Global versus Local

J.J. Charlesworth's essay on global versus local power, from the November 2013 issue

‘Increasingly, it has become clear that in the emerging global scenario no one cultural form will be enforced on all. Instead, it will be one culture made of many cultures, one history made of many histories – a whole made of disunited fragments, with no imperative to unite them.’ So wrote American critic Thomas McEvilley In 1991.

McEvilley, who died in March this year, was an early and vocal critic of the Western-centric view of art and art history, and saw in the then-emerging discourses of postcolonialism the possibility of a more generous, less strident and dogmatic account of art as a part of a pluralist, multicultural global commons.

We can only speculate about what McEvilley might have made of the no 1 on this year’s Power 100: Sheikha Al-Mayassa – a woman, a Muslim, a member of an autocratic ruling elite, a builder of museums, whose mission is to expand her country’s presence and influence in the now-global system of contemporary art. 

the shift is away from the national audience to the global audience

But what one can say for sure is that the critique of the Western-centric art culture that McEvilley and others developed hasn’t necessarily led to a wished-for cultural pluralism, despite the fact that art scenes have exploded into life across the globe during the last 20 years. In the actually existing global scenario of 2013, it might be the case that, even amid all the apparent cultural diversity, one cultural form is indeed being ‘enforced on all’.

By contrast to the artworld of 1991, the artworld of 2013 is no longer simply international, but global. There is a difference between the two: where once there were national art cultures, something different has begun to emerge – a single ‘artworld’ that is no longer dominated by a few powerful national scenes. 

Even well into the 1980s, we might recall, art scenes were closely tied to a specific national context – the influence of New York art, driven by its unprecedented market boom, or the heyday of German painting, bolstered by the substantial (and then-unusual) institutional collecting of contemporary art. Art institutions, collectors and art markets tended to sustain artistic production on a national model: the Tates, Pompidous and MoMAs acted as the ‘top level’ of art’s institutional system, emphasising national and domestic cultural agendas rather than promoting international circulation and exchange.

Today the ‘national’ is no longer such an operative concept. There may be thousands of artists from around the world in Berlin or London, for example, but few would argue that there is anything distinctly ‘German’ or ‘British’ about the art that is made. This doesn’t mean that contemporary art before 1990 was nationalistic – artists have for a long time had a fractious and awkward relationship to questions of nation and identity – but that the cultural institutions that supported contemporary art were oriented towards a notion of a national public, rather than an international one; that art schools drew from a domestic student population; and that official bodies tended to be focused on the national context. 

(And when there appeared to be a revival of a national cultural expression in contemporary art – the Young British Art moment would be a good example – it turned out to be a form of national self-parody, just at the moment when things were changing in the opposite direction.)

The twentieth-century paradigm of big, static art centres was, in part, a product of the politics and economics of migration

But after 1990, events took an unexpected turn. As the last, exhausted vestiges of nationalist and colonial perspectives unravelled throughout the Western democracies, as the collapse of the Berlin Wall tore up the old power-map of the world, as network communications began to facilitate new channels of contact, contemporary artists began to detach themselves from the various national and domestic infrastructures that had framed them, developing a new set of networks, contacts and peer allegiances that operated between local scenes. 

This was the beginning of the age of what today we recognise as the ‘networked artist’ – the artist who finds opportunities in multiple localities across several continents, facilitated by the equally global curator. It was also the beginning of the age of the global biennial, a phenomenon that embodied the speculative, nervous uncertainty of a world that was beginning to realise that the global powers that had previously called the shots were no longer quite so much in charge.

So instead of the national centres of London, Paris or New York, artistic communities today operate across a more dispersed, reciprocal set of coordinates – Berlin, Glasgow, Los Angeles, Brussels, Beijing, Johannesburg, Cairo, São Paulo, Dubai, Hong Kong – many still national capitals, but others not. What has changed is a question of perspective.

Rather than international contacts and international travel being the exception (it’s easy to forget how costly it was to travel between the big art centres, even into the 1980s), they have become the norm, or at least the level to which all artists eventually aspire. The twentieth-century paradigm of big, static art centres was, in part, a product of the politics and economics of migration (of European artists congregating in Paris, then Parisian avant-gardists migrating to New York, for example). The dispersed, nodal, twenty-first-century paradigm is the air-miles artworld, the economy class artist, the business class curator...

What, though, is the experience of locality in an artworld organised under the banner of the global rather than the national? What, furthermore, is the experience of cultural identity and difference, as national scenes become subordinate to the more disembodied and groundless network of the global?

In the first instance, it’s noticeable how the question of cultural identity has started to unravel and mutate. The ethical project of post-colonialism and multiculturalism – a tolerance for cultural difference and a mutual respect for the cultural histories and practices of others – no longer has the same momentum now that the once-dominant West finds itself competing with a rising East and South. 

