State of the Art

If we want the global artworld to be inclusive, is it reasonable to expect it to promote difference?, from the December 2013 issue

By Niru Ratnam

Bodys Isek Kingelez, Mundial Isek Sport, 1989 (installation view,  Alternative Guide to the Universe, 2013, Hayward Gallery, London).  Photo: Linda Nylind. © the artist Wifredo Lam, Mujeres Recostadas, c. 1936.  Courtesy Private Collection, London/Scala Archives Alfred H. Barr, Jr, cover of the MoMA exhibition catalogue  Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936. Courtesy MoMA, New York/Scala Archives ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 1984 (installation view). Courtesy MoMA, New York/Scala Archives F.N. Souza, Crucifixion, 1959, oil paint on board,  183 × 122 cm. © Tate, London, 2013

2014 is the 25th anniversary of the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre, an ambitious attempt to articulate a vision of contemporary art that was truly global in scope. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, the exhibition was, in part, a reaction to a much-talked-about exhibition organised by William Rubin, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which had taken place five years previously at New York’s MoMA. 

Rubin’s exhibition focused on the visual similarities between tribal art and the modernist works of the likes of Picasso and Matisse, and was accompanied by the explicit acknowledgement by Rubin that he was not interested in the tribal works in themselves, but only in the way they acted as inspiration for the Western avant-garde. Rubin’s approach was heavily criticised, most prominently by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum, who argued that the exhibition glossed over the appropriation of tribal art by Western modern artists by sheltering under the wishful idea of ‘affinity’. 

Where non-Western forms of modern art have appeared, it is clear that artists were looking closely at the dominant form of modern art as articulated in Paris and then New York 

McEvilley concluded, ‘“Primitivism” lays bare the way our cultural institutions relate to foreign cultures, revealing it as an ethnocentric subjectivity inflected to co-opt such cultures.’ Magiciens de la Terre wanted to avoid this quasi-imperialist attitude by utilising an approach that would place non-Western artworks, a number of which occupied a midground between cultural artefact and work of art, on the same footing as Western artworks. This led to juxtapositions such as a Richard Long mud painting sited next to a floor-based traditional Indigenous Australian ceremonial ground painting. 

Martin’s approach also ran into a barrage of criticism, from Benjamin Buchloh, for example, who accused Martin of an ethnocentric approach to selecting the non-Western objects in the show. Buchloh argued that Martin selected non-Western objects because they looked as if they would fit in with Western contemporary art – so the Aboriginal floor piece was there because there were visual continuations with the neighbouring Richard Long. Disarmingly, but perhaps naively, Martin agreed with Buchloh’s criticism, admitting in an interview with the German art historian that he avoided non-Western works that ‘do not communicate sufficiently well in a visual-sensuous manner to a Western spectator’.

The two exhibitions mark the beginning of a period in which the artworld started to deal with globalisation. In retrospect, the controversy that both exhibitions generated was down to the simple matter of how the exhibits looked, and more specifically the extent to which the non-Western exhibits in each exhibition looked too similar to the Western artworks. Rubin’s method offered a seamless path from African masks to Picasso, conveniently ignoring social and political history around colonial exploitation. Martin’s method seemed to revel in the happy coincidence of visual similarities. To critics such as Buchloh and a number informed by postcolonial theory, cultural difference was suppressed where it should have been flagged up.

This is the complaint present right through the emergence of a globalised artworld: work from elsewhere ought to look more different

Fast-forward 25 years, through a period when globalisation has taken hold both economically and culturally, and one might have expected the debate about art and globalisation to have moved on. However, this is not the case. The anxiety about things looking too similar pervades contemporary art’s thinking about the global. So, American curator (and 2007 Venice Biennale director) Robert Storr’s verdict on the state of today’s globalised artworld, given in the October issue of The Art Newspaper, is blunt: ‘The ecosystem of the “global” artworld is like that of the planet itself – overheated and dire. 

Rather than expecting a cleansing cataclysm, we can look forward to a relentless melting of aesthetic distinctions, dissolving of institutional barriers and fusion of cultures, resulting in a sludgy, sulphurous magma laced with gold.’ Storr is not alone in the view that increased globalisation in the artworld has resulted in the levelling out of culturally specific forms. In the last issue of this magazine, ArtReview’s J.J. Charlesworth argued that globalisation has resulted in the production of a form of contemporary art that is visually homogeneous, created that way in order to be consumed easily around the world in biennials and fairs. 

He characterises this as ‘an artworld Esperanto’ that is ‘legible, understandable and, ultimately, commercially exchangeable’. For Storr and Charlesworth, cultural specificity would have a significant element of the illegible, unconsumable and incongruous: a viewer in Rio should not be able to understand significant elements of an artwork made in Jakarta. For both critics, art should speak principally to the locality in which it was made.

By the 1960s modern art was synonymous with the New York School. Subsequent rejections of Modernism by the neo-avant-garde to begin with, and then a number of competing and sometimes overlapping movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism, were to greater or lesser extents articulated in opposition to a high Modernism which had reached its apex in New York.

Paris became the undisputed centre of modern art at the start of the twentieth century, and while there were competing senses of what modern art might be during the 1930s (particularly in 1920s Berlin and Moscow), abstract art emerged as the dominant form of modern art as the Second World War took hold. As Paris fell to the Nazis, modern art emigrated to New York through the movement of artists and through the frameworks constructed by figures such as the curator Alfred Barr at MoMA and the city’s dominant critic, Clement Greenberg.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s view rests implicitly on art scenes springing up organically in different localities around the world and, as a consequence, each developing with their own specific traits. However, this ignores the way that modern art spread around the world. Put simply, modern art was articulated by European artists after the First World War as a response to the conditions of modernity and in reaction to the perceived straitjacket of academic art. It was a culturally specific set of forms that was rooted in the legacy of the Great War in Europe, industrialisation and modern life.

Storr’s and Charlesworth’s arguments are not significantly different to the critical hostility that met ‘Primitivism’… and Magiciens…: that everything looks too similar. There are not enough markers of cultural specificity and the untranslatable. This then is the complaint that has been present right through the emergence of a globalised artworld: work from elsewhere ought to look more different. To this, a counter-question might be posed: when it comes to contemporary art, why expect difference, locality, the untranslatable and the culturally specific at all?

Critical reevaluations of this account have produced more multivalent accounts of the story of modern art, and of course post­colonial academics have attempted to rewrite it entirely. But while the accounts of those academics, such as that contained within Stuart Hall and Sarat Maharaj’s Modernity and Difference (2001), might be theoretically neat, they fall apart entirely when it comes to discussing (on the rare occasion they try) actual artworks. Where non-Western forms of modern art have appeared, it is clear that artists were looking closely at the dominant form of modern art as articulated in Paris and then New York. 

So when the Progressive Artists’ Group announced itself in India in the 1940s, they did so via that most European of forms, the manifesto. Modern form was adapted to local circumstance in Latin America (think of Wifredo Lam reworking Cubism). These regional Modernisms were, and continue to be, framed in relation to a dominant orthodox Modernism, a canonical Modernism, if you like. 

So Indian modernists are still seen as vaguely provincial because of their inability to become fully abstract, while Latin American modernists are seen as more accomplished thanks to the emergence of Geometric Abstraction – a set of views that relies on the Greenbergian idea that abstraction is the highest form of modern art. In short, a dominant paradigm was absorbed, aspired to and reacted against by artists from around the world, many of whom upped sticks and moved to New York, Paris or London.

The narrative for what came after modern art is not much different. Movements such as the neo-avant-garde, Minimalism, Conceptualism and Neo-Expressionism were articulated by artists who were reacting against high Modernism, but by doing so were still part of Modernism’s endgame. There was still a coherent narrative to react against. As Francesco Bonami put it in an article on the ‘problem’ of criticism published in Frieze in 2011, ‘Once upon a time – say 20 years ago – everything was crystal clear in the art world.’ 

Bonami (seemingly arbitrarily) pinpoints the appearance of Jeff Koons’s series Made in Heaven (1989) as the moment at which the grip of the modern is loosened ‘[marking] the end of by-laws and the beginning of critical chaos’. But Bonami’s choice of date might be telling in another way: 1989 was the year of the Berlin Wall coming down, and in the artworld it was the year of Magiciens de la Terre. Modernism might have been over, but it was not necessarily postmodern relativism that replaced it, but globalised neoliberalism. Indeed Bonami describes the emergent language of art that replaced modernism as ‘so-called global aesthetics, which is, ironically, a Western construction’.

The anxiety about things looking too similar pervades contemporary art’s thinking about the global 

For Bonami, like Storr, this move towards global aesthetics has negative connotations. Bonami paints a picture of critical chaos caused by the breakdown of what he terms the ‘unwritten by-laws conceived at the beginning of the twentieth century’. In turn, Storr suggests ‘aesthetic distinctions’ are collapsing. While it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that either Bonami or Storr is a fully-paid up Greenbergian modernist, both their positions imply that there was a consensus for understanding twentieth­-century art, most commonly articulated through a series of movements, or ‘-isms’, from Cubism onwards, a more nuanced version of Alfred Barr’s now infamous diagram. 

Nonetheless, critical or canonical consensus here is cast as a shared set of beliefs about which works fit into the narrative of modern and the avant-garde artwork of the 1960s and 70s. As Bonami puts it: ‘Everybody knew the difference between, for example, an Alberto Giacometti and a Fernando Botero… the Manichaean difference between good and bad art.’

Non-Western practices tended to be positioned as external to this narrative of Modernism, acting as precursors (in Rubin’s vision) or nonart practices (in Martin’s articulation of the idea of ‘magician’ rather than artist). The key shift happens with the rise of what Bonami terms ‘contemporary global aesthetics’, an all-encompassing idea of contemporary art that includes non-Western practices on a much larger scale than Modernism allowed. Contemporary art might be a category that operates on a geographically wider scale than Modernism, but according to Storr and Charlesworth, it tends to result in more homogeneous work. 

The reaction to this unexpected homogeneity is a desire for work from outside the West to go back to productively occupying a space outside the category of contemporary art, and ideally for it to become untranslatable again. As Charlesworth asks: ‘What would it mean to assert a local that is opaque to the global, that was resistant to its forms of translation?’

The accepted answer from a globalised, postcolonial perspective is to dismiss this desire as not only nostalgic but also impossible. Once any practice has been identified by the contemporary art world, that act of identification in itself begins the process of translation of that identified object into the uneasy catchall category of ‘contemporary art’. From this viewpoint it is more logical to accept the all-pervasiveness of ‘contemporary art’ as a category and celebrate its global inclusivity with the added rejoinder that there is nothing wrong with having a dominant language of what contemporary art is and can be. 

After all, non-Western artists who aspired to be seen as modern artists had no desire to knock down the central tenets of Modernism. Instead, artists like F.N. Souza, Aubrey Williams or Wifredo Lam wished to be seen as having fully entered and become participants of canonical modern art. By logical extension, artists today from around the world who wish to be seen as making ‘contemporary art’ should be allowed to do the same, to become participants of a shared language that is far more welcoming than Modernism.

Of course this openness is very important for artists from outside the traditional centres of art production. However, the robust, if politically correct rejoinder to the likes of Storr, Bonami and Charlesworth does not quite fully add up. Contemporary art is increasingly propagated around the world by the market, rather than by curators or writers. It is auction houses, art fairs, collectors and art magazines on the hunt for new advertising opportunities that open up ‘emerging’ art territories, and these uncritical mechanisms are not necessarily the best for discovering radical practice that looks very different from contemporary art being made in London, Berlin and New York. 

There are two possible solutions: firstly to disengage the yoking together of looking for the different with looking at the non-Western. In other words, perhaps the start for the search of the radically different should begin with looking within the traditional centres of art production. This avoids the accusation that it is always the non-West that gets hit with the demand to be different. Secondly, look beyond mechanisms associated with the market (auction houses, collectors, fairs, magazines and even biennials) when looking for radically different practices outside the West. Contemporary art might look the same wherever it is made, and there might be no way round that (indeed, depending on your perspective, this might be a cause for celebration). 

The radically untranslatable could be out there, both within and outside the West, but it’s going to take some experimental models of curation and critical thinking, and the ability to take the inevitable potshots that follow, to unearth it. Twenty-five years on, a successor to Magiciens de la Terre, with all its barmy optimism, is sorely needed to balance out an articulation of global contemporary art that is in danger of being flattened by market forces.

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue.