Art as European Invention

Can one exhibition change the tenor of the art world?

More than twenty-five years have passed since Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism (1978) was published. Said’s brand of discourse analysis was formative in post colonial critique, since introduced widely in university courses as well as in a number of art exhibitions. But despite the increasing number of followers, the less interest seems to be stirred by critical global perspectives on art practices. Has a vague and generalized locality stepped in to take its place?

The website of the upcoming Documenta 12 (opening June 2007) announces that the its chief curator, Roger Buergel, has set out on an project initiative called the Documenta 12 Magazine. Some seventy magazines will be involved, and the project will enlist art world pundits — artists, curators, theorists and editors — to discuss various issues in workshops and electronic symposia, and contribute articles. Documenta 12 Magazine will appear in German and English in 2006, but an online version for readers also will be published in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. At this stage, it is unclear whether the organizers hope to engage readers in a dialogue, and if so, in what language.

A striking feature, however, is the desire for consensus and the exhibition’s thirst for exceptionally wide (global) acclaim. This is not unique for to Documenta 12: similar use of reference groups featured in preparation for the Ninth Istanbul Biennial (2005), as well as in Documenta 11 (2002), where workshops also had a legitimizing function beyond the actual duration of the exhibition.

The latter event interrogated the globalization of culture, through an ambitious array of topics, such as creolization, global urbanism and deterritorialization, and sought to decenter the entire locale of the exhibition, since it was divided into five Platforms, four of which were symposia on economic, social and urban matters (the fifth was the exhibition proper). The symposia took place in Vienna and Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos. If curator Okwui Enwezor made a point of selecting artists who were born in as many countries as possible, Buergel’s appointment marks a return to the local. This seems to give some substance to fears that perhaps the “global” quota for big exhibitions has been filled, implying a return to business as usual?

There is more. Recent art history in the US and Ireland has made a global(ized) fresh attempt at the 19th-century ghost of established, universal art historiography — eg David Summers’s Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (2003), as well as a huge project at Cork University orchestrated by James Elkins, author of several books on artistic practices on the art historical margins. Elkins’s initiative will result in a series of volumes on contemporary artistic practices and art history — including the issue “Is Art History Global?” Summers’s spatial categorization of images from various parts of the world is, however, not very different from that in a traditional general art history survey book. Elkins expresses his doubts as to the feasibility of the world art history project, but still maintains the ambition to find a fundamental methodology and terminology applicable to all arts, times and purposes.

In 1994, artist Jimmie Durham titled an essay: “A friend of mine said that art is an European invention.”1 As Durham’s irony suggests, it is absurd to think that art would not have existed before the invention of the European art institution. Surely, art exists beyond the confines of capitalist aesthetics. But that art is seen as irrelevant by the very same art world that claims to have relativized artistic value and gone global. If anything, I expected that the globalization of the art world would call for new ways to conceptualize quality in art, including a revised genealogy of current art concepts. From there, the notion of contemporary art concepts as categories of “Western” or “European” invention could be abolished. Judging from these — small, if ambitious — contributions to art historiography, and the fact that so many departments of art history in the US and Europe have not been particularly perturbed by the thirty years criticism that post colonialism represents, the future looks a little bleak.

To avoid “Western” conceptual bias, Enwezor is said to have banished the word “art” from his vocabulary when working on Documenta 11. This alone would not solve the problem, however. Even as new nations appear on the art scene, the preference for photo-journalistic rather than more poetic modes of expressions, for instance, spares the global art community a great deal of friction that would be involved in developing aesthetic criteria. On the positive side, Documenta 11’s manner of turning exhibitions into a series of workshops, seminars, and platforms contextualizes the exhibition projects in question, and packages exhibitions as contributions to ongoing discussions on contemporary culture beyond center or end, which is in line with political and aesthetic radicalism, and suggests a radically inclusive art practice. On the other hand, one must also add that contrarily, discussions of contemporary art avant-gardism are, for better or for worse, firmly tied up with geographical and personal co-ordinates, and these do need to be addressed explicitly.

But was a global history of artistic practices ever a possibility in the first place? Can the European variety ever become one among many others? It seems that as long as the international art world is premised on the references and values of European avant-gardism, it will remain an intrinsically local affair. And “global” and “local” will remain interchangeable catchwords.

1 Jimmie Durham in Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, London: Kala Press & inIVA, 1994