While a commonly held respect for cultural differences underpins the possibility of every international biennial and art fair, the acceleration of exchanges between global art centres has had the effect of eroding the stable, static aspect of cultural identity – in order to be legible, understandable and, ultimately, commercially exchangeable, cultural difference is converted into a globally recognisable product, self-consciously preserving identifiable characteristics of cultural difference, for both global and local audiences. 

Rather than addressing itself primarily to its own community, art that manifests signs of its locality addresses itself to an abstracted, global viewer – this is Lebanese art, created in the awareness that it will be seen by, say, a Korean. This is Egyptian art, to be seen by a Brazilian; this is Turkish art, to be seen by an American.

Subtly, the shift is away from the national audience to the global audience; the local then comes to mean merely one of many localities that constitute the global artworld. Ironically, the consciousness of difference homogenises it – an artworld Esperanto.

This parallax shift in perspective is perhaps why we see a number of trends in new art that reflect this changing context, particularly when artists make the nature of migration and hybridity the subject of their work. Look over the last year’s issues of ArtReview, and we find profiles on artists Danh Vō and Meriç Algün Ringborg. Vō’s work plays with global location and connection (his dismantled reproduction of the Statue of Liberty, its pieces scattered around the world; his father handwriting copies of a letter from a dead, nineteenth-century European missionary to Vietnam), while Ringborg examines the legal and bureaucratic definition of national identity precisely at the point where migration seeks to cross borders.

These are artists who not only comment on the breakdown of identity in the flux of migration and global informational circulation, but who themselves embody these realities, personally and professionally. Hybridity, flux, fragmentation – such themes characterise increasingly the output of artists who circulate in an artworld defined by the tension between addressing a domestic public and a global one.

Perhaps the other key trend negotiating the tension between local and global publics is the expansion of a vocabulary of globally recognisable references to common experience, wherever you happen to be from, or based. Current political art, with its extensive attention to easily transferable concerns such as regional conflict, consumer culture and environmental and labour politics, is the perfect form of a globally recognisable, exchangeable art culture. 

Similarly, the pressure to globalise accelerates the spread of common intellectual points of reference, as critical production is dispersed across centres, further consolidating artistic communities around common questions. In this way, the very notion of a ‘local’ public or audience is altered; the local audience is one that, by definition, is oriented towards the global artworld institution, while local concerns, tastes and aspirations are made visible only if they find their parallels elsewhere globally.

What do these changes mean for the nature of the local? It is, of course, the case that not all artists, not all artworks, are subject to the generalising gaze of the global artworld. Art scenes remain embedded in cities, have their own internal interests, are driven by the biases and enthusiasms of a finite number of individuals in a certain place and time. Local differences persist. But in this new global system, what would it mean to assert a local that is opaque to the global, that was resistant to its forms of translation?

There is no going back to a point where the national sphere was the space from which one ‘looked out’. In London in 1993, it was still possible to classify the gallery scene by how inward or outward-looking a gallery was. But they were mostly British galleries. Today, the most successful galleries in London are outposts of galleries whose origins lie elsewhere, while those who originated here are busy expanding globally.

A critical perspective on the local might come to recognise that the most pernicious aspect of the expanding global artworld is its power to recast local differences as an endlessly commodifiable range of essentially impotent, exotic curiosities – there is no space between Takashi Murakami’s globally consumable J-Pop art and Jeff Koons’s universal consumer culture banalities. 

What the global reveals is that all localities, however different, are essentially subject to the same global forces, whose tendency is to diminish everywhere people’s ability to act democratically to assert their rights and assert their interests.

A local that was truly critical of this global form of dispossession, however, would need to locate this shared predicament among the many localities of art. No 1 in this year’s Power 100 is a figure whose mission is to build a museum infrastructure, from scratch, top-down, where there was previously only the desert. 

This is truly formidable power, as it competes, instantly, at the level that similar institutions have spent decades evolving towards. And a global artworld dominated by such entities is one to which local scenes inevitably become subservient, unable to connect to each other, but mediated by these new gatekeepers of global circulation. 

The flatter, more cooperative global network that began to emerge in the 1990s is now being reabsorbed in a more hierarchical, monopolistic structure of powerful institutions, whose horizon is no longer national, but global in ambition.

In 2013, then, we might suggest a dystopian inversion of McEvilley’s early optimism. It requires only the deletion of one word: ‘Increasingly, it has become clear that in the emerging global scenario, one cultural form will be enforced on all. It will be one culture made of many cultures, one history made of many histories – a whole made of disunited fragments, with no imperative to unite them.’ Today, finding the imperative that unites them is the task of all localities, together, against the power of the global.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue.