Intermezzo Worlds

By Mercer, Kobena | Art Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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Intermezzo Worlds


Mercer, Kobena, Art Journal


Edward Said's Orientalism inaugurated the paradigm for postcolonial studies by breaking away from the Marxist study of ideology and demonstrating the formative, rather than reflective, role of representations in the social construction of reality. Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha subsequently expanded the use of poststructuralist methods, and their insights into the archival fears and fantasies of colonial discourse in India were complemented by Stuart Hall's and Paul Gilroy's relational views on the hybrid worlds of new ethnicities and traveling cultures among the African and Caribbean diasporas of the Black Atlantic world. Henry Louis Gates, reciprocally, espoused the view that "signifyin"' was the key trope in the African American cultural text.

While such critiques of race and representation widely enhanced the reception of new voices-Fred Wilson, Keith Piper, or Lorna Simpson in the visual arts; Spike Lee or Isaac Julien in cinema; Toni Morrison or Hanif Kureishi in literature-it is salutary to maintain an analytical distinction between art's sensory pleasures and demands and theory's interpretative authority. By recognizing the unpredictable interaction between these distinct planes of experience and activity we can appreciate how the critical mass that once generated heightened expectations among art world institutions gave way to a countervailing trend toward ideological downsizing.

The slew of multicultural mega-exhibitions following Jean-Hubert Martin's "Magiciens de la terre" (1989), which included "The Other Story" (1989) and "The Decade Show" ([99o), reached saturation point with the 1993 Whitney Biennial. The heady embrace of Otherness-which once encouraged the semantic escalation whereby the marginal, the exilic, or the nomadic seemed all so desirable-was gradually edged out of the fashion cycle and gave way to more cautious and even hostile responses. The de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, like the dismantling of the Arts Council in Great Britain, gave the market a much greater role to play in distributing opportunities for hitherto marginalized artists. The overall picture of today's global art system is fascinatingly complex and contradictory. Diversity is more visible than ever before, but the unspoken rule is that you do not make an issue of it. Artists of color are welcomed into the expanding circuit of biennials in South Africa, Australia, Turkey, and South Korea, and this may often be accompanied by the unstated awareness that you will probably look a bit dumb if you make a big deal about difference.

I am skeptical about the seductive attraction of abstract polarities like the local and the global because they give an illusion of theoretical mastery over an unstable world of risk and uncertainty. This tends to lose sight of the more fuzzy ambiguities that occur at an intermezzo level, of which I'll highlight a few.

Young British artists have attracted widespread attention ever since Damien Hirst curated the exhibition "Freeze" (1988), which set a scene in motion that culminated with the Royal Academy's exhibition of Charles Saatchi's collection in "Sensation" (1997). New British art is incredibly diverse-- from the Goya-inspired broodings of Jake and Dinos Chapman to Gillian Wearing's hilarious vox pop videos to the unlikely poetic materials of Rachel Whiteread or Cornelia Parker. But when viewed in a global frame, three anomalous tendencies are rather perplexing. First, the prominent element of pastiche patriotism in Brit Art's generic neo-Conceptual jokeyness suggests a regressive defense against the threatened loss of national identity under global homogenization, especially when it was marketed with Brit Pop as a media-driven repackaging of mythical Swinging London. But, second, far from being invisible or excluded from England's intensely particularistic attachment to the local, young black British artists, like Steve McQueen, Virginia Nimarkoh, Chris Ofili, and Yinka Shonibare, have rapidly attained integrated visibility.

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