ASAP: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present is an international, nonprofit association dedicated to discovering and articulating the aesthetic, cultural, ethical, and political identities of the contemporary arts.

Audience for Fred Moten Keynote at ASAP/14

Our Story

ASAP celebrates the work of scholars and creative artists who speak to our moment. We investigate how the contemporary arts relate to past movements, and what legacy the contemporary arts will leave to the future. We believe in the power of the arts. We refuse the corporate division of the arts into disciplinary slivers: we create interdisciplinary dialogue. We reject the alienation of creative artists from the world of scholar-critics. We insist on poetic relation.

As part of its annual activities, ASAP hosts conferences and symposia that bring internationally recognized scholars and creative artists together to discuss and debate the latest developments in the literary, visual, and performing arts. We run an annual book prize and a prize for the outstanding graduate student scholarship. Our scholarly journal–ASAP/Journal–is hosted by the Johns Hopkins University Press and presents the best new writing on the international, post-1960s arts.

The association also

  • sponsors exhibitions and other creative venues;
  • supports the publication of journals and books devoted to the study of the contemporary arts;
  • create or sponsor information or organizational hubs whereby associations studying different aspects of the contemporary arts may come together to share scholarship;
  • encourages the formation of local ASAP-affiliated chapters with similar goals to that of the international association;
  • supports the creation and maintenance of archives of primary or secondary materials about the contemporary arts; and
  • engages in one-time affiliation with other societies, consortia, or journals to sponsor public events related to the association’s mission.


The arts of the present ought to be easy for us to grasp. After all, they are made by us and for us; they share our world; they address our condition; they come as second nature to us. Yet it is precisely because the arts and artists of the present come as second nature to us that they prove so hard for us to see clearly. This is the paradox of the contemporary: what is nearest to hand is hardest to grasp. The challenge of grasping the contemporary is aggravated by the fracturing of academic scholarship on contemporary arts into a myriad of subgroups and affiliations. Research into the contemporary arts is increasingly splintered into ever-narrower academic specializations with their own journals, their own conferences, their own intellectual traditions and disciplinary norms, their own aesthetic criteria and canons. Divided and subdivided into disciplinary slivers, our knowledge of the arts of the present slips away through the cracks. We need to work together to grasp the arts of the present as a (difficult) whole. We need a society for the study of the international contemporary arts, where scholars and practitioners of the contemporary arts, from a range of disciplines, could come together to help each other experience, reflect about, and conduct research on the arts of the present. “The present” is a moving target, so the society’s temporal scope would need to be broad, extending backward to earlier decades and precursor moments, but always with reference to their contemporary relevance. A society for the study of the arts of the present needs to serve as an intellectual “home” for scholars working on the arts of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries in a number of fields (literature, art history, musicology, film and video, digital media studies, etc.), and for contemporary artists practicing in a range of media (writing, the plastic and visual arts, the digital arts, music and sound art, performance, architecture and design, mixed-media and intermedia arts, etc.). ASAP facilitates and promotes scholarly excellence in the study of the contemporary arts. It provides a forum for dialogue among and between scholars and practitioners of the contemporary, and it seeks to advance our collective knowledge of our own elusive contemporaneity. ASAP addresses questions such as these:

  • What art practices are unique to our own moment, or distinctive of it? What would an aesthetics of the contemporary look like?
  • What do we mean by “contemporary”? What if anything do we gain by periodizing the present in arts studies?
  • How can one grasp the historicity of the present? How can we conduct valid research on the arts of our own moment? Why should we even want to do so?
  • How is contemporary art practice related to art scholarship and theory? Could we conceive of a different relationship between practice and scholarship, practice and theory?
  • Do the aesthetics of contemporary arts in different media and disciplinary contexts overlap and correspond? If so, in what ways?
  • What is the relation between the arts and their world in the twenty-first century? Is the relation different now than in the past, and if so, how and why?
  • What is the relation between “the contemporary” and the modern, the avant-garde, the postmodern? Are the older categories obsolete or viable? Are they still relevant to the contemporary period, and if so, how?
  • Do the diverse contemporary arts studies share anything in common? Does the fracturing of the contemporary field reflect real diversity among the objects and methods of study, or is it an effect produced by market forces? In what ways might diversification and specialization be constructive, and in what ways is it an impediment to knowledge?
  • What constitutes disciplinary knowledge and expertise in the field of contemporary arts studies?

