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May 2, 2020

Global Art, Post-Colonialism And The End of Art History (Robert McDougall)

The following is the first of a two-part series.

In Contemporary Art as Global Art: A Critical Estimate, Hans Belting sets out to explain how the concept of ‘global art’ since the late 1980’s has transgressed our traditional understandings of art history, modernism’s ideals of “progress and hegemony”, and our hitherto Eurocentric historical assumptions, as well as how market forces and regionalism are effecting contemporary art in the age of globalization. Serving as the introduction to a book he himself edited, The Global Art World – Audience, Markets, and Museums, the piece was published by GAM – Global Art and the Museum, a ZKM (Centre for Art and Media – Karlsruhe)-based group convened by Belting himself with Peter Weibel in 2006, and dedicated to “documenting the contested boundaries of today’s art world”.

Global art, says Belting, does not signify a new context or new sense of aesthetics, but moreover indicates a “loss of context”, in that largely much artwork today can no longer be positioned within the frameworks of European ‘art history’, but rather in the context of regionalism, and the heterogeneous contributive nature of all the world’s cultural traditions.(2) This, Belting describes, opposes Modernism’s “self-appointed universalism”, which was always based upon a “hegemonial conception” of art, towards a conception of what Russel Storer and others have termed ‘multiple modernisms’. It is Belting’s essay, its context within global art studies and the potential of these ideas that will be discussed here.

“Global art is no longer synonymous with modern art”, writes Belting, in asserting a semantic difference between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’, the former for Belting having loaded associations with the Eurocentric and the latter simply meaning “the most recent”.(3) As Giorgio Agamben has written, contemporaneousness might mean “a single relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and also takes distance from it” – a useful definition in light of Belting’s thesis.(41)

Furthermore, Belting’s conception essentially relies upon a distinction between the terms “world art” and “global art“, and explores how the former was supplanted by the latter around the late 1980’s, particularly around the time of Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la Terre exhibition at the Pompidou centre in Paris when both Western and non-Western artists were shown together for the first time in a major exhibition. A valuable distinction certainly, world art for Belting refers to the pre-1989 conception of non-European art as the primitive aesthetic foundation of mankind, which Belting relates is expressed in such contexts as André Malraux’s Museum without Walls compendium or the Sainsbury Collection of African and Oceanic art objects. No doubt also Belting is referring in general to the various collections of ‘primitivist’ objects from Africa and elsewhere lauded by figures in European modernism such as Pablo Picasso or André Breton.

It was “a paradigm of Modernist aesthetics to regard every form or work that humanity created, as art”, writes Belting, yet it was also a claim of Modernism that this ‘world art’ be forever ‘othered’ as primal and ethnographically historical, but never contemporary. As historian Ian MacLean has written about Australian Aboriginal art of remote indigenous communities, in agreement with Belting’s assertion, the artwork itself is often kept “locked out of the contemporary and within a romanticized netherworld”, a segregation that is “perpetuated” by the artwork being “firmly in the ethnology museum and European art in the art museum”, a segregation that Belting elsewhere has also referred to.

Belting then explores whether a notion of “world art history” in its traditional Eurocentric form can ever be truly inclusive of the range of non-Western regional histories that have gone into developing the artwork of our globalized world, or whether a legitimate “global art history” is necessarily one that embraces an “exodus” from art history entirely, towards more heterogeneous understandings of artistic historiography.

Belting then explores the contemporary phenomena of the MoCA, or Museum of Contemporary Art, particularly in Asia where such museums, and the Biennales that follow them, are increasingly emerging. Belting positions these places as contextual and symbolic sites where often art hasn’t found localized meaning yet. In some instances their contents, collections and events have no meaningful relation to the social culture that surrounds them, precisely because of a lack of consolidation of a local definition of art, Belting argues, given that the MoCA and the ‘hegemonial Modernism’ of European art history that accompanies it is largely Western-imported.

Therefore, he writes, it is not as simple as establishing a MoCA and a Biennale in these regional localities but for the local culture to define a meaning and function for ‘art’, and what sense of an ‘art history’ they wish to work from, as the Eurocentric model of art history, with its system of hegemonial exclusions, cannot legitimately provide this.

Cannot provide because, as Belting describes, of Modernism’s historical “double exclusion”.(12) That being, firstly the non-inclusion of non-Western artists regardless of their own sense of contemporaneity to the annals of ‘modern art’ because of their geographic locality (and the subsequent, only recent attempts to ‘fill in the gaps’ of modernity by looking elsewhere for “lost” avant gardes). Belting gives the example, quite rightly, that this deeply-entrenched Eurocentric attitude perpetuated for many years has only recently been confronted, by figures such as Rasheed Araeen in his The Other Story (1989), and his subsequent work with The Third Text.

Citing Arthur Danto’s work regarding the “end of art history” and then comparing it with his own, Belting then argues as a comparison to this “post-historic’ position, the position of the non-Western artist as ‘post-ethnic”. Giving the example of Chéri Zamba and V.S Naipaul, both of whose work plays with the notions of multiple ethnic identities, Belting argues that the ‘post-ethnic’ artist is one that does away with the concept of authenticity, primacy, and primitivism so caught up in the European gaze. Citing Holland Cotter and his talk about the “crisis of history”, Belting argues once again it was concepts of contemporaneity and geography which forever set the Western gaze apart from the colonial, primitivist “other”.(14)

Belting then explores how technology has influenced the globalization of art, relating how the phenomena of video art democratized the art world, as previously predicted that photographic technologies would by Walter Benjamin, because of the way it allowed artists outside the Western formal tradition to use cheaply available technology the world over.Likewise, with the ascension of Pop Art, in which the world “looked flat everywhere”, artists from across Asia were able to talk about and aestheticize their shared experiences of Late Capitalism.(15) It is from here that Belting begins to talk, by way of the example of Chinese Neo-Pop Art and how it has risen to surpass Western Pop Art in terms of financial value, the economics of the global art market.

Since Japan’s economic boom in the mid-1980’s, which Belting writes “changed the game forever”, the rise in art collecting has led to a culture of lifestyle over connoisseurship.(18) Giving the example of the escalating number of countries represented in the trade, and the strategies Sotheby’s and Christie’s now use to sell work, Belting argues that market values have distanced art evaluation from traditional pedagogical criticism. Given this financial climate, Belting explains, exhibition practice itself intentionally hides the economic experience of both the artists and collectors, quoting Thomas McEvilly to say, “the problem is no longer that art works will end up as commodities, but that they will start out as such”, and giving the example of Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa as exemplary to the fact.(20)

Listing various examples of newly-established MoCAs across Asia, Belting argues again that increasingly artistic values are eroding in the face of commodification. Firstly in Istanbul, where the Istanbul Modern now only exhibits traditional Turkish artisanship for sale despite having a Biennale in the past, secondly in New Delhi, where the National Museum of Modern Art has greatly-declining visitor numbers whilst people flock to the Poddar collection which houses commissions and folk art for sale, and thirdly in Abu Dhabi, in which foreign collectors are taken on tours of the crown princess’ collection of Middle Eastern contemporary works for sale.

From these examples, Belting suggests that as the idea of having modern museums headed by curatorial experts who control acquisition is a Western idea based upon Western conceptions of art and museum function, these new locations in Asia and elsewhere must necessarily form their own local conceptions of art practice if they are to move past the consumer notion of the private investor who develops and consolidates an audience based upon economic interest alone.

Accurately, Belting is suggesting that it is the museums themselves and the surrounding culture that has to make choices in how to support and champion art for art’s sake, and moreover form a relationship with history, as history ultimately “has to be represented or rediscovered, and sometimes reinvented”, when facing the opposing forces of markets and economics. Speaking of the “newness” of global culture and the acceleration of its inhabitants towards a state of true contemporaneousness, Belting quotes Marc Auge in saying that “we must speak, therefore, of worlds in the plural, understanding that each of them communicates with the others.” Museums of any capacity are, Belting writes, site specific, “representing the local situation in the face of global art traffic”.(22)

To conclude the piece, Belting then quotes the recent work of Bydler and Stallabrass, who’s work surrounding this ‘global turn’ and the considerations of art after the end of the Cold War and the rise of art worlds across the non-Western world, well and truly confirms that indeed, art itself has “continued its exodus from art history”, that the erosion of borders and the heterogenizing, democratizing nature of global art has proven the fallibility of modernism’s master narratives.(23)

It is worth considering the historical background of the prejudices of world art, that being, the history of colonialism and the scientific racism out of which it was justified. From Classical writers like Vitruvius, forward to Enlightenment-era figures like Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, Blumenbach and Buffon, Christoph Meiners, and even Hegel, Europe’s intellectual tradition was full of philosophical and scientific justifications for the supremacy of White Europeans. It was only around the mid-19th Century when Friedrich Tiedemann became the first to make a scientific case against racism that Europe’s obsession with racialized subjectification began to be questioned, eventually being followed in the social sciences by Franz Boas, Margaret Meade and others who normalized the concept of cultural relativism.

Then, during the post-war period and following the dissolution of Europe’s colonial empires, figures such as Frantz Fanon, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Eqbal Ahmad emerged to contribute to the formation of Post-colonialism as a critical discourse. A protégé of both Abu-Lughod and Ahmad, Edward Said’s contribution Orientalism was a study of the Western misrepresentation of the “Orient” in the arts and thus in the prevailing attitudes of European social mores. Neglected by Belting at least in the text in question, Said spoke of Western depictions of the East as an “ideal other” and “timeless orient”, which “unlike the west doesn’t develop”, and which is forever languishing in a myopic, yet romanticised, savagery, creating an image forever “outside of history”. One can obviously see in Belting’s critique of world art echoes of Said’s Orientalism.

Belting’s mention of the MoMa Primitivism show of 1984, of which Martin’s Magiciens de la terre was a critical response, clearly evidences the kind of colonialist attitudes that until very recently haunted, like Derrida’s notion of hauntology and the spectres of the past, Western art history. Historical considerations aside, how is it that global art has emerged and what of Belting’s ‘estimate’? Pioneering curator Okwui Enwezor, responsible for Documenta 11’s largely global art agenda, which he wrote was to “redress the past exclusions” of Western art, has talked about how global art culture has heralded an era of vast ”postcolonial constellations”, the dynamic routes of cultural exchange across the globe. Similarly, Nancy Adajania has spoken of how “the old centre-periphery model” of the world has been displaced by a new vista of individuals, communities and nations, “connected by surprising webs of information and alliances across borders, and where the ex-periphery is a garland of emergent centres.”(222)

As an extension of this and in confirmation of Belting’s thesis, it is most evident that a fundamental decentring of the West’s cultural power is occurring. As Ian Maclean writes, art is no longer “the God-given right of Europeans. Instead, it is a set of autonomous styles disconnected from any historicist project (such as modernism or the avant-garde) and contemporaneously available to anyone anywhere in the world.”(223)

Likewise, as Tim Soutphommasane has written about Psy’s ‘Gangham Style’ being evident of South Korea’s reestablishment of ‘soft power’ after America’s cultural supremacy of so many years, I too recall speaking to Indonesian artist Rully Shabara earlier this year, when he spoke of the West “no longer being cool” for Asian youth, with their attention now lying at different Asian centres.

Robert McDougall is a graduate student at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

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