Visit any contemporary art exhibition in the world. You might be shocked, but it is unlikely that you will be surprised. You will probably see something huge and imposing—in fact, almost everything will be BIG. There will be appropriated pop culture images and graffiti, found objects in installation, photographs of the artist (probably in serial), and definitely electronics—video and neon and interactive computer-ish things. Perhaps there will be some naked people (and if there are, they will probably be posted all over the city as exhibition advertisements). There will be large-scale photographic social commentary, and, inevitably, there will be a retrospective of an important late-nineteenth-or twentieth-century artist—Warhol or Picasso or Jasper Johns. The museum shop will also be featured prominently, usually at the main entrance. What you will rarely find is a thorough discussion of what is being presented. This is part of the unique phenomenon of contemporary art. The art and the presentation of the art have merged into a murky space that resists clarity of explanation and understanding. The reason for this lack is tied to the very ideas behind contemporary art, but as the role of a museum is to clarify and educate, it is even more crucial that museums and galleries carefully present contemporary art in a way that interrogates and carefully examines what is being produced.
When I took my first art history class at BYU in the early 1980s, I was a little perplexed to see that the art covered in the textbook only reached until about 1970. I wanted to know what had happened in the last ten years. What is even more distressing now, in 2014, is that nothing has really changed much. Most textbooks still culminate with a nice discussion of minimalism and post-minimalist movements and then give a very short, somewhat random smattering of artists and movements from the 1980s through the present. Even books specifically on contemporary art offer only a catalog of important artists and various individual ideologies, but no overarching principle that elucidates the art scene of the past thirty years. From this it would seem that there is no defining movement of our current era—that it is indeed just a smattering of individual artists and ideas. It is post-post-postmodern. Anything goes. It is impossible to define. And yet there are similarities. When one goes to a contemporary art museum, there is continuity—a unifying principle. But what, exactly, is it?