(image by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The 58th Venice Biennale is going to confront fake news when it debuts in 2019, but its title sounds like old news. In a statement to the press, curator Ralph Rugoff explains that “At a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference.”

And what, prey tell, are the words upon which we are to pause?

May You Live in Interesting Times.”

This vaguely foreboding title actually comes from a speech given in the late 1930s by Austen Chamberlain, a member of British Parliament, in which he cited what had wrongly been understood as an ancient Chinese curse. Naturally, there is no curse. This supposed “translation” is ersatz, a phony rhetorical device meant to convey Western cynicism through a counterfeit Confucian motto.

Rugoff knows his title is fake, but he defends the choice precisely as a symbol of fake news: a catchphrase that’s defied its false provenance to become a legitimate nugget of political wisdom deployed by politicians around the world, from Hillary Clinton to Robert F. Kennedy. (So maybe it is a curse … )

But surely, using clichés makes the politician no wiser and the phrase no more profound than any other knock-off. Given the hefty explanation behind the title, “May You Live in Interesting Times” sounds like the art world — at its worst — trying to do the most with the least. Can you believe?

“May You Live in Interesting Times” is a sophomoric example of the art world’s failure to grasp the real impact of the post-truth era. It sounds like a toast rich people give over champagne as others suffer from the political consequences that money avoids. And the reality is that something like the Venice Biennale, sequestered on its little floating duchy, will again fail to meet its own expectations of political consciousness.

Toasting the Venice Biennale, here are some lightly-used alternative curses and titles to replace the new boring one. Cheers!

  1. May You Always Drink Flat Champagne
  2. May You Always Find Ways to Justify Orientalism
  3. May You Always Discuss Trump Indirectly
  4. May You Always Have Friends Who Describe You as “Eclectic”
  5. May You Always Live in an Existential Hellscape
  6. Vive Arte Vive II: Vive Harder
  7. There Are More Damien Hirsts in the Back
  8. Why No, I Still Haven’t Read Proust
  9. The Art of the Deal
  10. Hans Ulrich Obrist Invented the Internet
  11. Double Negatives
  12. Rosalind Krauss Will Bury Us All
  13. Anthropocene Is My Safety Word
  14. But What Did Derrida Say About It?
  15. Magiciens de la Merde
  16. Locker Room Talk
  17. Mansplaining The Archive
  18. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  20. When You’re a Star They Let You Do It

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

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