The world of the visual arts has always been a meritocracy. The artists history celebrates are the ones who have been innovative, talented or, best of all, a combination of the two.
But because of the accessibility of information nowadays and the general trend toward globalization, questions of merit are slowly being replaced by a post-colonialist worry over promoting international art.
Big, international shows are no longer asking what artists are producing, but where they are producing it. The rationale is that this will create a fairer representation of international creativity. But fairness and art have rarely, if ever, been coupled. Artistic success is not fairly distributed, and as history has repeatedly demonstrated, such success depends on a very rare convergence of both social and personal phenomena.
In 1955, Arnold Bode established an international exhibition of Modern and Contemporary Art called “Documenta” that has taken place roughly every five years since then. That year, artists from only six different nations were invited to participate in “Documenta.”
Fast-forward to “Documenta VII,” in 1982, and it looks similar. Big-name, commercially relevant European and American artists like Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Donlad Judd dominate the scene, and there are no Chinese or Japanese artists at all. But move up to “Documenta XII,” in 2007, and nearly all the big-name European and American artists have disappeared.
The explosive trend away from a Euro-American-centric view of contemporary art in the last 10 or 15 years begs reflection. What does it mean for the focus of the biggest international show of contemporary art to be more concerned with representing a cross-section of the world’s contemporary artists, than it is with representing the most relevant artists?
One reaction to this new trend is positive. What could be better than expanding our knowledge of new art by attending to the once ignored areas of the world? But an opposing response is just as salient: It’s wrong to put together an esoteric list of artists who are not currently affecting art trends.
The reality lies somewhere in between. On the one hand “Documenta” is the largest presentation of contemporary art, and as such it should show the art that is most influential critically and commercially. On the other hand, a Euro-American-centric view has defined for decades what it means to be critically and commercially relevant, so that international exhibitions are right to search further.
“Documenta XII,” though, seems overwrought in its global scope: There were 113 artists from more than 40 different countries, compared to the six in 1955.
So we are forced to ask whether this new global representation of art will be a catalyst for new creative thought, or simply a display of mediocrity.
If a young, international and generally unknown artist’s work were displayed next to the monoliths of our epoch in an international show, he or she would be overshadowed. Maybe, then, “Documenta” is exactly right to represent mostly lesser-known artists while ignoring the well-known Europeans and Americans.
But if art is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, then what good is it to have a show whose common denominator is decentralization but whose outcome is mediocre art?
So, we’re faced with a problem: Either art remains completely merit-based and the European and American trends are allowed to continue and dominate, or it becomes politicized and the trends are ignored with the hope that they will eventually be replaced by new ones, springing up in other regions.
Aristotle summed up this dilemma in his “Politics.” If there is a great man, he said, who is considered by all to be superior to other men, then a society must either make him their leader or exile him completely.
“Documenta” is leaning toward exile, and maybe the post-colonial art world will be able to develop alongside the already established Euro-American-centric one to create another set of visual qualifications.