The main purpose
of the present talk is to provide an account of the phenomenon
of globalization in the arts. The essential vehicle for this process
is the major international art exhibition (Documentas, Manifestas,
biennials from the North and the South, and so on). The second
point to be broached here concerns the cultural homogenization
that results from the way in which these major exhibitions are
organized. For, save for some very rare exceptions, the West is
always the project director. We shall see that, as a consequence,
the international art exhibition can be viewed in two ways: as
a generous aesthetic offer that recycles the diversity of forms
of artistic expression coming from various places and as an effort
at aesthetic regulation benefitting the West.
Large-Scale Art Mediation
The first thing to be pointed out--right away and even before
proceeding to our argument--is that major contemporary-art exhibitions
organized at the international level are not a recent phenomenon.
Indeed, the oldest ones date from the late nineteenth century,
in concert with the establishment of the first art biennial in
history, the Venice Biennale, in 1895. Nor are all of these exhibitions
run by institutions. That was the case with the Armory Show, which
took place shortly before the outbreak of World War One; French
and European avant-garde artists were able to tour North America
as part of an initiative that owed its success to a variety of
sources, including patrons, dealers, and the artists themselves.
And not all exhibitions are alike; that is to say, not all of
them are motivated by a desire to exhibit, in its entirety, “art
in the process of being made” (which is what contemporary
art, in the strict sense, is). Their intention may, on the contrary,
be to bring out some particular aesthetic trend or to advance
some overtly partisan choice, as with Berlin’s Dada Messe
in 1920, the counterexhibition to the Colonial Exhibition of 1931
organized by the Surrealists, the London International Surrealist
Exhibition in 1938, Harald Szeemann’s “When Attitudes
Become Form” in Berne, in 1969, and so on.
What is patent,
once this point is made, is that, while the history of international
exhibitions of living art was developing, a growing homogenization
of this model for large-scale mediation was also taking place.
In what sense is that so? There are: (a) the preponderant role
of the Western institutional view, which is supposed to prevail
for world art as a whole (despite a few revisions during the 1990s,
when there was a flowering of multiculturalism); (b) the limitation
of supply, as the phenomenon of “Top Fifty” kinds
of lists became more frequent; (c) the increased concentration
of so-called “consecrational” major international
artistic events (with, as its inevitable consequence, the homogenization
of supply, which closely follows upon its concentration), big
showcases that can, in the case of contemporary art, be hierarchized
as follows: Documenta Kassel in Germany (created in 1955 under
the auspices of the American occupation forces as an event that
would take place every four years, then every five years); the
major continent-wide biennials of contemporary art; and, finally,
specific events, like the “Premices” (Beginnings)
exhibition run by the French Ministry of Culture in New York in
order to present there a section of France’s artistic creativity
during the 1990s.
The “Biennialist” Model
How this “consecrational” power of major international
art exhibitions is structured can best be understood by taking
the example of contemporary-art biennials. During the past twenty
years, these kinds of events have really spread all over the place.
I shall develop my argument on the basis of the example of biennials,
and I shall do so from the perspective of how the mediation of
living art--an essentially cultural phenomenon--proves to be inseparable
from an evidently political will to make of art, more than a merely
aesthetic product, an effective agent of international relations.
about forty, contemporary-art biennials today constitute well-established
poles of attraction for geocultural tourism. Sometimes showcases
for local art, sometimes intermediaries for global trends, they
develop along with globalization itself. While a few biennials
opt for a regionalist form of resistance, others, still more numerous
and stereotypical, endeavor instead to homogenize styles, aesthetic
ideas, and critical outlooks. Are biennials mere products of an
industrialized culture ? They are, rather, the key vehicle for
a kind of standardization, already underway and cross-cultural
in spirit, of artistic creation on an international scale.
What is one talking
about when one speaks of an art biennial ? What it boils down
to is a trade show [salon] set in a certain established
site (like the automobile show, the boat show, and so on). Its
content is geared toward supplying what is currently available,
and “art” is presented there in such a way as to heighten
and highlight its value. It is a flexible sort of exhibition,
therefore, one that avoids the sclerosis of duplicating the kind
of “flexibility” that is today characteristic of our
lives, economies, values, and forms. Such adaptability on the
part of art biennials explains in large measure the success of
this genre, from the pioneering creation of the Venice Biennale
(April 30, 1895) and the Whitney Museum Biennial in New York (1932)
onward. In the Fifties, one new biennial was created (São
Paulo); from the Sixties through to the Eighties, ten (including
Havana and Sydney); since 1990, twenty-three.(1)
A platform for rendering works of art visible, a biennial is,
as such, a tool for legitimation. What is highlighted and developed
there may favor local art--as in the “national” biennials
of the Whitney Museum in New York, for American art, as well as
in the “regional” ones, those of Dakar, Cairo, Buenos
Aires, Lima, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), and the Caribbean
zone. A biennial may also promote the artistic activity of a broader
geographical area, this sometimes being done in the name of Third-World
demands, as in the “civilizational” biennials of Havana
and Johannesburg. Or, the art of a biennial may be clearly international
in scope, with no geographical frame other than that of the whole
planet. It is this tendency that has today become dominant and
is being fostered by a cut-and-paste approach to exhibiting: Istanbul
2001, for example, recycled numerous mainstream artists shown
in Venice a few months earlier.
An Expansionist and Political Aim
of biennials is their irrepressible tendency toward greater and
greater expansion, with ever more works, artists, and curators.
The first Prague Biennale (June 2003), its ad proclaimed, “announces
itself as the major art event of the year, with 30 international
curators and about 200 artists from the world over.”(2)
Ever more exhibition spaces, too. In 2002, the Whitney Museum
Biennial treated itself to an outdoor section. When it was created,
the Lyon Biennial was spread out upon a single site; five editions
later, it had spread over five sites. Havana’s, like Istanbul’s,
has become fragmented among various buildings that are listed
as local heritage sites--a touristy setting if there ever was
one. Does such maximalism express a noble desire to improve upon
the existing visual supply? It exhibits, rather, a classic strategy
of showing off that is carried out in order to achieve the following
end: to build up the biennial’s own credibility and to add
further to its already added value.
Venice, the oldest of the biennials, offers the perfect model
for such a change, to the point of symbolic hyperpower. At the
outset, there were national pavilions financed by States desirous
of being represented on Venetian territory. Subsequently, the
exhibition was enlarged to favor forms of artistic expression
that ill fit into these national pavilions--as with the aperto
sections, starting in the 1980s. After that, the catchall solution
was adopted: a ritualized major thematic exhibition soon came
to punctuate each new edition and innumerable “in-off,”
“off-in,” and “off-off” offerings were
added on to round out the national selections.
In short, the change taking place is, all at once, quantitative
(more artists), qualitative (more debates, a catalogue that weighs
several kilos), media-conscious (a press preview that lasts three
full days), political (diplomatic-cultural discussions that take
place at the edges of these exhibitions), and socialite-friendly
(innumerable cocktail parties and receptions that surround the
main event of the opening). The raison d’être for
this overall operation is threefold: to make the biennial the
barometer of styles; to allow it to legitimate fashionable artists
and trends; and, last but not least, to legitimate itself.
Once this point
has been made, there is no doubt about the utility of biennials.
More than megalomania or whim, what their increase in number indicates,
on the part of the States concerned (generally, those located
at the periphery), is a desire for integration. The goal here
is twofold: self-affirmation and international representativeness.
Apropos of the Santo Domingo Biennial (2001), Évelyne Jouanno
notes thus its “engagement,” which is “less
grounded in aspirations for the institutional language of the
‘biennial,’ than in a desire to question the complexity
of the Caribbean identity at a historical turning point.”(3)
The present-day persistence of the “national” model--the
most identity-oriented kind there is--discovers here its main
source of explanation. “This Biennial does not attempt to
compete with the renowned Venice or São Paulo Biennials,”
the press release for the second Buenos Aires Biennial (2002)
states. “Rather, the goal we are pursuing is akin to that
of the Whitney Museum's Biennial in New York: to educate our artists,
make them known by art critics and people interested in the visual
arts from Latin America interested in recent works of contemporary
art” (while bringing out, nonetheless, that this statement
is belied by the fact that a large portion of the art selected
is international--the video section, for example, originating
from the AFAA, the French Association of Artistic Action).(4)
Two or three decades
earlier, Havana, Sydney, and Pusan sought to escape from a context
of isolation or rejection. In their wake, this has become the
approach adopted by Berlin as well as by Cetinie, by Vilnius as
well as by Fortaleza (Brazil) or Iasi (Romania), two of the latest
biennials, established in 2003--with, for Iasi and Fortaleza and
often elsewhere, the following significant nuance: in order to
arouse the interest of the artistic community, the organizers
have had recourse to a foreign curator who is of Western origin.
On the level of method, one always tends, in effect, to “internationalize”--as
most of the “Noccidental” biennials show: offering
a selection of local artists plus recognized ones from the West.
On the level of special--and, indisputably, “political”--projects,
let us mention Manifesta, a traveling biennial whose objective,
since 1996 (its first edition, in Rotterdam), has been to report
on artistic creativity throughout Europe, East and West combined.
Of course, there is nothing original about this supranational
choice, which reprises the model of the “civilizational”
biennials, tied to a broadened yet homogeneous cultural zone.
Nonetheless, if Manifesta has been any interest in itself, it
resided, at its foundation, in its concern to shatter the then-still
palpable cultural logic of blocs by prospecting, in particular,
for works on the other side of the former Iron Curtain. Today,
this concern is nearly obsolete, with Europe becoming united and
Manifesta, moreover, falling back into line: confer, its 2002
edition, took place in Frankfurt-am-Main, in the shadow and on
the tourist circuit of Kassel’s Documenta XI, which brings
the others into line.
The West Calls the Shots
This strategy of maximum possible visibility is obviously legitimate:
the survival of biennials depends upon it. The above-mentioned
maximalism, the effects of advertising (intensive public relations),
and the concern, too, with prestige (solicitation of recognized
curators and targeted journalists) here take on almost as much
importance as the content, properly speaking. In fact, the quest
for optimum representativeness may also engender the following
disturbing error: the tactical principle of Esse est percipi (“to
be is to be perceived”). As a result, biennials lose out--becoming
less interesting, not by being more numerous, moreover, but by
being less forward-looking and more conventional. A lesson to
keep in mind: being open internationally equals standardization,
biennials becoming another circuit for exhibiting the “Top
Fifty” international artists as well as their mentors and
their earlier, forward-looking or marginal position crumbling,
or remaining intact only to serve as a foil, provide an alibi,
or offer an anecdote.
As they pass from one continent to another at an ever faster pace,
regulars at biennials can easily note that, alongside a few unknown
artists, a biennial often presents the same names, whether one
is talking about the artists exhibited or, equally so, their curators--those
coopted, integrated, cultural “superorganizers” who
often back up one another. The latter are criticized in as follows:
concerned with showing the diversity, hybridity, and cross-fertilization--in
short, the quality and “cross-culturalist” destiny--of
contemporary artistic creativity, these activists (some of whom
have been won over to the anti-imperialist or autonomist arguments
of Toni Negri,
Homi Bhabha, Hakim Bey, or Édouard Glissant) in reality
only reinforce the power of the “Empire” in terms
of selection and, therefore, of control. In short, they are so
many neocolonial agents of the Western effort to bring the world
to heel; they subtly coopt the Periphery for the purpose of building
up the power of the Center.
Let us emit the
following hypothesis in the form of a riddle: Along the lines
of its action in the economic domain, would not the West be using
art biennials as a way of outsourcing its production or its aesthetic
choices by “relocating,” and thus exploiting for its
own benefit the present-day globalization of the world ?
Rather than being
a plot, what in fact we are dealing with here is a trend. At a
time of “world” movements and planetary NGOs, everyone
is looking toward far-off horizons against the background of a
mental abolition of borders. As a consequence, the tendency is
to disqualify polar opposites. By this measure, knowing
that immobility works against the present-day consensus about
the circulation of ideas (as well as of artists, of cultural officials,
and so on), a biennial that wishes to be legitimate will picture
itself as a biennial from elsewhere, one that is “exotic,”
or, better still, migratory, perpetually changing in space, and
boasting a fitting list of artists. For the past fifteen years,
the recurrent notions on which biennials have relied are, unsurprisingly,
those of geographical provenance, cultural identity, exchange,
and genuine litanies.
of a biennial–and the art that would come out of it with
increased stature because of the media attention it garners--has
to do only in part with art properly speaking. For, every biennial
is a sign before it is a content. With joint financing
from Spain and Argentina, the Havana Biennial is also
taken as a factor in the establishment of good relations within
the Spanish-speaking world. As it exited from apartheid, and anxious
to open up to the world, South Africa intentionally created the
Johannesburg Biennial in 1995--though at the risk of becoming
dependent upon the outside world, in its case. Coopted, in effect,
by the West and then, during its second and final edition in 1997,
by the ideologues of “creoleness,” it ultimately turned
its back on local artists’ hopes for visibility, dispossessing
them and disappointing them.
Are culture and,
within the world of culture, biennials, something like the continuation
of politics by other means? Most certainly so. And yet in a comforting
reminder, we hear the following ecumenical argument from the artist
David Medalla--the creator, in 2000, of his own London biennial--“When
all is said and done, it is preferable that exchanges between
peoples take place via biennials rather than through wars.”(5)
In a list that is constantly evolving, we have: Cetinie, Lyon,
Uppsala, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Taipei, Gwangju, Santa Fe, Puerto
Rico, Santo Domingo, Montreal, Liverpool, Manifesta, Berlin, Fortaleza,
Prague, Iasi, and so on and so forth. Let us note that a committee
was recently formed to reestablish an art biennial in Paris before
the end of 2003, the last one dating from 1985. At the time these
lines are being written, this committee’s website was, however,
not answering its subscribers.
2. Translator: See http://www.pq.cz/english/accomp.html
3. From her review of the “Fourth Caribbean
Biennial: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic,” which was
published in Flash Art, 223 (March/April 2002): 64. Évelyne
Jouanno herself has been invited to Santo Domingo to work as an
4. Translator: See “2nd International Art
Biennial of Buenos Aires at the National Museum of Fine Arts--Official
press release,” posted at: http://universes-in-universe.de/car/buenos-aires/2002/txt/e-press-2002.htm
5. Translator: This is a translation back into
English of Ardenne’s translation from memory into French.
Primitivism in the Art of the 20th Century. Museum of
Modern Art, New York, 1984.
Magiciens de la Terre. Georges Pompidou Center, Paris
Partage d’exotismes. Fifth Biennial of Contemporary
Art, Lyon, 2000.
Documenta 11. Kassel, 2002.
Books and Articles:
Homi K. Bhabba. “Beyond the Pale: Art in
the Age of Multicultural Translation.” In Elisabeth Sussman,
Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt, and Lisa Phillips, eds. 1993
Biennial Exhibition, pp. 62-73. New York: Whitney Museum
of American Art in association with Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993.
Anna Maria Guasch. El Arte del Siglo XX en
Su Exposiciones. Barcelona: Ediciones del Serbal, 1997. See,
in particular, pp. 402ff.
Thomas McEvilley. Art and Otherness: Crisis
in Cultural Identity. Kingston, New York: Documentext, 1992.
Nikos Papastergiadis. “An Introduction
into the Aesthetics of Deterritorialisation.” In Art and
Cultural Difference, Art Design, 43 (August 1995): 6-8.
of the First Beijing International Art Biennial, 2003.
of the Third International Festival of Photography.
Seventh Art Biennial. Inauguration on the Plaza Vieja.
Biennial. Inauguration on the Plaza Vieja, 2000.