The Strategic Middleby Michelle Grabner
“It was their common rejection of the mandates of Paris, more than their personal ties to each other, that permitted them during the group’s brief existence to construct a coherent aesthetic. Shortly after dissolving CoBrA these painters were welcomed, and their work exhibited, in Paris. Because they had dared to ally themselves across national and cultural borders against the omnipotence of Paris in, its blessing was eventually bestowed on them.”[i]
In The World Republic of Letters, critic Pascale Casanova lays out the conditions undergirding global literary power. Perhaps not too surprisingly, her exceptional chronicle is also an uncanny echo of the artworld. She starts simply by declaring the obvious, that literature maintains its own economy that produces untenable hierarchies. It is also a world populated with authorities who are responsible for legislating what she broadly calls “literary matters.” And when Casanova writes that “accelerated inventory turnover and constant addition to the number of titles have displaced long-term investment among the priorities of the great publishing houses…[who] now find it necessary to publish more titles in smaller print runs that are sold in stores for a shorter time at incrementally higher prices…”, it reads like a surrogate profitability model for commercial galleries.[ii]
Yet what I find most useful is her attention to and articulations of literature’s geography, that which is “based on the opposition between capital, on one hand, and peripheral dependencies whose relationship to the center is defined by their aesthetic distance from it.”[iii] Casanova concludes her radical remapping of a global cultural space with the hope that her text becomes “a sort of critical weapon in the service of all deprived and dominated writers on the periphery of the literary world. That this text, may serve as an instrument for struggling against the presumptions, the arrogance, and the fiats of critics in the center who ignore the basic fact of the inequality of access to literary existence.”[iv]
The weapons Casanova delivers are already familiar to those of us who work in the margins. And many of the analytical methods of critique that she proposes are actively supported within contemporary artworld discourses. These include the ever-expanding corpus of artworks entering institutions and subjected to scholarship; and the importation of global economic theories being injected into cultural evaluations. But the call to fully change art’s vantage points still requires urgent and perennial “modification[s] of instruments used to measure, analyze, appraise, understand, and compare [work].”[v]
However, I would go further and argue that new and unforeseen “vantage points” are created in the margins. Better yet, the center can be perceived as fluid and flat when glanced at a distance. From the periphery I have been able to bring into tight focus tired centrally constructed hierarchies and address them in my artwork, critical writing, curatorial endeavors. And it is here, from within the American interior that I can identify the blindspots and prejudices propagated in the capital. This is because controlling arts discourses and evolving its markets is primary. “There is a kind of universality that escapes the center,” writes Casanova.[vi] This is becoming increasingly apparent as the asset class empowers art’s commercial center, altering creative strategies, patterns of distribution, and even artistic content. This is the market space where sole artistic value is “recognized by all participants…circulates and is traded.”[vii] And it is here that there is no more middle, let alone universality.
I have come to understand and critically deploy the potential of the middle in the shadow of one evolving dominating order. As the middle market vanishes from the artworld, then the center too is being reshaped. That just means that the peripheries have a different kind of work to do and different critiques to wage. Because if the center no longer holds, no matter how egregious its inequity, I fear that my zone of independence will disappear. I am grateful for Casanova’s text, not necessarily for its critical tools but because it reminds me that art’s economic middle is not its strategic middle. Instead it is a vital geography in the World Republic of Art where both critique and invention can flourish.
MICHELLE GRABNER is an artist, curator, and writer.