Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Lisa Trahair reviews Peter Osborne’s Anywhere or Not at All

Peter Osborne. Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art. London and New York: Verso, 2013. 288 pp. Paperback $29.95.

Reviewed by Lisa Trahair

For Peter Osborne the key to understanding contemporary art is its contemporaneity. Moreover this contemporaneity makes contemporary art post-conceptual. Osborne’s book Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art not only consummately backs up his claims with carefully wrought arguments, but uses the idea of art’s contemporaneity—which distinguishes ‘contemporary art’ from art simply produced in the here and now—to endorse work by artists Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Robert Smithson, The Atlas Group, Gordon Matta-Clark, Amar Kanwar, Navjot Altaf, and Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, whose purpose is to engage in a critically reflective way with the world in which we live, which is to say, the mediatized, networked, geopolitical entity we understand as a transnational, global phenomenon.

Post-conceptual art draws on the legacy of the conceptual art of the 1960s, forming itself out of both its forebear’s insights and failures. If the historical significance of conceptual art was its response to the over-valuation of the aesthetic dimension of art in Greenbergian formalism, conceptual art’s attempt to establish an entirely analytical programme for itself by pursuing an art of pure conceptuality necessarily failed to rid art of its aesthetic dimension. Post-conceptual understands both that art is necessarily conceptual and that its aesthetic dimension is ineliminable because its materiality means that it exists in time and space. Like conceptual art, post-conceptual art refuses to adhere to the idea that the ontology of art rests in the nature of the work’s medium, form or style, but recognizing its dependence on such aesthetic material post-conceptual art takes a critical or anti-aesthetic stance towards it. Post-conceptual art also understands both that the material forms of art are not limited to traditional media but are infinitely expansive, and that the unity of an individual work is comprised not on the basis of its identity with itself in an idealized present but includes both the ‘totality of its multiple material instanciations’ at any particular time and the reconstruction of its borders over time. The aesthetic and the conceptual aspects of this art are thus subject to an on-going dialectical movement, a dynamic interplay between the work’s actual and virtual dimensions that derive from its contextual and historical relations.

In the course of setting out how contemporary art is necessarily post-conceptual art, Osborne parses the gamut of concepts associated with modernist aesthetics. He takes up the mantel of the Jena Romantics as the first philosophers to claim an identity between philosophy and the arts and to emphasise the ‘literary’—rather than the aesthetic or sensible—aspect of art. He traces the development of that thinking in key contributions to the modern European speculative tradition of philosophy and sees its culmination in the journalism of Walter Benjamin and the Benjaminian-influenced late academic writing of Theodor Adorno. The critical intention of contemporary art is understood here as that which underwrites its conceptuality, and it is aimed at either the contemporary world or the limitations of preceding art practices. This critical insistence warrants that the philosophy of contemporary art be attentive to post-conceptual art’s historicity.

As well as participating in the tradition of critical theory, Osborne’s method is constructivist. In his (speculative, dialectical and distributive) hands, constructivism responds interpretatively both to the particular artworks under examination and to the problems emanating from the insufficiencies of art history, art criticism and the philosophy of aesthetics—problems that have contributed to the general public’s disenchantment with the ‘post-conceptual tradition’ he promotes. Osborne’s most important contribution to the philosophy of modern art undoubtedly lies in his determination to redress philosophy’s dehistoricising tendencies and his rigorous delineation of the history of misconstructions of Kantian aesthetics right down to the present day. His schematization of the logics of various modernisms and his periodization of mediating forms also deserve special mention, while his capacity to synthesise the impact of new geopolitical realities on art practices—which includes the transformation of the ontology of art—make this book an important one not just for philosophers, art historians and critics, but new media theorists as well.