BooksWeekend

Where Does a Work of Art Belong?

Like the international financial markets, the art museum is a controlling Western institution.

Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization by David Joselit (MIT Press, 2020)

When theories, institutions, or objects move from one society to another, they need to adapt to new environments. Just as Mao Tse-Tung had to modify Marxism to fit the history and culture of China, Chinese art museums looked to Western models, but their institutions showed not only paintings, marbles, and bronzes, but also calligraphy and jade

Likewise, Chinese artists involved in the contemporary export market make works that look distinctively Chinese but, at the same time, respond to dominant Western trends. Wang Guangyi (b. 1957), for example, does American Pop-style work that also references Maoism. The same goes for aesthetic theories. When I was lecturing in China, I presented Arthur Danto’s view that in principle anything whatsoever could be an artwork. An enviably smart student then killed some mosquitoes and asked me if they were a work of art.

Early on, Western museums focused almost entirely on Old Master European painting. Then under modernism, when other visual cultures were also collected, European and American artists looked for inspiration to these unfamiliar traditions.

But this widening of the canons, so David Joselit argues in his new book, Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (MIT Press, 2020), was accompanied by a politically governed marginalization of these non-Western traditions. Only the West, it was claimed, had developed art capable of an ongoing expansion. Other cultures merely provided resources to be exploited.

Told this way, the story of art was part and parcel with the rise of Western imperialism. Now, however, “art’s globalization, he writes, “has the potential to redress Western modernism’s cultural dispossession of the global South.” If countries outside the West can reclaim their heritage, globalization could then become politically liberating.

The extremely influential textbook Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (Thames & Hudson, 2004) written by four scholars associated with October (Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh), was almost entirely concerned with Euro-centric Western art. Joselit was invited into the third revised edition (Thames & Hudson, 2016), and now, as a parallel narrative, it’s most interesting to learn from Heritage and Debt what he has to say about global art history.

If pre-modern art in China, the Islamic world, and other visual cultures had developed in relative independence from the West, globalization has conditioned artists everywhere to borrow readily from all traditions. But this, Joselit suggests, is compatible with a continuation of Western hegemony in which the American or European art museum, like the international financial markets, the art museum is a controlling Western institution.

For some time, the grand Western museums have aspired to present a universal world art history, displaying objects from everywhere. By stages since its founding in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has gathered older works from Europe, from the Islamic world, from Asia and from Africa, as well as contemporaneous art. Good enough, but just as, in the 19th century, the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, were intended to provide design models for English artists, our current museums support contemporary art that, for the most part, mirrors the long standing dominance of the West.

For some time, as Art Since 1900 notes, thanks to such diverse artworks as Andrea Fraser’s performances, Hans Haacke’s analyses of the politics of art collecting, and Barbara Kruger’s appropriations of advertising, there is a great deal of institutional critique within Western art. At this moment, when concerns with gender and race are so pressing, it’s unsurprising that critique is important in contemporary art. And needless to say, Western visual culture has ample reason to critique its political history.

In my discipline, philosophy, thanks to such diverse figures as Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, along with the logical positivists and the Frankfurt School, self-critique has long been the name of the game. Joselit extends those critical concerns to global art history in a dramatic, unexpected way.

Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969), he writes, “claim[s] a modernity that need not be routed through the language of Western modernism, and thus could be both Pakistani and contemporary without contradiction.” (Compare my review: “Shahzia Sikander,” Artforum, January 2005.)

To describe Sikander’s art in this way assumes that there is some way of identifying a Pakistani visual language in distinction from that of Western modernism. Leaving aside the fact that Pakistan itself is a recent creation, the Mughal visual culture, which she adopts, coming from a vanished state located in present day Afghanistan and India, was itself a hybrid, influenced by European and Islamic thinking.

And since Sikander was born and educated in Pakistan, but is an American citizen, which country should claim her? Indeed, what counts here as a nation? Kwame Anthony Appiah, describing his West African father and his British mother in his book, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton, 2006), points out the difficulty of specifying his identity. Like this American professor, many people have complex identities. The same is true of numerous cosmopolitan artists.

Surveying developments in China, Cuba, Russia, and Australia, Joselit questions how museums can celebrate a national heritage. Since these countries are very different from one another, and all are unlike the Gulf Arab states and African nations discussed later in the book, it’s obviously hard to generalize.

To whom does a significant work of art belong? To humanity at large? To the culture that created it? To its current owner? There are obvious problems with each of these claims. Insofar as that work is important, we naturally hope that it’s accessible to as many people as possible. But as a significant expression of a particular culture, the members of that culture may have legitimate interest in possessing it. This, after all, is why curators and politicians have demanded that art made in Africa, for example, should be returned from museums in London and Paris.

Joselit rightly notes that 1989, which marked the “collapse of the Cold War’s Manichean pretension of dividing the world into two distinct geopolitical zones” was a “watershed year.” But in this instance, it seems that his just-published book has to some degree been outdistanced by events: if that year marked the collapse of communism, this year it would appear that capitalism, too, has been radically transformed.

The book’s title identifies Joselit’s basic thesis, which plays on the relationship between the literal and artistic meanings of the words “heritage” and “debt.” Literally speaking, countries in the global South owe financial debts to the West. Paralleling its financial exploitation of these countries, the West also attempts to treat their art merely as a resource to be colonized into its ongoing narrative of modernism. But by laying claim to their own indigenous heritages, activating their pasts to refuse to be subservient in the West’s version of art history, in effect, as Joselit writes, “turning art into a kind of currency,” these countries can create alternate artistic futures for themselves. And so what’s needed, he suggests, “is an art historical method that is adequate” to this complex, unparalleled situation. The aim of his examples is to do just that.

I am conscious that I am here offering only an incomplete analysis of the boldly original claims of this important, difficult to read book. The issues tackled in Heritage and Debt need to be faced, for they won’t go away. For that reason, this book matters.

Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (2020) by David Joselit is published by MIT Press.

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