‘Global’: A View from the Margin

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: First Word column, African Arts, 48(1), spring 2015, pp. 1, 4)

There is no question that for contemporary artists of non-Western origin, the doors to international art scenes, barely ajar in the late 1980s, have opened wider, with increasing access to an inter-continental art market and blockbuster exhibitions. What is more, in the absence of any dominant paradigm in the contemporary discourse of art, critics like Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nicolas Bourriaud have defined contemporaneity as a condition demanding diverse approaches to the making and criticism of art (Smith: 2009, 2010; Enwezor: 2009; Bourriaud: 2009). Identifying the diachronic historiography of Euro-American modernism and its universalist claims as hegemonic, they have proposed a heterochronic approach to art history. In sum, art today appears to have gone ‘global’.

Once the term ‘global’ is isolated from its misuse as a generic synonym for ‘worldwide’, it signifies an immensely complicated and constantly evolving, totalizing discourse of economics, politics, and culture of the present era that involves the entire planet. The problem is that the fluidity of the cultural aspect of ‘global’ makes it particularly elusive. The euphoria of sharing a ‘global’ culture, for instance, may conceal the fact that despite all its heterogeneity, fragmentation, hybridity, etc., the space we call ‘global’ is hardly a level one. Let me explain.

In their celebrated book, Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contend that capitalism’s historical role as a tool of imperialism has become obsolete (Hardt & Negri, 2000). As a decentered, deterritorialized apparatus, global capital, they argue, is engaged in erasing the traditional boundaries between the West and its Others, replacing them with the domination of a borderless world market, where profit is the sole standard of value. Backed by neo-liberal political powers worldwide, this all-encompassing market constitutes the new Empire. While this emerging system of power necessitates new forms of resistance, it also undermines the conventional forms of cultural normativity, hierarchy, domination, exclusion, etc. Discrimination in the Empire is caused by economics, not by chauvinistic forces, such as a prejudiced art establishment.

This is a powerful thesis indeed. In the art context, the wider international channels now available to artists worldwide, as well as more specific instances, such as Damien Hirst’s legendary auction at Sotheby’s in 2008 that adamantly sidestepped the hierarchy of the gallery establishment, vindicate the book’s observations. Also, much of the recent discussions about contemporaneity, institutional critique, propositions of new critical models, and innovative curatorial experiments (beginning with Documenta 11 of 2002 under Enwezor’s leadership, for example) demonstrate the relevance of the Hardt-Negri project. And yet, I am not convinced that the West’s deeply entrenched belief in its own cultural superiority, inherited through centuries, promptly erodes merely as a superstructural effect of the deterritorialization of Capital and new shifts in global politics. For one thing, China’s meteoric rise in global economics (including its art market) and politics has not, thus far, made it a leading arbiter –of taste, among other things– in contemporary art. To expect this, it seems to me, is to underestimate the resilience of the Enlightenment legacy, which, as we know well, survived the pummeling from postmodernism; the re-emergence of aestheticism and the art market’s ongoing fetishism with authorship testify to this.

The fact is, the authority of Western cultural institutions over the production of knowledge and meaning –their now weakened national economies notwithstanding– has yet to show any significant signs of decline. Take, for example, an Indian and a Nigerian artist, both widely exhibited and favorably received in Asia and Africa respectively. It is highly unlikely that their success would be seen, at home or abroad, as equal to that of others from the same two countries who have made their way into the galleries, residencies, and collections of Western Europe and North America, but are little known in the other continents. One’s ‘global’ art career, in other words, is still very much defined by one’s recognition in the West. Furthermore, the observation in the recent years that art criticism has lost its critical edge is largely irrelevant with regard to non-Western artists, especially for those who are based in their own countries or regions. Their ‘global’ exposure crucially depends on who writes what about them (or curates their shows), and where.

If local/global is currently the most clichéd yet influential of all binaries, then, following the routine exclusion of non-Western artists until the 1980s, their gradual inclusion seems to have slipped to both ends of the local-global scale. The legacy of the multiculturalist 1990s has been to exhibit and write about such artists in ethnographic contexts to underscore cultural specificity (the early exhibitions of Sokari Douglas Kamp, for instance), a pigeonholing to which the more self-aware artists have objected, claiming instead their rightful places in the art discourse without a racial or ethnic marker. More recently, however, the pendulum has swung the other way, as specific non-Western artists are ‘welcomed’ as artists into the Western art scene. The catapulted careers of William Kentridge and El Anatsui in the last decade or so, particularly in the United States, are cases in point. While this you-are-one-of-us approach might appear preferable as a shift from the other –‘local’– pole, as with all welcoming gestures, the caveat here is that the critical evaluation of the work remains a prerogative of the ‘host’. There may not be a single paradigm any more that dominates contemporary art, but there indeed are multiple influential strands of modern Western art linked to legendary names. Based merely on superficial parallels, the ‘chosen’ artists are often incorporated in this legacy, as if sharing with it some profound creative ‘affinity’ (as was called the notorious MoMA exhibition of 1984: ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern) that transcends all difference. Since cultural specificity is anathema to this inclusive strategy, their works are displayed in the permanent collections of Western museums as accomplishments of deracinated individuals who are assimilated into the Western modernist heritage. It is urgent to note that the philosophical underpinning of this strategy, manifested in much of the literature on these artists in the popular press as well as in some academic publications, is the same spurious rhetoric of universality of art, which, paradoxically, once implied the superiority of Western culture by ignoring the existence of modern art in the colonies. In other words, despite the recent critical challenges to its authority, this narrative of modernism, with its assumption of modernity as a fundamentally Western accomplishment, not only still carries a whole lot of currency, but is skillfully repackaged as ‘global’. Thus, neither of the two options that the ‘global’ art space offers contemporary artists of non-Western origin is capable of assuring equality (as opposed to sameness, which comes with the latter strategy) in their supposed partnership with their Western colleagues.

What makes it more complicated for these artists is precisely what Hardt and Negri discuss in their book: the new international networking opportunities due to communication technology and other means is counterbalanced by economic disparities that the artists have to combat daily. International shipping, traveling abroad to attend shows, or implementing projects involving advanced technology presents a formidable financial burden to most ambitious artists working today in Lagos, Kampala or Kolkata. Add to this the ordeal –frequently a humiliating one—of getting a visitor’s visa to a leading Western country in the post-9/11 world, coupled with career negotiations with influential culture brokers in the Western metropoles, and you have a simultaneous uphill economic struggle and a tricky ropewalking along the local-global scale in institutional identity politics. Finally, they often have to face insidious local politics when trying to participate in a high-profile international exhibition before achieving a successful gallery career; this makes the observation that the Hirst-Sotheby’s nexus subverts the hierarchy of the art establishment sound like an alien anecdote. If what Hardt and Negri propose comes true, everyone should be sharing the same global space, with a geographically and culturally neutral market as the only adversary, without any disguised politics of inclusion to contend with. But in light of the multi-tiered battle of contemporary artists working in the (formerly, should we say) Third World spaces in trying to access a noticeably uneven global space, it is abundantly clear that we are not there yet.


Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2009. “Altermodernism.” In Tate Triennial, edited by Nicolas Bourriaud, 1–14. London: Tate Publishing.

Enwezor, Okwui. 2009. “Response to ‘Questionnaire on The Contemporary’.” October, 130, fall: 33–9.

Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio, Empire. 2000. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Terry. 2010. “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art”, Art Bulletin, 92(4), December, pp. 366-83.

Smith, Terry. 2009. “Response to ‘Questionnaire on The Contemporary’.” October, 130, fall: 46–54.

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