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by Claire Farago

Cutting and Sharing the “Global Pie”: Why History Matters to Discussions of Contemporary “Global Art”

My contribution to this issue takes exception to those power brokers of the art world who continue to ignore their own privileged position in the prolonged humanitarian and ecological crisis that Gerardo Mosquera recognized 15 years ago when he coined the global pie metaphor. [1] Initially, my straw man was going to be Hans Belting’s widely cited views on global art, specifically stemming from the exhibition catalogue, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds (2013). Without acknowledging the strong backlash to the exhibition’s premises by postcolonial writers and Australian museum curators, Belting announced that the exhibition Magiciens de la terre held in Paris in 1989 banished [what Belting considered the Eurocentric] concept of world art because paintings by Australian bushmen were shown in the same gallery with bona fide avant-garde artists. Hence, global art can be made anywhere by anyone, because the “dualism of art and artifact was put aside when contemporary art production in a professional sense had become general practice and was no longer the West’s prerogative.”[2] How is the German art historian Belting in a position to declare that a single exhibition staged at the historical center of European modern art successfully eradicated the effects of centuries of European cultural chauvinism? The “prevalence of Western canons in art history,”)[3] writes Ruth Simbao, historian of African Art at Rhodes University, South Africa, cannot simply come to a close just because “authors steeped in this privileged art world announce its supposed demise, implying that they are willing and perhaps key agents of this apparent change.”[4]

Neglect of the local is Simbao’s main criticism of Belting’s blind arrogance. There is indeed an urgent need to study the many kinds of entanglements that emerge in local settings, and to study them comparatively. A transcultural framework of analysis is suited to this task—employing an analytical model that, as leading voice Monica Juneja defines it, does not take “historical units and boundaries as given, but rather constitutes them as a subject of investigation.”[5] The view of culture as something fixed and homogeneous, Juneja avers, is the product of “cultural categories drawn up by the universal histories of the nineteenth century.”[6] Yes, unfortunately, these categories are still with us both in daily life and in the Academy. There is much for art historians to revise.

Beyond the academy and aside from the epistemological issue of where to make the cut between the past and a present that is constantly sliding into the past, there is the considerable problem of imagining what and how history should be brought to bear on the subject of global art. Although much of the writing is, like Belting’s project, entirely presentist in approach, thus avoiding the problems of narrating history altogether, there have been some calls to incorporate history in accounts of global contemporary art. James Elkins, one of the most widely published organizers of this discourse, in his introduction to Art and Globalization of 2010, laments that international art is conceptualized in the absence of serious dialogue about globalization as it has been theorized in other disciplines such as political theory. And he regards as “amnesiac” the discipline’s current neglect of “’premodern’ forms of regionalism and globalism in art history.”[7] Herein lies the problem: for Juneja and many others, “universalism” is the heritage of Enlightenment metaphysics that demands scrutiny and reconceptualization, and their views and actions are informed by political theory; while for Elkins, Thomas Kaufmann, and others who likewise wish to integrate past and present in our accounts of global art, those same categories and goals still appear to be self-evident. Bluntly stated, they misrecognize their own ignorance for that of others.

The immediate origins of our longstanding categories about individual and collective cultural identity are in nineteenth-century adaptations of comparative anatomy and geology indebted to theories of biological evolution even before Darwin. That complicated subject has also received attention of late and deserves more. Matthew Rampley, in a superb study published in 2017, entitled The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, examines the crudeness of the basic claim that the study of brain behavior can explain complex questions of artistic intention and significance.[8]

If geological and geographic approaches of the past provide no epistemological or ethical foothold for a contemporary geography of art or any other kind of art history for that matter, then why turn to that discredited past now? Certainly not to celebrate the longevity of universalist art history practiced by white male Europeans of a certain class and stature. Rather, to seek the sources of lingering assumptions of geographical determinism and racial or ethnic essentialism in our own current accounts, in order to weed them out, expunge them. It is perplexing that Elkins, Kaufmann, and many others who have recently criticized the presentism of global contemporary art history do not situate their own subject positions clearly in relation to past historical narratives, especially since there have been strident critiques of universalism among contemporary art historians and artists who take a de-colonial approach to studying the past.

