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What does it mean to say that an artwork is “global” or “contemporary”? Such claims, which are often both implicit and based on unreflective judgments, are nothing less than a condition of possibility for virtually any kind of discourse or practice related to contemporary art. Yet despite the ubiquity or even the necessity of “the global” and “the contemporary,” it is by no means clear how these terms function rhetorically; it isn’t even clear that they refer to determinate concepts or that they can be distinguished analytically.
This intense ambiguity presents severe hazards for those who wish to operate critically within the ever-expanding sphere of global contemporary art. Perhaps the most troubling of these is that the considerable emancipatory potential of this still-emergent field cannot be extricated from its function within the world-system of neoliberal capitalism, in which art serves any number of ethically dubious purposes. Whether or not the global contemporary is actually a concept, an epoch, or a style, it is surely both a brand and an ideology, even a kind of normative regime. Art history is not immune to such problems of course, and there is a manifest, urgent need for scholarship that can clarify the etiology, the dynamics, and the contradictions of the current conjuncture.
The promise of studies like Caroline Jones’s The Global Work of Art is that they might take up this task, particularly as such geopolitical concerns have largely escaped the attention of mainstream anglophone art history (a field that has proven more content to enjoy its privilege than to problematize it, let alone contest it). Jones’s objectives are clear, bold, and highly relevant. To summarize them, she means to account for the processes through which certain artists and artworks have been designated as “international” or “global” and to link these to specific changes in the tactics of artists and curators; these shifts reflect the desires of their publics, who in turn become the transformed subject of the artwork’s world-reshaping work.
By foregrounding this spiral movement of production, circulation, and reception, Jones argues that we can develop something like an aesthetico-intellectual history of central categories (including international, transnational, and global) and keywords (among them cosmopolitanism, experience, world, and event). Such an understanding would clearly benefit art history, but it could also reframe the activities of artists, curators, and audiences in terms of what Jones calls “critical globalism”: an approach in which art’s capacity to transform subjective experience and cognition through its unique “blind epistemology” enables the aesthetic to assume an ethical or political function. This openly prescriptive position suggests a conception of the art historian as a kind of advocate or even activist—at one point the text urges its readers to “OCCUPY THE GLOBAL!” (xiv). Frank first-person commentary peppers Jones’s discussion, and the book ends with a catalogue of “critical globalist” practices; it is clear that she intends her study to do something more than just contribute to the existing literature on her topic.
This kind of expansive, openly political ambition might not be rare in fields like visual culture, but it is still relatively uncommon in art history. (In some ways, the most relevant precedent for Jones’s project is T. J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea, a book that was published nearly two decades ago at the close of the twentieth century.) Given these rather formidable stakes, readers of The Global Work of Art may find themselves somewhat let down by its actual contents, which are perfectly interesting but at the same time unsurprising or even somewhat conventional, insofar as they tend to broaden or deepen existing scholarship rather than develop new objects or methodologies. Despite its aspirations to elaborate a critical genealogy of global contemporary art discourse, the book is mainly a study of major biennials and their historical precedents, accompanied by a survey of well-established, internationally recognized artists, such as Doris Salcedo, Olafur Eliasson, Francis Alÿs, and Walid Ra’ad.
The book’s first two chapters map a prehistory of this field, locating its roots in Enlightenment-era conceptions of sensation, the quasi-aristocratic custom of the Grand Tour, the universal expositions of the nineteenth century, and the geopolitics of European colonialism. As the third and fourth chapters persuasively demonstrate, these developments converge in the establishment of the Venice Biennale in 1895, which would in turn become one of the models for the highly influential Bienal de São Paulo, founded in 1951. Jones adroitly shows here how the incipient pressures of the Cold War shaped cultural production in nonaligned countries and how they were resisted by artists like Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica.
Shifting back to the North, the fifth chapter argues that a similar resistant force was present in transnational freelance curatorial practices like those of the much-lauded Harald Szeemann, who mocked his own itinerant status by describing himself as a Gastarbeiter, the German euphemism for migrant laborers from countries like Turkey and Vietnam (like Szeemann, Jones seems to miss the racialized condescension of this usage). The two closing chapters outline an optimistic vision of art’s ability to oppose the malignant effects of global neoliberalism in which the transformative capacity of “critical globalism” is linked to the ascendance of immersive, participatory, and event-based formats, and thereby to what Jones calls an “aesthetics of experience,” typified by such artists as Mariko Mori and Tino Sehgal.
Given that researchers in curatorial studies and exhibition history have for some time now been seeking to provincialize the global center by developing genealogies of South-South exchange, Jones’s Venice-centered model might strike some as contrary or even retrograde inasmuch as it often speaks of “the biennial” as a homogenous entity, downplaying such minoritarian or contestatory tendencies. However, even specialists in those fields are likely to find much of interest in this book, which mobilizes a vast archive to power a lively, often seemingly encyclopedic discussion that embraces topics ranging from Denis Diderot’s account of a blind mathematician to the history of exhibiting members of colonized indigenous populations.
Complementing this impressive erudition is a keen sense for problems like “predicated internationalism”—the reinscription of cultural hierarchy in terms like “the Brazilian Rodin”—or the kind of compulsory self-exoticization often expected of artists from the global margins. Some of the book’s most interesting passages are those in which Jones draws on the work of disability theorists like Georgina Kleege, whose thinking has had a much more pronounced effect in visual culture than in art history.
At a moment when both leftist and liberal academics have diagnosed a turn to “post-critical” interpretation, one wishes that more scholars of Jones’s stature would commit themselves so unabashedly to criticality. That said, this study seems curiously unwilling to engage with the questions that have historically structured the most generative strains of critical theory. Some of these oversights are of relatively minor consequence. The argument repeatedly asserts the importance of artists’ desire for the global yet ignores psychoanalysis and thus misses how desire is mediated by ambivalence, displacement, and identification. Martin Heidegger’s critique of the world-picture (Weltbild) is an important reference point, but the book sometimes takes this overly literally, as if Heidegger had been speaking about certain kinds of art and not about the ontological effects of Cartesian rationalism. Jones occasionally speaks of difference in rather abstract, generic terms, leading to some unfortunate formulations (“but if difference drove racism, it could also fuel an instructive criticality”) (56).
Nevertheless, in this reader’s judgment the book has one prominent, serious problem, and that is its failure to persuasively frame its critical argument in terms of political economy. One would have to be quite a vulgar Marxist to insist that Marxism should be at the center of every historical analysis, but it is hard to imagine how global art history can function critically without at least some sort of recourse to the basic categories of Marxian analysis. Despite its laudable aspirations, Jones’s account of globalization is hamstrung by its inability to plausibly account for financialization, outsourcing, precaritization, and other fundamental aspects of post-Fordist and/or neoliberal economies.
It is especially telling in this regard that this study neglects to engage with Marxian world-systems theorists like Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, or Immanuel Wallerstein, as this might have enabled it to broach such crucial topics as uneven development and the global division of labor, which receive little attention in a text that seems to shy away from questions of structural inequality and class antagonism. Accounts like these suggest that we should ultimately think more skeptically than this book does about globality, contemporaneity, and whatever it is that we call “global contemporary art.”
Such art can indeed enable certain privileged viewers to experience something like freedom, but these experiences are themselves of course sources of profit and objects of speculation, and they are moreover premised on various modes of exclusion and exploitation. One could argue that it is in fact this historically contingent antinomy between freedom and domination that grounds our sense of art’s contemporaneity; without a sharper sense of this profound, most likely irresolvable contradiction, we can have no real picture of the world art might wish to change.
Andrew S. Weiner
Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism, Department of Art and Art Professions, New York University