There is an abundance of scholarly societies whose scope embraces or overlaps the contemporary, but all of these are limited in some particular way – by nation or region, medium or genre, discipline, constituency, approach, etc. None aims to interrogate all of the contemporary arts, interdisciplinarily, transmedially and internationally; none honors our collective obligation to the difficult whole. Moreover, few if any such societies sponsor and facilitate dialogue between scholarship and practice, scholars and artists. These aspects of its mission make ASAP. unique and invaluable. The arts of the present solicit our attention, and we need to respond as soon as possible.


ASAP is a relatively young organization but one with an extraordinary history of vibrant growth.

In 2005, an email about building an international society for the study of the contemporary arts was circulated by Amy Elias at the University of Tennessee. Scores of conversations with critics, artists, and others had made it clear that a society that brought internationally recognized scholars together to discuss cutting-edge developments across the contemporary arts was desperately needed. Five people–Amy Elias, James Phelan, Benjamin Lee, Suzanne Keen, and Jesse Matz–met at the MLA in Washington, DC that year, and from that initial meeting, ASAP was born.

During the next three years, through thousands of emails and at biannual “real life” meetings at Washington, Chicago, and Philadelphia supported financially by the University of Tennessee’s English Department, the planning committee grew to include members from institutions all over the globe and increasingly diverse disciplines—painting, art history, literary studies, media studies, architecture, theater history, photography, music.

The Planning Committee of ASAP hoped to combat the trends of university corporatization and disciplinary rationalization that increasingly separated the arts into discrete disciplines with their own vocabularies, associations, exhibition venues, and publication outlets. It also hoped to combat trends in the academy toward the creation of unpublicized, coterie meetings of scholars that excluded many from participation in cutting-edge venues. Many scholars also were bored with the standard conference format. The Planning Committee wanted to create something rigorously new. Something contemporary.

By 2007, ASAP was ready to launch, with panels at MLA hosted twice by Melissa Lee, ISSN’s Narrative hosted by Brian McHale, MSA hosted by Benjamin Lee, and PSI hosted by Stephen Di Benedetto. Amy Elias organized our own launch conference in Knoxville TN in 2009, featuring more than 115 speakers from China, the UK, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain and representing the literary, media, performing, and visual arts.

ASAP owes its name to Brian McHale, who was on the inaugural Motherboard with Amy Elias, Ursula Heise, Stephen Di Benedetto, and Melissa Lee and on the three-year initial planning committee with these scholars as well as James Phelan, Ben Lee, Suzanne Keen, Linda Hutcheon, and Jesse Matz. “Introductory” roundtables at other association conferences were organized by Johanna Drucker, Jesse Matz, and Jonathan Eburne; advisory and financial help came from James Phelan, encouragement and publicity from Linda Hutcheon; key information about affiliations were found by Suzanne Keen. Hilary Dannenberg, Lucy Soutter, Alexis Boylan, Chris Kilgore and others have participated generously. As our principal founder, Amy Elias had a hand in all foundational documents, meetings, and planning. Sarah Lowe at the University of Tennessee handled all aspects of Association and launch-conference design, winning an international design award for the ASAP logo and palette (see Letterhead and Logo Design 12, 2011, page 38).

Since its founding years, ASAP has run elections and been honored by the work of outstanding scholars who served on the Motherboard and Executive Committee: you can see their names at this site under “Past Executive Committees.”

The good will, intelligence, and creativity exhibited in discussions with the Motherboard has been consistently inspiring.  Thanks to the planning committee members’ work, something good, really good and exciting, has been accomplished. It has been a pleasure making ASAP happen. We hope you can join us in the future, to discover and define the possibilities for the contemporary arts in the 21st century.