Globalisation is one of those themes that seems self-evident, but is incredibly hard to pin down to specifics. For the artworld, though, it’s a hot topic, given that contemporary art is now in the throes of a massive institutional transformation in which the symptoms of economic expansion and global relocation are everywhere to be seen. But what do these changes mean, and might they in fact now define what is ‘contemporary’ about contemporary art? The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds is the fruit of a research project initiated by the German institution ZKM Karlsruhe that provided the basis of the exhibition The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989 (2011–12) and brings together a mass of historical resources, a thick wedge of essays and an extensive directory of artists whose work fits the art-and-globalisation agenda. It’s an impressively useful resource on the subject for anyone trying to get an overview of some of the most insistent issues. But it’s also a ponderous reiteration of current orthodox liberal thinking about cultural identity and art’s purpose in the era after Western colonial dominance, revealing the depth of confusion about how to privilege the politics of difference when the critique of Eurocentrism, faced with the shift of economic and political power to the East and South, is fast becoming an irrelevance.
Globalisation, in this narrative, starts in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square massacre and, in Western art, the staging of the Pompidou Centre’s controversial Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, curated by Jean- Hubert Martin. That show was the first to parallel Western contemporary artists with non-Western ‘traditional’ artists, and caused no end of debate about how it represented the latter, but Martin is here celebrated as a seminal figure: curator Andrea Buddensieg argues that ‘Martin was often accused of exoticising the “others” in the art worlds, but in fact, his primary concern was to liberate them from the ethnographic prison in which he had found them’.
To release the ‘others’ from the Eurocentric gaze of ethnography of course meant a fundamental widening of the definition of art, away from its previously Western monopoly. As art historian Hans Belting argues, ‘Expanded art production leads to a crisis of the art concept whose limits cannot be extended at will. In fact, the global practice of art deliberately accepts the loss of a binding concept in favor of penchants for national, cultural, and religious connotations of art.’ But Belting seems unaware that, in fact, the ‘penchant’ for localised inflections is itself the new ‘binding concept’ of contemporary art, as it ‘rewrites’ the space once colonised by modern art. Indeed, the key characteristic of the global artworlds (Belting and his collaborators insist on the plural) is, paradoxically, the universal celebration of the local and the particular.
Of course, as is the norm for critics and theorists steeped in the all-too-Western critique of Western universalism, any talk of universalism is nothing more than the mark of the Eurocentric oppressor. Philosopher Peter Weibel happily regurgitates this postcolonialist orthodoxy: ‘Universal culture, a knowledge of the same languages, literary and visual works all became the fraternal signs by which the capital accumulators of the world recognized each other. This universal culture was something that one needed to assimilate to, and historically it aided the expansion of capitalism world wide.’ Weibel seems to miss the irony that, today, global art performs exactly the same function – globalised contemporary art, preoccupied by cultural difference, is now the ‘fraternal sign’ by which the capital accumulators of the world recognise each other. It’s just that the capital accumulators aren’t all white any more.
In fact, it’s the privileging of cultural difference, courtesy of Western-born critiques of universalism, that both suppresses the progressive potential of global art (the internationalising and universalising of cultural forms and audiences) and lets its oppressive aspects (the unchallenged rise of global elites) off the hook. Notably absent in The Global Contemporary is any serious critique of globalisation’s most powerful mechanism in the artworld – biennialisation – or any substantial examination of the power of transnational curators and the cultural policies and economics that sustain them. That biennial curators such as Boris Groys, Charles Esche and Okwui Enwezor see biennials as ‘counter-hegemonic’ (as Piotr Piotrowski notes in his contribution) is merely self-legitimating, and obscures the fact that it is the global system of supra-national curatorship, underwritten by the global elite for as long as its power remains unquestioned, that is now the defining institutional hegemony of art.
This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue.