Where are the Masterpieces of Our Time?

If the notion of the masterpiece pertains to a category of modernist art, then we could certify that in our postmodernity there is no longer a place for them. Historically, one of the first tasks of so-called masterpieces has been to identify a period. This quality of representing the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist,sucked them into higher values on the market, although on occasions their entry into the patrimony of humanity protected them from commercial ups and downs. The question that provides the title for this text is obviously rhetorical, though it interrogates us about those contemporary pieces that possess or acquire a character that represents the zeitgeist. One could carry out a survey amongst professionals and art lovers for examples of these works from the last ten or twenty years. The answers would be a motley assortment. Despite the market trying to inflate the horizon with never-ending promises of the next-big-thing, the durability of these promises is revealed to be ephemeral. However, the market still plays a role, maybe not in the fabrication of masterpieces so much as by raising monuments that aspire to emerge as timeless symbols, at the same time as being representations of historic junctures.

In any consideration of contemporary masterpieces the association with architecture, and the sphere of architects, also ends up being inevitable. Art and architecture. I’m referring to Ai Weiwei with the Olympic stadium in Beijing (2008) (along with Herzog & de Meuron), or more recently the sculpture ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor (also in celebration of the Olympics in London this year). In both instances it’s a case of art in close alliance with capital and power. Now if we established another survey, about the artistic pieces that best represent the current phase of global capitalism, possibly these two would win all the bets. This derives (luckily for us) from the fact that art on its own is incapable, not even with polemics and scandal, of concentrating the attention of the media or the social impact that any masterpiece would claim. Contemporary architecture, or this association of interests between power and capital that I mentioned, does manage, albeit failing on a critical level, as despite their popularity (or populism) these new monuments of cultural spectacle veto their own entry into the pantheon due to their excess and grandiloquence. They don’t serve. It also ends being ironic that both Kapoor and Weiwei have in recent times paid tribute to the Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) by Vladimir Tatlin, the first with his tower in London and the second with Fountain of Light (2007), a personal “version” of Tatlin’s monument but as if it was a huge spider of lights. These pieces converted into spectacle only account for a typical, citational, post-modern style that is of little interest.

Maybe instead of looking in this direction, a more modest type of art could illuminate our inquiry. It is known that the Documenta in Kassel has always been the place where the volatile zeitgeist has had an abode from which to materialise. The accumulated memory of art turns our attention, over and over again to the German rendezvous, and the sediments solidify. The names and works flow in the collective memory. Documenta, quite aside from whether it does or doesn’t produce masterpieces, has always been generous in the elaboration of images that operate as indicators of the zeitgeist. There exists a fairly broad consensus amongst the critics that the work, from the last dOCUMENTA (13) that most aspired to occupy any place of honour, is that of Pierre Huyghe. Untilled (2011-2012) lists in its explanatory sign the following materials: “living entities and inanimate things, made and not made”. Huyghe, a big name within art, can be more or less gratifying, but this work made of materials, animals and rubbish, has to be taken seriously. It would also be naïve here not to see the market (the sign makes it quite clear), however, the difference with respect to the previous examples is notable.

The circulation of images of the no-place indicated by Huyghe amplifies their effect, along with the oral and experiential mythology (who saw the greyhound and who didn´t! or even who saw Huyghe, and who didn’t!). One has to admit with regret that, from the marathon of the dOCUMENTA (13) and the Karlsaue, the installation of Huyghe was left pending. Even so, the circulation of the memories of those who experienced it can be enough; Untilled becomes the work that symbolises the current collapse in to which things have entered. Detritus and composting as metaphors for the spirit of our time, our zeitgeist. The beauty of waste, the no man’s land and abandonment seem to nourish a spirit of decomposition that needs to process, recycle and compost…to become renewed material. We don’t know if it is a masterpiece but Untilled is worthy of entering into the category of non-masterpiece, representing the totality of the world distilling its symptoms of decomposition.

Text previously published at

Peio Aguirre writes about art, film, music, theory, architecture and politics, amongst other subjects. The genres he works in are the essay and meta-commentary, a hybrid space that fuses disciplines on a higher level of interpretation. He also (occasionally) curates and performs other tasks. He writes on the blog “Crítica y metacomentario” (Criticism and metacommentary).