If the discipline itself—if the very category “art”—is the product of history, then we all share the ethical responsibility as producers of knowledge to understand how our knowledge shapes the institution. By necessity, this has to be a collective endeavor. No one has the expertise to go it alone. In 1992, Gerardo Mosquera called out the “myth of universal value in art,” not only because art is linked to specific historical and cultural situations, but also because art (and all material things in fact) possess “polysemic ambiguity, open to diverse readings.”[9] In 2017, the indictment of monocultural approaches articulated by Mosquera and others has still not been adequately addressed. Most debates on global art history still rely on the premises of the division between West and non-West, writes Esra Akcan in her contribution to the 2014 collection entitled Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, despite the aspiration for an inclusive discipline.[10] What, asks the co-editor of the same volume, the outcome of a workshop and conference held at the Clark Art Institute in 2011, would art history look like if the unfinished project of postcolonial theory were readmitted?[11]

And that’s not the half of it. Postcolonial and transcultural approaches—of course in many places outside certain elite institutions in the Northeast US, such approaches are well-accepted—admit history through the front door, calling attention at the local level to the uneven playing field, speaking back to the empire, asking difficult, previously unasked questions of the historical records that survive. It is exactly for this reason that historical understanding belongs in discussions of contemporary global art. Yet most contemporary art historians, artists, and critics, even among those who advocate for the inclusion of historical material, seem to limit the time frame worth considering to the nineteenth century. However, processes of globalization newly identified by transcultural approaches are not unique attributes of modernity. They began long before the nineteenth century. Existing historical accounts are problematic if they use the same epistemological categories and teleological narratives that the emerging study of global art is trying to eliminate. Since they mostly do, collective research is necessitated by the depth and breadth of material to be covered.

Writing in 2003, Mosquera did not mention climate change directly, but he similarly advocated developing a “multidirectional web of interactions” to encourage “true globalization,” defined as “a generalized participation.”[12] Mosquera identified the main issue as agency, who has it, who doesn’t. With Cassandra-like foresight, he asked what the implications are of “massive diasporas, changes in power structures, violence, terrorism, global communications and zones of silence, for art and culture?”[13] Agency, to quote Mosquera again, “includes the right of artists, curators and writers who have been excluded from and/or disadvantaged by dominant systems to have a say in announcing when their disadvantage has ended, if indeed it has.”[14]

The primary form of collaborative, participatory activism that matters now consists of the entire planetary network cooperating to save our shared home from premature and senseless destruction in the late capitalist era of the Anthropocene. Artists have taken the lead in working at the intersections of art, environmental activism, and political ecology, writes T. J. Demos in an important book about their efforts published in 2016, entitled Decolonizing Nature.[15] Demos is one of a growing number of contemporary art historians who have turned their attention to climate justice. In this arena, acting collaboratively with scientists is essential to cover the bases of expertise. What about the field of art history more generally? We can’t all write about climate change, but we share stakes in similar kinds of issues, as made abundantly clear in the growing body of literature on what English professor and climate change activist Rob Nixon calls “the environmentalism of the poor.”[16] As a historian studying objects and texts of the past, the work that I produce is re-writing the history of the past in the present. This re-written history deserves to be at the party if we are ever going to divide that global pie equitably. To do otherwise is to exclude the historian as yet another voiceless, marginalized, dispossessed subject. I leave you with a statement by Hayden White regarding the historian’s motivation for rewriting what he calls the “practical past”:

Recall that for [J. L.] Austin a speech act is “illocutionary”: that is, an action in which, in saying something, one not only says something but also does something, that is to say, changes a relationship either of the speaker to the world, of one part of the world to another, or of the world to the speaker. And if this is right—as many of Austin’s commentators seem to think that it is right—then we might begin to think about discourses, of which “historiography” would be one, as speech acts which, in saying something about the world, seek to change the world, the way one might relate to it, or the way things related to one another in the world.[17]

The following paper takes its title from a session entitled “How to Cut and Share the Global Pie: Transcultural Approaches to Collaboration, Participation, and Activism,” co-organized by Franziska Koch and Birgit Hopfener, ASAP9: Arts of the Present, October 26-28, 2017, Oakland, California, where it was originally presented. My warm thanks to the organizers for the invitation and to all who participated in the lively discussion, and especially to fellow participant Dorothee Richter for inviting me to contribute this slightly revised version of my paper to the present issue of OnCurating.

