The Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies

Contemporary (Post) modernity? Canonization Processes of Advanced Art in Germany and Sweden 1977 – 2007


Field: Konstvetenskap
Project leader: Dan Karlholm
Starting year: 2010

This research project serves to enhance our understanding of the evaluation and temporalization of advanced art in Northern Europe 1977-2007. It aims to examine a wide selection of discursive art world events (e.g. documents in advance of exhibitions, installations, reviews, sales figures) in Germany and Sweden during this period from the vantage point of canonization processes, i.e. the ways by which something, such as specific examples of art, gain and retain their (high) value. Some of these ways include curatorial initiatives, market evaluation, institutional representation, critical response and the scholarly production of historical narratives. Although an art work only enters the canon, if at all, after a certain period has passed, the processes of canonization are operative from the very moment the work of art enters the art world. But while we may speak of the canon, meaning the most established range of masterpieces – first established in its modern, universal form in mid-19th-century-Germany – there is no such thing as a monolithic canon formation process. These processes are highly complex since contextbased, contingent and typically tacit.

At least since Hegel in the early 1800s, art has traditionally been seen as the index of cultural history. The discourse of post-modernism and contemporary art that came to dominance after 1977 is no different than early modernism in this respect. Substantial parts of art criticism, eventually transformed into art history, are still about art’s chasing of the Zeitgeist. I would follow up on this and ask: What is the relation of recent, highly valued works of art to “their” time? How does the canonical selection register the passages of time? On – and in – what terms has the favoured art been described and valued? What temporal mode – the timeless, temporary, timely? – does it activate?

The project would counter the extremely strong Anglo-American emphasis in evaluations of post-war art and art history, and bridge what is typically compartmentalized into separate national histories. It would detect common denominators between Sweden/the Nordic countries and Germany/Continental Europe regarding art evaluation and canon formation. It would also increase our knowledge of hard-estimated canonization processes in general, on which the culture and economy of the art system depends as well as reveal the grounds for the unprecedented transnational valorisation of contemporary art since the late 1970s.