The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience

By Highmore, Ben | New Formations, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience


Highmore, Ben, New Formations


Caroline A. Jones, The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016, 331pp, $65

If you were setting out to chart the role of art as a global force today you would probably want to get acquainted with the large auction houses that currently mobilise art as a global currency. In a world where national currencies can seem unpredictable, the canny 'global' investor can be persuaded that Rubens is a much safer bet than roubles. Contemporary art is, of course, a more volatile and uncertain market, but the financial gains can be stratospheric, and, as Hito Steyerl has noted, they are often 'duty-free'. Indeed, much of this duty-free art (contemporary or not) is stored in freeports, where the art has the status of being perpetually in-transit (and thereby not yet subject to taxation): 'huge art storage spaces are being created worldwide in what could essentially be called a luxury no man's land, tax havens where artworks are shuffled around from one storage room to another once they get traded'.1 But if auction houses and freeport zones are sometimes the 'last instance' of global art (death by capital accumulation), they are clearly not its only instance. Anyone wanting a fuller picture of the global workings of art would also need to look at the biennials, triennials and other international art exhibitions that today not only showcase 'global' art and artists, but also the promotional and critical talents of curators such as Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor and Hans Ulrich Obrist, who are often the main auteurs of what could be called globalist art.

Caroline Jones's The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience is centrally concerned with the process of how art becomes 'global art'. What, for instance, makes an artist a 'global' artist, rather than, say,just an artist working in London or Lagos whose art is shown in New York or Sao Paulo, or whose work is stored in the freeport of an airport? The path that Jones takes follows a range of histories across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to show how current art practices, particularly the ones that circulate within biennial-type culture, have emerged via cultural forms that can be traced back to early World's Fairs and Universal Exhibitions. Globalist art, and what she terms 'critical globalism', is a form of art that bears a similar relationship to globalisation (in its corporate capitalist mode as well as its internationalist vein) as modernism did to modernity and modernisation: globalist art is a responsive and reactive form even though it is clearly dependent on the circuits of communication and exchange that are forged by globalisation. Globalism, then, isn't the vanity mirror of globalisation, though it will necessarily refract its forces. Globalist art isn't a style, but it does have phenomenal characteristics: it is an art that foregrounds experience and event, rather than visuality and medium specificity. But this emphasis on event and experience is as much determined by the circumstances of its reception as it is by its production. Take, for instance, a large stripe painting by Robert Motherwell that was shown at Expo '67 in Montreal. Situate it within the vast geodesic bubble of Buckminster Fuller's USA pavilion and it is necessarily caught rubbing shoulders, not just with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, but with an Apollo lunar mission vehicle situated on a simulated piece of the moon, and a multi-screened presentation of children's games. Such attention to the public event of modern and contemporary art pulls it away from narratives that might want to secure art's meaning based on authorial intention and autonomous art historical contexts, and forces it to confront a more heterogeneous assembly of machinery, science, international trade competition and deadly political conflicts.

The Global Work of Art can usefully be treated as part of a growing field within art history that focuses on exhibition history and the curatorial strategies that exhibitions mobilise. …

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