CCTP 738:
Contemporary Art: Theory, Practice, Institutions

Spring 2010


[archived course]




Professor Martin Irvine
Communication, Culture & Technology Program
Georgetown University

Required Books [these editions only]

  • David Campany, Art and Photography. New York, Phaidon Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7148-4756-6
  • David Hopkins, Art after Modern Art, 1945-2000 (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2000). ISBN: 019284234X. [=Hopkins]
  • Hans Werner Holzwarth, ed. Art Now, Vol. 3. Köln, London, Los Angeles:Taschen: 2008. ISBN: 978-3-8365-0511-6 [=ArtNow 3]
  • Klaus Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987: Commerce into Art. Rev. edition. Taschen, 2000. ISBN: 3822863211.
  • Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. ISBN: 9780520220409 [See also Web version]

Recommended Books

  • Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993)
  • Tyler Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1998)
  • Regis Debray, Media Manifestos, trans. Eric Rauth (London and New York: Verso, 1996)
  • William D. Grampp, Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists, and Economics (New York: Basic Books, 1989)
  • Karl Ruhrberg, et al. Art of the 20th Century (New York: Taschen, 2000)
  • James Heilbrun and Charles M. Gray, The Economics of Art and Culture, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)
Weekly Seminar Modus Operandi

This seminar will be developed in real time with the participation of seminar members. The entire world of contemporary art as it happens is our domain, including the legacy of the past and inclusion of new media. Prior knowledge of modern and contemporary art is helpful, but not required.

Each week after the introductory weeks we will do a short profile on an artist, group, or significant movement to build students' familiarity with contemporary visual art. Each seminar meeting will begin with a short student presentation on the readings and art sources of the week, presented in the Wiki space for weekly discussions. Weekly discussion will be centered around student contributions to the course Wiki site.

Field Trips

We will arrange a group trips for museum and gallery visits.

Requirements and Grades

Final grades will be based on weekly written discussion on our course site Wiki, student participation and small collaborative group presentations, and a final Wiki essay project.

Course Resources

Art Sources [Directory of art publications, museums, galleries]
Artists Case Studies
Extended Bibliography and Reading List
Image Library (Picasa)

Click on the + / - to expand and collapse weekly units
1 Orientation to studying contemporary art through theory, practice, and institutions []

Opening questions and orientation: How is art made and valued, how does it happen? what are the institutional conditions? how does the artworld as a system work? what is the artworld network, its nodes, and effects?

  • Lecture Notes: Contemporary Art: Introduction to Themes and Problems
  • Artists Case Studies for the seminar: exemplary artists over the past 20 years.
  • Image Resources: Web Album
  • Major directions and works in contemporary art: across all media and categories
    • Plurality of genres, mediums, conceptual arguments:
    • From materials-based (assemblage, found materials, appropriation of objects) to conceptual art (idea of work independent from the material or medium in which it is manifest
  • Recent museum exhibitions as case studies (consider museum presentations and contexts):

Case Studies for Discussion: Artists and Institutions

2 Orientation: Overview of Contemporary Art, 1950s-present (I) []


Orientation to major recognized movements from Modern to Contemporary

  • Post-WWII shift of art capital to the US and New York
  • Abstract Expressionism and color field abstraction
  • Pop art (Warhol, Lichtenstein) and new categories of New York artists (Johns, Rauschenberg)
  • Minimalism and geometric reductionism
  • Conceptual art and performance art
  • Feminist art and rise of sexual identity politics in art
  • Materials and materiality: art based on conceptual encoding of materials (Rauschenberg, Serra, Shinque Smith, Shawne Major)
  • Rise of photography a leading art medium: photography to post-photography
  • The use of video and film: analog to digital and beyond

Lecture Notes: The Artworld Visual System, c.1950-c.1980

Visual System Matrix

  • Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting | Pop Art | Minimal Art | Conceptual Art | Hybridity and Pluralism (1990s-present)
  • Beginning to theorize: semiotic matrix of interdependent meaning and value, intermedia/presuppositions, artworld reception

Hirshhorn Museum, Examples from Installations, 2004-2009


Student Presentation

3 Overview: 1960s-present (II): Ab-Ex, Modern Ideologies, Art History []

Contextualizing "Contemporary Art:"
Recent Art History and the Ideologies of Narratives of Art

To understand Pop, Minimalism, and the Pluralism of the 1980s to the present, we need to confront the constant "elephant in the living room"--the ideologies surrounding Abstract Expressionism, one of the first fully ideological art movements in modern America.

"Art history" is never a neutral catalog of facts: like any social history, "art history" is constructed from the rules for description and narrative, and us usually presupposes a teleology, a goal-directedness from an origin to a future state.

