts such as: University Campus Suffolk (UK), Snape Arts Festival (UK), Lookout Gallery (UK)