State of the arts: global versus local

Saturday 4 November, 16:0017:15, Zé Dos Bois Gallery, Rua Da Barroca, 59 1200-047 Lisboa (Bairro Alto), PortugalBattle of Ideas Europe


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The globalisation of the arts has been gathering pace in recent times. Less than half a century ago when artist Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) died, he had never travelled outside his home city of New York. By contrast, many of today’s globetrotting artists seem to traverse continents from exhibition premiere to cultural biennal. Uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist recently revealed he is on the road 50 weekends of every year – perhaps not surprising given the Biennial Foundation reports that there are now 220 biennials throughout the world.

Recently, Lisbon has emerged as a global player. Since the New York Times reported in 2008 that ‘Lisbon has the potential to become the most cosmopolitan and international city’, there has been a surge in openings of gallery spaces. And with major international dealers opening outlets and the emergence of the international art fair, ARCOlisboa, artsnet recently declared that ‘Lisbon has become one of Europe’s hottest art capitals’.

How should we assess the transformation of the arts into a global industry? Many welcome the emergence of vibrant new arts scenes. Jochen Volz, curator of the São Paulo Biennial, says biennals create platforms that ‘actively promote diversity, freedom and experimentation, while exercising critical thought and producing an alternative reality’. Others are less positive. Artist and critic Robert Storr argues ‘the ecosystem of the “global” artworld is like that of the planet itself – overheated and dire’.

Meanwhile, claims of openness are called into question by regular controversies. Documenta 14 festival, for example, opened to acclaim for its showcase work, ‘The Parthenon of Books’, Marta Minujin’s plea against all forms of censorship. But the festival then banned a performance of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s controversial poem, ‘Auschwitz on the Beach’. Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, ‘Open Casket’, at Whitney Biennial sparked accusations of cultural appropriation and calls for the painting to be removed from the exhibition and destroyed. Rather than cosmopolitan pluralism, is the globalisation of arts giving rise to a more censorious, divisive arts world?

Where once artists appeared to relate strongly to local scenes, is there a danger that in today’s air-miles artworld, artists are becoming detached from the environment that shaped them? Do newly dominant galleries such as Tate, MOMA and MAAT have less to say about the place they are based? Yet while Storr warns of a ‘relentless melting of aesthetic distinctions, dissolving of institutional barriers and fusion of cultures’, artists have long been international operators, whether European court painters to English monarchs, or pioneers of American modernism drawn to continental Europe. Should we view the global circuit of biennials in the twenty-first century as merely extending the ethos of the established international expo, or does today’s globally recognisable arts product threaten the erasure of cultural specifics? Can the globalisation of art bring new exciting opportunities for experimentation or will it merely consolidate the power of an artistic elite? Should the arts be refocused on the local, or is the benefit of the arts to offer universals?