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Is the international art world too elitist?

2 July 2018

The proliferation of biennials and art fairs around the world has brought with it the rise of a jet-set elite. For all their talk of working with local communities, how much do such events encourage meaningful engagement?

Caroline A. Jones

Biennial openings are for art-world elites; the general public has to wait until the champagne is over. At previews for the 10th Berlin Biennale (until 9 September), elites were in full force. Directors of commissioning institutions, international artists, jet-setting collectors on their way to Art Basel, nomadic global curators, and leaders from the foundations and state culture bureaucracies funding the show were all in evidence. In this cross-section of the art world, a handful of those attending were ‘local’ figures, since Berlin has become a self-styled cultural and intellectual hub. Berlin’s biennial is now on the art-world map.

The boundaries of that map are morphing, since the Euro-identification of Berlin’s intellectual core is precisely what the biennial is questioning. Having named Gabi Ngcobo, a South African theatre artist, as the leader of this year’s biennial, its directors were implicitly challenging the show’s customary Euro-centrism. Ngcobo does not disappoint, putting the local and global in tension by forcing the art world to take on the challenge of ‘provincialising Europe’ from within its ostensible centre. On the one hand, Berlin would like to be ‘local’ and central for any up-and-coming cultural programmer; on the other, an African curator would likely bring in lesser-known artists from a site colonially constructed as the periphery. It is hard not to interpret Ngcobo’s decision to broaden the curatorial team to include Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Serubiri Moses, Thiago de Paula Souza, and Yvette Mutumba as a refusal of Europe’s centrality by representatives from the global South. It was much anticipated that this young but already accomplished team of Africanists (in Toni Morrison’s sense of the term) would finally bring postcolonial theory to Germany. Their refusal to do any such thing is itself an elite response, claiming the privilege of being non-didactic in the face of Europe’s demands to know the Other.

The results frustrated most of the English-language critics (I’m thinking of the New York Times, Frieze, and artnet News) who seem exasperated with the curators’ insistence that the show is polemical without stating a polemic. The curators coyly fail to name the Afro-centrism of the show in any way whatsoever, taking a Tina Turner line from the 1985 song ‘We don’t need another hero’ for their show’s title (but ignoring Barbara Kruger’s appropriation of the slogan). There’s something brave about this, and even something anti-elitist: let the art speak in its own terms. Indeed, in my opinion, the best-in-show award goes to the several new commissions for the event, indicating that these curators really do know what they’re doing.

Commissions at this biennial revolve around the very axis posed by the question under discussion: the imagined binaries of elite vs public, insider vs outsider, global vs local. Some articulate the explicitly unstated Afro-centrism of the biennial. Millis Erwachen/Milli’s Awakening (2018), a black-and-white film by Natasha A. Kelly, unfolds over 45 minutes, documenting the struggles of women of Afro-German heritage who offer a collective critique of Germany’s lingering racial ideologies. These women are defiantly local: they insist on being German, despite the vivid diasporic identities that some of them embrace, and despite being asked almost every day ‘Where do you come from?’, when the answer is Dortmund, Munich, Hamburg or Berlin.

The biennial’s highly educated and fluent art-world operators are elites by any measure, particularly in their own countries of origin. An invitation to be on a curatorial team in a country other than your own, or to fulfil a commission from the prestigious Berlin Biennale, would anoint any curator, educator, artist, or art writer as part of a global elite. But once the regular public enters an art space, does it matter? Either the art communicates, or it doesn’t; either the labels explain enough, or they don’t; either the show makes an impression, or it doesn’t. This current team of outsiders positions the local in ways that insist on its already diasporic involvement with the global. Hopefully they will take us into the postcolonial future we all need.

Caroline A. Jones is Professor of Art History at MIT. Her most recent book
is The Global Work of Art (2016).

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Illustration by Graham Roumieu/Dutch Uncle

Rachel Wetzler

I recently found myself at the opening of a new biennial in a small country I’d never previously visited. Heading back to my hotel after the very elegant VIP reception, I realised that not one of the people I spoke with at the party was local – and yet everyone seemed to know one another. If the biennial was intended as an opportunity to highlight the region’s artists and introduce them to an international audience, the opening served primarily as a convenient meeting point for far-flung colleagues: I heard more than one person at the reception say that they’d decided to come because they heard a friend from Stockholm or London or Istanbul would be in town, rather than any particular interest in the local art scene. Not that I was any better: commissioned to write a review of the exhibition, I spent all of two days on the ground before getting back on a transcontinental flight, having never exchanged more than a few words with anyone who actually lived in the city (not that this would stop me from writing authoritatively about the ways in which the exhibition commented on the region and its history).

Surveying the biennial circuit, the obvious conclusion is yes, the international art world is too elitist. For all the rhetorical emphasis on engaging local communities, histories, and cultures, it is populated by globetrotting curators, artists, critics, and patrons who temporarily parachute into various settings – the more obscure the better – and pat themselves on the back for their (our) worldliness and commitment to diverse publics while mostly talking to people they (we) already know. Occasionally this can tip over into outright black comedy: think, for instance, of the reports in the art press about Documenta 14 curators and staff carrying stacks of euros from Germany to Athens in their hand luggage to circumvent the cash-strapped Greek banks’ €120 cap on withdrawals (all under the auspices of ‘learning from Athens’).

It should also go without saying that the ability to routinely hop on a plane to see art requires more than money, but also the ability to move freely across borders. Navigating the annual calendar of biennials, triennials, and art fairs is far easier for those holding passports from the United States or EU countries than, for instance, India or Nigeria.   

That’s not to say that these kinds of events are inherently incapable of connecting meaningfully with local audiences: some balance the task of addressing residents and professional art tourists at the same time more adroitly than others. And, for artists or art enthusiasts living in cities without a robust gallery scene or major museums, the arrival of a new international biennial might be legitimately thrilling. But it’s no coincidence that the Venice-Basel-Kassel-Münster itinerary, in the years when multiple exhibitions coincide, is often called the ‘Grand Tour,’ with its connotations of an aristocratic rite-of-passage. Biennials aren’t elitist because they speak in a language unintelligible to those outside the art world (itself an elitist assumption – as if one requires an MA in art history to enjoy culture), but because they normalise a particular kind of privileged mobility and effectively make it a requirement for participation.

But perhaps it’s worth looking at the question another way: biennials and art fairs are a symptom of a larger problem, not its cause. There is a structural elitism built into the art world and its professions which is, to a large degree, financial. For all the staggering sums of money that are exchanged at auction, arts professions tend to be precarious, wildly underpaid, and based in expensive cities; just getting one’s foot in the door often requires doing multiple unpaid internships which are simply not feasible for many students from working-class backgrounds, particularly those who are already thousands of pounds in debt from student loans. If institutions want to combat elitism and engage diverse publics, they might start by examining their own labour practices.

Rachel Wetzler is an art historian based in New York and a critic for Art in America.

From the July/August 2018 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.