Arthur Danto on "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace"

"what they [post-Duchamp and NY pop works in the 1950s-1960s] are about is aboutness, and their content is the concept of art. The artists might as appropriately have written a paper like this, called it The Transfiguration of the Commonplace--and counted their effort a contribution to the philosophy of art, the line separating the two having all but vanished."


Artist/Movement Focus: One of the most important chapters of modern American art history centers around the rise and institutionalization of Abstract Expressionism as a culmination of modernism. We need to comes to terms with why and how.

Discussion Questions

  • Describe the work of the Ab-Ex artists in as many contexts of the artworld as possible. Consider the work as a node in the artworld network.
  • Why was the reception of Ab-Ex so strong in the artworld from the late 1940s through the early 1960s? For many people, Ab-Ex remains a paradigm, even the paradigm, of American art.
  • How does O'Doherty see the reception of these artists on the wall space of the art gallery?

Student Presentation

4 The Artworld as a Social-Economic Network and Institutional System []

Core Seminar Topic:
An introduction to the social and institutional theories of Art and the Artworld

What makes art? Instead of forming questions like "what is art?" (an unrewarding essentialist question), we should ask "how is something art?" and "when/where is art?": "how" = the social and institutional contexts that make something art vs. non-art, "when" = the historical conditions, and "where" = the institutional and location/container as precondition for Art to appear as such to us at all.

All this adds up to the social institutions in which learned codes, conditions, and contexts for Art to be known and visible. Here is where we see "art" fulfilling a cultural category.

The modern and contemporary artworld thus expands the management of the category of "fine art" as it emerged in the 18th century.


Topics for Discussion

  • Consider "Art History" (the academic discipline) as one of the institutional nodes in the artworld.
  • Consider the issues of artworld and art market concentration, the nodal effects, network externalities in attracting more activity to the same node.
  • Where does art happen? Cities as central nodes in the artworld network.
  • New York's nodes: aggregating art capital in Chelsea: Downtown Express article (this is now out of date, but it described the concentration or aggregating effect of Chelsea as an artworld node)

Contemporary Art as Global Institution: Globalized Locations and Markets, and the Global Networked City Effect

Current Example: Shepard Fairey's Retrospective at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art

  • Boston ICA site
  • Consider the accrual of symbolic capital and the kinds of cultural capital required for this artist to have a major institutionally produced twenty-year career Retrospective now.
  • The arrest and copyright fracas: ArtDaily summary.

Artist and Art Movement Focus: Andy Warhol and Pop Art

What are the institutional frames in which Pop emerged and through which it continues to be transmitted, defined, and valued?


Student Presentation

5 Theoretical Contexts (I): Art, Originals, Reproductions, Signs, Spectacles, Photography []

Photography and film have been at the center of debates and theory about contemporary art and the status of images and representation since the Modern and Postmodern eras. This unit provides an orientation to some of the conceptual issues and the transition to the current status of photography as both the high art and popular media forms of today.

  • Classic theory statements that have become part of the modern and postmodern consciousness about the contemporary social and economic conditions of art:
  • Compare Foucault on the "author function:" author/artist no longer viewed as authorizing or authenticating origin of a work.
    • Foucault, "The Author Function" (excerpt): how does this view change the theory of originals, authorship, uniqueness (and by extension, the role of the artist and status of art works?)
    • Foucault documents and texts at | Primary Texts
  • Roland Barthes, "Myth Today," from Mythologies (1984).
  • George Dillon, "Art and the Semiotics of Images," University of Washington, 1999.

An Introduction to Photography in the Contemporary Artworld


Introduction to Photography (Powerpoint presentation) (Irvine)


A major turning point in the institutionalization of photography as an art form in the history of art is the Metropolitan Museum's new gallery and department of photography, which includes many recent acquisitions of contemporary photography (1960-present). Many other museums have expanded their photography collections, expanded departments, and added curators to manage the expanding use of photography, film, and digital media in art today.

Historical Overviews from the Metropolitan Museum

History of Photography Resources Pictorialism in America (1880s-1920) | Photography and Everyday Life (1945-60)
Photography Department, Metropolitan Museum Alfred Stieglitz and American Photography (1860s-1946) | The Pictures Generation (1970s) | Photography in the Expanded Field (1960s-80s) | Conceptual Art and Photography
Introduction to Photography and the New Gallery at the Met Art and Photography: 1980s | Art and Photography: 1990s-present |

Introductory Theory and Statements on Photography

Wiki discussion

6 Theoretical Contexts (II): Postmodernism, Post-postmodernism, New Media []

"Anything can be art now or in the future--if it works--and there are no hierarchies of style except on the basis of past performances. All these are powerless to govern the future. What may have been the high style of one period becomes the kitsch of another." Who said this, and when?

