Book Review: Global Art

Silvia von Bennigsen, Irene Gludowacz, and Susanne van Hagen's book about intoxication, engagement, and money-making - can art be a global cultural equalizer?

The authors of Global Art speak at their book launch at the Dorotheum | Photo: Vienna Art Week

Kunst in the Big Bad World

“Man, being reasonable, must get drunk,” said Lord Byron. “The best of life is intoxication.” And who could disagree, wrote philosopher A.C. Grayling in his essay On Intemperance, “if he meant intoxication by art, letters, music and love?”

This was the thought that was threading through my mind as I arrived at the launching of the book, Global Art, by art writers Silvia von Bennigsen, Irene Gludowacz, and Susanne van Hagen at the Dorotheum auction house during the Vienna Art Week.

Amidst the Dorotheum’s various objets d’art on display, the atmosphere of selling-and-buying seemed an apt setting for the work, a compilation of 40 interviews, starting with artists and the mediators of artworks – dealers, collectors and curators – by which the authors hope to stimulate discussion as to how far globalization has affected the art world and what changes can be observed as a result. This issue begs other questions: which kind of art lends itself to globalization? Under what conditions? And who is driving the process?

Author-editors von Bennigsen, Gludowacz and van Hagen claim that they did not intend to judge the process nor draw conclusions; they aimed to present “the various opinions, activities, motivations, and personalities of the central protagonists of the international art world.”

The relationship between art and money and how the global financial crisis has affected their book project are the focal points of the discussion. But how can art be a global cultural equalizer? And who is engaging whom, how, where, and why? Is it the mediators: collectors, curators and gallery owners, or the artists themselves? Or all, combining varied interests?

One terse reply appears in the book from international curator Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art: “Money talks, but it does not have much to say.”

As a foray into the archaeology of knowledge about the effects of globalization, Global Art is a significant first step. The authors have succeeded in collating intimate histories and snapshots from an array of movers and shakers who have responded with candour – thus providing a broad palette of insights and critical standpoints to stimulate a sensible discourse.

Nuremberg-born Kiki Smith defines art as “a way that particular people synthesize or coalesce their experience into some sort of visual, material form” – a predictable definition. Describing herself a “thing maker,” the compulsion “to make a bundle of energetic impulses does not change so much.” She places her emphasis on the context. It is “how it socially or culturally functions – that changes.”  An attitude echoed throughout the book.

Leipzig-based Neo Rauch, whose works on paper were acclaimed at the Albertina exhibition in 2004, defines the measure of art by its impact. “Artworks function by overwhelming people… as phenomena that confuse, assault, and flatter the senses… offering them spiritual nourishment by the back door.”

The three author-editors, German, Austrian and French respectively, are to be congratulated for creating a public space where criticism is suspended in the name of dialogue. The book, divided into six sections, displays a methodical consistency and team approach to the interviews, eliciting and organizing the empirical data into a coherent spectrum of artistic practice and mediation. Simple and direct questions follow a complex focusing and filtering of diverse authorial concerns.

Thus, within that framework of questions, the author-editors give free rein to the interviewees to present their voices without being subjected to analysis and judgement. This can lead to disarming the reader and at the same time is the book’s Achilles heel; voices reveal a dynamic interplay between artist and mediator that seems to flow with unrealistic ease, free of the essential dissonance determined by their roles. So why should the book attract media interest?  And which voices are being privileged and why? Who has been excluded and what are the implications of such exclusion? The missing critical feature is a definition of the stage on which globalization is played out.

The author-editors sought a balanced geographical and generational representation, and to take into account changing times and women’s roles. But still the resulting selection suggests that globalized art takes place mainly along the axis  of Los Angeles through New York and Moscow, excluding many places in between. By including the emerging markets, the book suggests that global art is valued only through its dominant producers and mediators of the area – questioning whether those are valuable representatives of their respective regions.

Southeast Asia and Africa do not appear at all. Latin America also remains unmentioned. Perhaps fearing a kind of cultural ghetto, Brazilian-born Vik Muniz prefers it that way.

“Not too long ago, Sotheby’s held what they called a Latin American auction. Why do we have to separate ‘Latin American’ from the rest? If we do so, then we have to qualify it.” Clearly, Muniz does not like geographical labels. “Cultures don’t come to you in their raw form – they have to be packaged somehow.” Muniz sees himself as an American. However, he was heavily influenced by mass culture and lack of art education resulting from his background in Brazil.

Janaina Tschaipe, who focuses on issues of identity and the self in multimedia and video installations, was born in Germany, grew up in Brazil, and lives with Muniz in New York. “Art,” she says, “has joined the industry force in its globalized production and distribution and has been gradually injected into everyday pop culture.” The emphasis is “no longer on art as an autonomous entity outside of reality’s rules and conundrums.” But, she confesses that being “branded” as a female Latin American artist might have brought more opportunities than being “just a female artist.”

Global Art is problematic as to who is doing what to make art globally “in.” Presumably, the author-editors chose what they perceived to be “the best connected and the most visible.”  Still, there are no specific criteria, and this is a serious fault.

By keeping silent about other omissions, the author-editors also tacitly endorse misleading indicators as to what constitutes art, and ultimately what makes it globalized. To begin with, there is an essentialist consensus that what matters are those artists that fall within the category ‘contemporary art,’ and that have been tested in terms of their appeal in the capitalized West. South Korean Dong Jo Chang, who runs a Gallery in Seoul for Korean and international contemporary art, attests to this, observing that Western art was introduced when the Olympics opened up Korea in 1988, coinciding with tax laws that were legislated in favor of foreign art.

The next gap is the medium. Most of the artists, collectors and curators interviewed were anchored in painting and sculpture. While these fine arts have traditionally dominated exhibitions through the end of the 20th century, radical changes have taken place, as was demonstrated at the Vienna Art Week 2009, the context of the book launch.

Another gap is the exclusion of film. While digital and video works are reflected in the context of installations, there is a no reference to this defining medium – integrating the other arts such as music, design and fashion and surely the leader in reaching audiences on a global scale.

So, what about the applied arts, considering that fashion and architectural design are spearheading this invasive globalisation?

There are some brighter aspects of the commercialization that is engulfing art. Mohamed Abdul Latif Kanoo envisions a Saadiyat Island Project to showcase local culture and promote Arab artists. “Islamic tradition is aural,” says Latif Kanoo. “We have the task to bridge between the old verbal culture and the visual one of today.”

From the Vatican, the role of cultural heritage in defining identities continues to play a central role, both in rich and developing countries. So Francesco Buranelli laments “the break” between artists and the Catholic Church. “Art has lost its ability to engage seriously with religious themes.” He hopes to resume the dialogue.

This is a good signal in the light of Marc-Olivier Wahler of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris saying, “Contemporary art’s a mental and kinaesthetic experience, but above all, it’s a way of keeping spiritually healthy.”

Global Art has the power to hold the reader in spiritual and cerebral terms. All interviewees have something engaging to say. Nevertheless, it is not a book that was meant to intoxicate at all. Indeed, I dare suggest that the publisher could have ventured into a post-modern and more art-inclusive form of cultural entrepreneurship: the interviews and visual works could have been video-filmed and produced with music for digital access in an attached DVD. It may be fortunate that the book does not offer concrete tips as to what kind of art may fetch the most from which potential dealer or attract the most influential gallery owner that’ll make a sure hitch to the stars. Neither does the connection between money and art become clear: that remains a mystery, at least to those who do not fall within the ambit of the globalized contemporary art game or who are unable to read its coded language, let alone gain access.

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