Unraveling Cultural Globalizationby Robert C. Morgan
Traveling to points outside the mainstream of the art world—in Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East—I have observed and listened to the views of artists who express frustration with the manner in which contemporary art is marketed today. Most often, their complaints center on the exclusionary matrix that structures the international art world. Trends in art are similar to those in fashion in that they are perpetually being generated an modified according to the precise stipulations of corporate advertising. Ultimately, the promotional apparatus reflects strategies of investment that have virtually nothing to do with art. Artists who operate within this matrix are virtually transformed through a system of logos. Like most corporations, their values fluctuate, often without a real geographical or cultural context.
For artists who work outside of this matrix, there is no real avant-garde, or “cutting edge.” Today’s art world is a market-driven phenomenon in which quality or significance is scarcely a factor. What was once the avant-garde in the West has finally collapsed under the overwhelming weight of kitsch—not genuine kitsch, but a kind of ironic pseudo-kitsch. Instead of the avant-garde being seen in opposition to this derriere-guard, as Greenberg argued in 1939, the avant-garde suddenly became kitsch. And what was once kitsch began posing as the new avant-garde, filled with cynical images, vapid episodes, simulated ornamental affects that go nowhere and hold virtually no aesthetic or real conceptual value. The plethora of work being manufactured according to these non-criteria exists in opposition to artists from the developing world whose concepts of art may hold a signifying value beyond the obvious veneer of marketing.
In our period of high transition, also known as “globalization,” it would be an understatement to say that the commercial media has contaminated everything, including art. Thus, if art has any aspiration of redefining itself, either conceptually or aesthetically, artists cannot ignore that what the public is told about art in the mainstream is essentially promotional spin determined by those willing to invest. But there is a distinction between economic and cultural globalization. Each has a radically different approach to the evolving trans-cultural realities that have emerged over the past twenty-five years.
The more familiar usage of the term “globalization” is from the position of economics where corporate interests view the globe as a seamless unity, an encapsulated system of exchange as seen from the outside. Economic globalization is about fundamental bottom-line concerns that have little to do with aesthetic issues, opting instead to focus on art as a system of commodities with investment potential. In contrast, cultural globalization takes place as semi-indigenous cultures in various regions of the world are transformed by development. For example, as artists living in countries like Indonesia, Morocco, Mali, Macedonia, Mongolia, and Iran seek to communicate with artists in other parts of the world, instead of looking from the outside in—as corporate business tends to do—these artists look from the inside out because they have no other access to communication, and therefore, no access to the art world as it has come to be defined by the twenty-first century.
In contrast, powerful galleries, collectors, and international art institutions may speculate on economics as a means to contain culture which is, in fact, a model closer to the International Style of the 1930s and is not related to my definition of cultural globalization. Those who understand cultural globalization in purely economic terns and who continue to put emerging forms at the service of investment have little to do with ensuring the survival of the living cultures that have little or no opportunity to participate in the international marketplace. In the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, emerging forms from semi-indigenous cultures continue to evolve despite the ancient past that surrounds them. Those who live in the West, or who come from the West as representatives of various corporate interests, assume economic globalization to be the case. They do no see culture as a viable interest that has any relevance to their agenda. Their only interest in culture is its disposability.
If a Fourth Century Hindu temple stands in the way of “Modernization,” the assumption is that it will be destroyed by any means necessary to further “develop” the region. But living culture goes much deeper than ancient monuments. For the populations in the southern hemisphere, who have learned to exist with very little money, there is an inherent willingness to protect the indigenous quality of their lives. Quality is measured not in terms of material concerns, but in terms of time, the rhythm of the day and night, the turn of the seasons, the inextricable proximity to nature as intrinsic to culture. Such indigenous values far outweigh any readiness to see developing interests from the West or Eastern Asia transform life into servitude under the auspices of culture tourism.
In recent years, many artists—often in exile from conflicted areas of the world—have reflected on issues of “identity politics” in their work. Once subjected to the pressures of the market, the work takes on the form of simulated cultural identity. This process has less to do with “identity” than with a globalized marketplace that operates according to consensus—a virtual epidemic in the art world. In this context, the hovering specter of sexual identity becomes less a pursuit of consciousness in relation to the body than a type of politicized fashion that guarantees admission into the global art market. When the art world defines itself according to fashion labels and political slogans, demanding conformity instead of reflectivity, art can no longer function as inner-directed or self-determined. Rather, art becomes a matter of conforming in the absence of criteria. The artist is pressured into becoming a surrogate being—a cultural logo—in complicit agreement with economic globalization.
Moreover, one may detect a fear of intimacy in the art world—a place where only the spectacle matters—accelerated in recent years and virtually without geographical constraints. In such a random universe, the artist struggling to adhere to a concept in her work may conclude that art has become everything the Internet is not. I have seen perfectly good artists from developing countries come to art schools in America, where they are convinced by their American professors that to do well—indeed to “make it” in the art world—they must focus their art on the problem of cultural identity, which usually implies merely a spectral image drawn from mass media.
But if the role of cultural globalization is to move us toward a trans-cultural experience—the underlying reality of our time—it must do more than rely on conformist spectacles. It must widen the gap beyond the “institutions of marginality” so endemic to the agenda of many art museums today. In one sense, we might speak of cultural globalization as a negation of conformity to the expectation and predictability of art world trends to which too many museums adhere. Rather than quasi-academic indulgence, cultural globalization should concern itself with how to translate and disseminate concerns related to the practice of art in various parts of the world, including areas where cultural repression is fueled by backward economic policies.
Outside of the triumvirate of New York, London, and Berlin, there are other models for art and culture worth examining. For example, compare the community of Turkish artists working in Istanbul with those aligned with Berlin and London. The situation may appear to be a cultural rivalry between conceptualists and academic modernists—the first coming from a globalized perspective, the second from an isolationist one. But this is a simplification. Turkey’s cultural context exists within a difficult moment of diplomatic unrest an economic instability. While one may recognize the potential for positive change, such factors problematize the way artists see their roles and how they continue to work. The separation of roles among artists cannot be avoided. Still, these economic and ideological factors will both directly and indirectly determine how much a role the Istanbul Biennial plays on the art world stage. The opportunity for a unique clarification of the conflicts and contradictions felt by artists in this area of the world could do much for showing the way to an expanded concept of cultural globalization.
At the moment, the art world stage appears dependent on existing marketing strategies. An alternative form of cultural globalization suggests redirecting economic funding into cultural forms that ultimately give a structure to artists working independently in places like Istanbul who are interested in developing communication with artists from other regions. Cultural globalization offers an incentive to organize exhibitions through exchange programs in order to give artists the opportunity to engage with new cultural ideas that relate to individual histories and identities from the position of a real subjectivity. Again, there is a real potential here, one that began with conceptualization in the late sixties, but was limited by the existing technology of the time. With the digital advance of recent years, new possibilities by which to evolve aesthetic issue is still important in terms of the originality and substance of the ideas that artists choose to represent.
I see this richness in much East Asian art over the past few years; the quality of work in China, Korea, and Japan is variable, but some is unquestionably first-rate. But there is the problem of Western marketing and media having too great an influence. Rather than transforming the route of economic globalization in art, art outside of major art world centers slips into the same problems that have endured for more than three decades in the art mainstream. What artists in China, for example, do not see is how quickly reputations come and go once the artist buys into strategies of the art rock-star. I would suggest a slower course of action. Through patience, opportunity for digression, and a spirit of generosity, one might discover an alternative network by which to exchange ideas as an antidote to present-day cynicism.
The cultural issues of the future are not only how far we can go with artificial intelligence or genetic engineering, or how small we can make mobile units of transmission. Is the essentialism of the technological sciences gradually becoming irrelevant? Not at all; they have the potential to create a new globalized aristocracy. Given recent political events, there would seem to be a certain logic to this. But one that is contingent on many factors. Namely, in the context of human history, interventions toward survival are neither logical nor predictable, but seem to happen irrevocably without notice. A major issue for artists facing this impending globalized arena is how to adapt the virtual world to the tactile world, to everyday reality, which includes our emotional realities still based on haptic experience.
Human conscience must play a distinctive role in how we determine the ethical consequences of out actions in the future, and this, of course will affect the future of cultural globalization. The role of art as substantive and transformative force will only be realized if art liberates itself from the pressure of corporate constraints. This is not to day that artists should ignore economic opportunities to further their ability to work and to succeed. This is not the point. It is a matter of seeing the larger picture from within the perspective of history, not only from the presence of the past but in the context of the present. If art continues to function according to the agenda of economic globalization without a clear cultural agenda, art will lose its significance and become a sideshow in the wake of commercial media. To incest in art has a positive resonance, as it should. But to ignore the diversity of art in regions that are far removed from corporate lifestyles—as economic globalization tends to do—includes a mistaken assumption. Investment must also extend to those regions of the world and to those tactile forms of expression that exist outside of our perceptions of a global corporate hegemony. Art also holds meaning for educated people who aspire to lead qualitative lives in terms quite different from the hegemony that aspires to neutralize their reality through economic globalization. This is where art becomes “political” and yet significant at the same time.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.