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World History and Earth Art


In the last decade of the twentieth and the first of the twenty-first century, the nascent discourse on “global” art took two seemingly incompatible forms. On the one hand, “the end of art history” as a discipline dependent on Western narratives was pronounced, while on the other, some scholars sought to reinvent the discipline beyond Western parameters and forge a “global art history.” Hans Belting represents the first approach, noting in 2009 that “global art often escapes the arguments of art history, as it no longer follows a master narrative and contradicts modernity’s claim to be or to offer a universal model,” and seeing in various attempts to engage in global art history only so many confirmations of his diagnosis that “global art has continued art’s exodus from art history.”

Such debates now seem largely obsolete, overtaken by the facts of “actually existing globalization” in the art world. Nonetheless, some of the issues raised obviously remain. As Belting put it, “global art carries an internal antagonism with it, as it strengthens resistance and turns identity claims against the ‘free’ flux of media and markets in the age of ‘hypermodernity.’ … The planetarization of information may have removed old borderlines but the same media make old and new contrasts even more visible.” Antagonism and information, and antagonism as information: Belting’s words could function as an introduction to Jonas Staal’s smartphone app, The Venice Biennale Ideological Guide 2013. Antagonism on a large scale (rather than between isolated individuals) means history. Not, perhaps, art history in any traditional sense, but still a form of history in which art may play some role. What art is and what it can do, however, is itself transformed in the process. The guide partakes in that transformation, but it merely hints at some crucial questions that I will try to develop a bit further.

The Venice Biennale is an anachronism in the strong sense of the term: rather than being simply obsolete, it derives a form of heightened contemporaneity from its partial outmodedness. As a world’s fair with national pavilions, the Biennale is clearly a product of the classic era of the nation-state and of imperialism. The point of departure for the Ideological Guide is that the Venice Biennale’s topography forms a topological world map that is a truer representation of the global division of power than conventional maps. Indeed, the countries with the largest, most central, and most bombastic pavilions are the giants of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonial expansion: the United Kingdom and France, the troublesome latecomer Germany, and the earliest—and by the nineteenth century, largely defunct—colonial Empire, Spain. It was only after the era of Japanese colonialism, after World War II, that Japan joined, even though the Italian fascist regime tried to get its ally to commit to a pavilion in the 1930s.

If the absolutist state of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries treated its inhabitants as subjects who just “happened” to live on its territory, the modern conception of the state as a nation sees it as the objective form given to “a people,” expressing that people’s rights, historical destiny, and characteristic traits.]).] Decisive steps toward the modern nation-state were taken in the Americas, where, as Benedict Anderson had argued, “imaginary communities” were formed in the public sphere produced by print capitalism: in this way, the inhabitants of the European absolutist states’ foreign dominions came to think of themselves as Americans, as Venezuelans, as Brazilians, whose interests were not those of the “motherland.”]): 37–46.] American colonies asserting their independent statehood thus represented a crucial moment in the early history of the nation-state, yet in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the latter inherited the crown of colonialism from its absolutist predecessor.

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