Lucas Zwirner’s review “International at the cost of quality?” (Feb. 9) asserts that “questions of merit [in art] are slowly being replaced by a post-colonialist worry over promoting international art.” European and American trends would dominate, we are told, if the meritocracy were retained. The current interest in international art, however, does not, as Zwirner implies, threaten meritocracy. Rather, it promises to continue the search for the best contemporary art, if best is defined by Zwirner’s criteria of innovation and talent.
To judge art innovative forces us to face its historicity. Innovation is meaningful only if we acknowledge that the norms of the modes of art change. Artistic innovation is then a generation of modes differing from the present norms. Zwirner’s second criterion, talent, is then the ability to carefully control production within a mode — métier.
In 1964, Gerhard Richter, whom Zwirner cites, painted the widely acclaimed “Woman With Umbrella.” The painting — a photorealist, blurred image of Jackie Onassis immediately after her husband’s assassination — responds to the ubiquity of media images, a cultural norm, as clearly as Andy Warhol’s soup cans. Through work like Richter’s, increasing responsiveness to cultural conditions emerged as an important mode in post-war Euro-American art.
International artists responding in a similar way today engage with norms that are not those of the primarily Euro-American audiences of “Documenta” and many such fairs. Utilizing newly available conduits of global exchange, these international artists consciously displace some of the norms of their cultures. That is, these international artists display not just the difference of their cultural norms (an old, problematic, mode), but display, in particular, the movement of their cultural norms (a new mode). In other words, they innovate. That some of these artists are better than others at capitalizing on their new mode — that they are unevenly talented — is unsurprising.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s “Fairytale,” made for “Documenta XII,” exemplifies this new mode. Ai brought 1,001 of his countrymen to Kassel, Germany as his piece. Although cultural differences were present — most of Ai’s visitors had never left their country before — the piece was constituted not merely by those differences, but by movement. The presence of 1,001 unexpected visitors reminded all fair-goers that an international art fair is not just a collection of objects, but of journeys — an innovative point of view.
So, while I do not unequivocally champion work by international artists, I think it is crucial to point out that showcasing such work is not merely a display of political correctness. It is, rather, one avenue through which the search for the “best” contemporary art is conducted.
The writer is a 2009 graduate of Morse College and a former staff cartoonist for the News.