Claire Farago is Professor Emerita of Art History at the University of Colorado Boulder, and currently based in Los Angeles, where she is beginning a new, post-academic book project, Imagining Art History Otherwise (forthcoming from Routledge). Often working collaboratively, she is contributing editor of Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin American 1450–1650 (1995), among the first to shift emphasis in art history toward transcultural studies. Author of sixteen books and edited volumes, her previous forays in contemporary art and critical theory include Art Is Not What You Think It Is (2012), and Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (2004), both collaborations with Donald Preziosi. Directing an international team of scholars, she just completed a transcultural study of Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting originally published in 1651, with the first complete English translation and scholarly edition of a key text in the institutional history of western art (Brill Press, 2018).

1 Gerardo Mosquera, “From,” in Créolité and Creolization: documenta11_Platform 3, Okwui Enwezor et al., eds., Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 2003, pp. 145-148, citing p. 145.

2 Hans Belting, “From World Art to Global Art: View on a New Panorama,” in The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel eds., The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 178-185, citing pp. 181-182.

3 Ibid., p. 18.

4 Ruth Simbao, “What “Global Art” and Current (Re)turns Fail to See: A Modest Counter-Narrative to ‘Not-Another-Biennial,” Image & Text 25 (2015): 261-286, citing p. 263.

5 Monica Juneja and Christian Kravagna, “Understanding Transculturalism,” in Transcultural Modernisms: Model House Research Group, Moira Hille et al., eds., Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2013, pp. 22-33, citing Juneja, p. 28.

6 Juneja and Kravagna, “Understanding Transculturalism,” citing Juneja, p. 29.

7 James Elkins, “First Introduction,” in Art and Globalization, James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim eds., Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2010, pp. 1-4, citing p. 3. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann was a member of the 2007 seminar that Elkins’s volume commemorates. Elkins alludes to Kaufmann’s book, Towards a Geography of Art, Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL, 2008.

8 Matthew Rampley, The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 2017, see especially pp. 99-105 for a critique of the “crude materialist theory of mind” that underlies the claims of neuroscience. Rampley writes that neuroscientific approaches commit “a basic category error, by conflating the observed correlation between neural activity and subjective experience with the idea of a causal relation” (p. 100). Rampley identifies a “central axiom” of neuroscientific approaches to the arts that is shared with evolutionary theory and is deeply suspect, namely the idea that art is “a sequence of private events taking place within the mind/brain of an individual” (p. 101).

9 Gerardo Mosquera, “The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems around Art and Eurocentrism,” Third Text, 1992; reprinted in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung eds., Blackwell, Oxford, 2005, pp. 218-225, citing p. 222.

10 Esra Akcan, “Channels and Items of Translation,” in Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, Jill H. Casid and Aruna d’Souza eds., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014, p. 146.

11 Arunja d’Souza, “Introduction,” in Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, p. xvii.

12 Mosquera, “From,” p. 145.

13 Mosquera, “From,” p. 148.

14 Mosquera, “From,” p. 146.

15 T. J. Demos, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2016, p. 1.

16 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011. As other writers on climate change and its collateral effects have stressed, all life on earth is already deeply compromised. Among the most powerful and well-documented studies addressed to a general intellectual audience is Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Picador, New York, 2016.

17 Hayden White, The Practical Past, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 2010, p. 34. I am currently working on a new book that will address the issue of the art historian’s responsibilities and opportunities to rethink the past for the sake of the future. I have published brief synopsis of the project under the same title in Global and World Art in the Practice of the University Museum, Jane Chin Davidson and Sandra Esslinger eds., Routledge, London-New York, 2018, pp. 115-130.

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Issue 35

Decolonizing Art Institutions

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Dorothee Richter & Ronald Kolb

by Shwetal A. Patel

by Shwetal A. Patel and Shaheen Merali

by Dorothee Richter

by Michelle Wong

by Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide

by Sophie J Williamson