Seminar Resources:

Postmodernism Node: Working with Postmodernism

Modernism to Postmodernism: Readings/Sources:

Lecture Presentation: Art and Popular Culture: The Art and Fashion Node

Artist Focus: Major Women Photographers Since Postmodernism: Slide Library (Picasa)

Cindy Sherman (multiple identities, breaking the iconography of the female image and the "indexical" function of the photograph)

Nan Goldin (snap shot aesthetic, intimacy, blur between direct and staged shots, image and identity)

Inez Van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin: Post-Postmodernism meets post-feminism (fashion, nudes, portraits,disrupting images of the body)

Wiki Discussion and Student Presentation


7 Pierre Bourdieu: The Theory of Cultural Capital and the Circulation of Symbolic Goods


The artworld functions (mostly) through a binary logic (maintaining the distinction between art and non-art): we need to analyze the art/non-art cultural categories and their fungible (exchange) value. Following the lead of Pierre Bourdieu, we will consider these important topics:

1. cultural capital and symbolic goods
2. the "economics of disavowal," value creation by using a discourse of disinterestedness (detachment, non-engagement with money) for denying economics, money, and business in the production, marketing, and purchase of art works
3. the fungible value of art works: at various points in a value sequence (value chain), works of art can be purchased and valued at a dollar amount
4. the development of the artworld as a semi-autonomous field and economic sector

  • Art business often succeeds (like academe) by pretending not to be doing what it is doing (creating symbolic capital at a market exchange price).
  • The function of the "economics of disavowal" and negation of the economic, appearing disinterested in financial capital in order to accumulate symbolic capital.
  • Development of art and the artworld as an autonomous field.


"Cracking the Art Value Code: Thinking with Bourdieu" (Irvine) (Presentation)


Seminar Notes: The "Art" vs. "Non-Art" Binary: Describing the Strategies for Maintaining the Cultural Category of "Art" (Irvine)


Art Market Cases:

Artist Focus: Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince

Assignment/Discussion Topics

For the wiki discussion, write about one of the artists for this week with the methodology of analyzing art value.

Student Presentations

8 The Museum System: Ideologies of art spaces and art experiences []


Backgrounds in Museum History and Ideology

  • O'Doherty, White Cube (conclusions and bringing back into discussion)
  • James Putnam, Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001): 8-45, 154-161, 166-67 (Anthony Gormley, European Field installation), 184-191.
    • See also images: Gormley 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
  • Edward P. Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1996): Chap. 1 | Chap. 2 (pp. 3-37).
  • Neil Harris, "The Divided House of the American Art Museum," Daedalus (Summer 1999: America's Museums) 128/3 (1999): 33-56.
  • Didier Maleuvre, Museum Memories: History, Technology, Art (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999): 9-21, 39-56, 87-112
  • Larry Shiner, "Architecture vs. Art: The Aesthetics of Art Museum Design," Contemporary Aesthetics, 5 (2007).

Museums and the Meta-Museum: Beginnings of Institutional Critique:


Case Studies

© Murakami @ MOCA-LA-Geffen Contemporary:
Museum Exhibition Case Study: Follow the Money and Symbolic Capital

© Murakami is made possible by endowment support from the Sydney Irmas Exhibition Endowment. The exhibition and publication are made possible by generous support from Maria and Bill Bell. Major support is provided by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. Generous additional support is provided by Steven and Alexandra Cohen; Kathi and Gary Cypres; Gagosian Gallery; Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris and Miami; The Norton Family Foundation; Dallas Price-Van Breda; Janet and Tom Unterman; Ruth and Jacob Bloom; Marianne Boesky; David Teiger; The MOCA Contemporaries; The Japan Foundation; and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

Wiki and Student Presentations

9 The Structure and Sectors of the "Art Economy": the Market System and Value Creation []

The main sectors of the artworld "value system": art schools, dealers & galleries, museums and "non-profit" art exhibition spaces, art fair exhibition organizations and venues, auction houses, art media (press, publications, published commentary and criticism). How is value created in the whole networked economy?


Lecture Notes and Seminar Outlines:

The Gallery and Primary Art Market System

  • Art galleries and the art value system
  • The role of art fairs: concentration of information, network economies, and transaction costs
  • Coverage of Art Basel. Art Basel-Miami Beach, and other fairs
  • The Art Newspaper
  • Economist (Nov. 2009): "How to Make Art History."

Art Industry Case Study: The Whitney Biennials

The Whitney Biennial discloses the various nodes in the artworld economic network: see the funders list (which is only a small party of the story, since the value chain creators have been the artists' dealers, galleries, collectors, and prior artworld contexts that allowed them to be visible to the museum curators per se.)

Biennials, Art Fairs, Museum Exhibitions as Institutions of Value

Student Presentations

10 The Art Value Chain: How Value is Created []

The traditional business question, "What's the Value Proposition," also applies to art and cultural goods.

The "art value chain:" the network of value exchanges. How the system of symbolic capital circulates and creates fungible value.