Recent Posts

How to Sleep Faster #6: Sex

The 6th issue of How to Sleep Faster, the critical theory/poetry journal published by Arcadia Missa, continues HTSF’s investigation into contemporary sociopolitical and philosophical issues through the prisms of feminism, queer theory and Marxist critique. For this issue HTSF attempts to grapple with the most intimate of all subjects: sex. As a response to the mainstreaming of much identity-political discourse on sex (#heforshe, Everyday Sexism, No More Page Three, to mention a few), ‘the act… [read more »]

TELFAR storms The Castle!

On Sep 14th, for about four hours, a little under 200 people experienced one of the greatest nights of their lives at the after-party for designer TELFAR’s S/S 2016 NYFW presentation. It happened at a White Castle in Times square — well out of range of Fashion GPS and with no press or photographers in attendance. Those who went to the Wolfgang Tillmans after party at Neuehouse instead have the rest of their lives to… [read more »]

All Dukyana Everywhere

Recently, I spent a beautiful summer eve with my friend and her two goats in scenic Beacon, New York. Their emotional life–and dietary habits–began to fascinate me, as they frolicked and whatever in the backyard. We laughed over cab franc and chatted about natural fiber sourcing from various South American farms, while the goats battled over their toys. Mohair has to come from somewhere… Enter Dukyana, Bulgaria’s Dior. Where does all of this angora come from?… [read more »]

Art, Design, and The Future of Privacy

Join artists, cryptographers, critical theorists, architects, designers, sociologists, user experience researchers and other bright luminaries for a casual evening discussing privacy, the culture of technology, and possibilities for creative intervention in the age of ubiquitous digital tracking. Taking place at Pioneer Works on Thursday, September 17th at 7:30pm, the conversation will move from the stage to the audience to end the night with a party atmosphere and plenty of shared discussion. Check the Facebook event, and more… [read more »]

Tomorrow Today | Armen Avanessian

This September curated by_vienna brings together more than 20 international curators and invites them to present exhibitions in 20 of Vienna’s leading contemporary art galleries. Reflections on the intersections between art and capital provide the impetus for curated by_vienna 2015. Philosopher Armen Avanessian‘s epynomous essay “Tomorrow Today” addresses artistic strategies for a post-capitalist era. Avanessian explores future (and already existing) alternative models of art and economy. Today, science fiction might be the best kind of… [read more »]

Nina Cristante | 63rd-77th steps

Nina Cristante is an artist, autodidactic nutritionist, Aquarius and my best friend. Had it not been for a mutual friend linking us during her temporary stay in NYC seven months back, I may’ve never been introduced to the full spectrum of her work. Just a subtle trail of digital breadcrumbs. Slow-mo-promo. A whisper, a wink, a bikini body meme. A deliberately ambiguous website hosting austere at-home workout videos and fragments of clients’ food diaries.

G.U.Y. (Remix) – Larry B

LARRY B remixes Gaga’s iconic and unforgettable G.U.Y. Paired down yet rich, Larry B’s remix will push you to seriously reconsider this hit from Spring 2014. Giving Gaga’s vocal track a slower, darker, more physical instrumental track feels right. The pitched down vocal accentuates and furthers the slippage between sexual power dynamics. I’ll lay down face up this time, under you like a G.U.Y. I wanna be that Girl Under You, GUY Familiar vocals echo… [read more »]

Saved to your collection: navigating SoundCloud’s subculture

Navigating the social music platform SoundCloud, scores of electronic music producers define their subjectivities with the self-referential motifs of emergent subcultures. In the late 1970s, French economist and writer Jacques Attali critiqued what he saw as the oppressive nature of the mass-produced record industry, claiming that consumers were driven to stockpile more records than they had the time to listen to. His 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music argued that the music industry… [read more »]

Ready4Hillary Goes Ready2Wear

Recently, DIS Magazine has explored the ethics of the environmental crisis with the DISaster issue, and addressed urgent questions related to big data with the Too Big To Scale issue. By launching the DISawareness collection, we wanted to incorporate these discussions and ideas into DISown.  We approached an array of artists to design T-shirts that engaged critical issues that shake the political moment.  Now that Hillary Clinton’s fashion-forward swag is #trending, it seems as though the T-shirt is gaining political… [read more »]

Film Fun: Us and the box office

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away, I was a closeted teen, reading the copy of Entertainment Weekly my dad brought home from the office, assessing the box office performance of 8 Mile and quietly predicting to myself what percentage it would drop in its second weekend. As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. For that little cinefag inside us all, Film Fun is a place where it can run free. The… [read more »]