  • Dave Hickey, "Frivolity and Unction" in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997): 61-72, 199-209. [countering the moral views of art as "good for you."]
  • Grampp, Pricing the Priceless, Chap. 2, "The Acquisition of Art," and Chap. 4, "The Art Market": 40-78, 123-166.
  • Robert Lacy, Sotheby's: Bidding for Class (Boston, New York: Little, Brown, 1998), 255-61; 270-71.
  • András Szántó, "The Business of Art," American Prospect, 11/8, February 28, 2000 [critique of aspects of the art business]

The Art Value Chain and the Art Economy Network (Irvine)

"Cracking the Art Value Code: Thinking with Bourdieu" (Irvine) (Presentation)

Online Art Market Sources

Auctions and Results from the Auction Houses

Case studies:

Picasso's "Boy With Pipe". Compare the background on the sale of Van Gogh's "Irises" at Sotheby's in 1987 and its effect on the art market (in Lacy, Sotheby's). See:New York Times, May 7, 2004 Artnet review of Sotheby's sale (Art Market Watch, 5/6/04).

Student Presentations

11 Art Criticism, Art Discourse, and the Art Media []

The function of media criticism in the matrix of relations with galleries, collectors, museums, auction houses. The kinds of art discourse and how they constitute art objects and how people know them.


Become familiar with the major art journals and magazines:

For seminar discussion:

  • Review copies of the latest issues of ARTnews, Artforum, Art in America, Art Newspaper (London).
  • Other influential art writing in The New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine.
    • Compare with levels of discourse in The Washington Post and other regional papers.
  • Art criticism in the art press has become something like analysts reports from investment firms (eagerly involved in influencing the marketplace and tied in with gallery advertising).
  • How journalistic art criticism constructs its objects: news writing templates, style, audience, idea of  "news coverage," arts and personality journalism (cover the artist, not the art), positioning art as middle class accessory, celebrity and fashion, art and luxury goods co-branding.
  • Discuss the function of major magazines and journalistic styles:
    • ARTnews, Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art (and companion websites)
    • Art criticism in the major newspapers and weeklies (NYT, New Yorker, Time, New Republic, Village Voice, etc.)
    • What kind of advertising?
  • Websites as magazines for art: Artnet, Artinfo, etc.
  • Some major art critics and their influence: Roberta Smith and Michael Kimmelman (NYT); Jerry Saltz (Formerly Voice now New York, Artnet)
  • Artforum vs. October: Supposed "collusion" of art criticism and publication with commercial art interest occasioned founding of October journal and left-leaning critics abandoning Artforum in 1976.
  • Review and discussion of Artforum, Art in America, ARTnews; major newspaper and newsweekly critics.
  • Common art discourse and the circle of "collective institutional misrecognition" (Bourdieu): how does the pressure to maintain "common sense" discourse work to repress questions and challenges proposed by other (theoretical) discourses?

Student Wiki Presentations

12 Photography and Contemporary Art []

Photography is the medium of our time: almost all other image-making--and abstraction--assumes the photographic image as a reference point, source, or implied comparison.

Photography has a more recent history in the "fine art" world: the art collector's market and serious museum acquisitions emerged gradually from the 1970s to the present. Now, it's taken for granted. Consider: the adoption of some kinds of photography within the art category, and emergence of the photography market in contemporary art. The cross-over and merging of sectors in photography: artworld, fashion, design, architecture, advertising, popular media (film and television).

Important points: it's not useful to talk about "photography" in general: we should ask, what are the social uses of the photograph, what genre of a photograph are we dealing with, how do genres of photographs and arguments about photography play out in the artworld and the art value system?

Readings and Sources

Important arguments and theory about the role of the photographic image

Some Key Topics for Discussion:

Genres, styles, approaches, arguments within the practices of contemporary photography

Art Market Sources and Information

DVD-video on various artists and their studio practice (from Photography Contacts Series and PBS Art21 series): in class

Student Wiki Discussion

13 Art and Visual Culture: Media Systems, Technology, Culture, Art []

The "visual culture studies" debate in the artworld: Can the study of visual art and the artworld be subsumed under the new field of "visual culture studies"? Consider the contexts, debates, theory traditions.

The ongoing hybridization of genres, materials, and high/low cultural sources is one aspect of the real-time artworld that corresponds to the "visual culture" debates.

This "always already" hybridity and cross-mediality of today's visual culture and the artworld may be one way of arriving at a post-postmodern view that does more than recycle the old debates about modernism and postmodernism.

Is this consolidation of art theory useful to the institutions of the artworld beyond careers in academe?



Recommended: Additional Reading and Theory Resources

Student Presentation

14 Final Seminar Project Presentations []

Final Wiki Project Instructions

Group review of Wiki content and presentation of final Wiki project ideas.
Martin Irvine
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Contemporary Art: Theory, Practice, and Institutions
by Martin Irvine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.