In Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story, ‘Beghair Ijaazat’ (Without Permission), the protagonist finds himself in a series of misplaced locations. His innate desire to appreciate aesthetics, reflect introspectively and spend a relaxed day, takes him to a garden and then to an art gallery. The main character seems to have a Kantian view on aesthetics and his reflection on judgment of aesthetics is both subjective yet universal. He is willing to share his experience with others because for him only those who have an eye for beauty seek these experiences and hence there is no discrimination between these people. They are all unified by their common ‘sight’ and taste. However, he is turned away from both places because they belong to someone else. According to the central character, things of beauty and experiences that give us pleasure should not be commoditized. He is faced with issues of inaccessibility and marginalization. The story raises a debate about inclusivity and exclusivity, access and equity, and, nicheness and commodification.
High Art is often accused of being standoffish and inaccessible. Art in its politics is supposed to be for ‘everyone’; a universal language that communicates with all (most) humanity across cultures and boundaries. But it remains accessible to the elite, a select few frequent visitors to white cube: galleries and museums. Where more often then not, there are ticketed, timed, controlled, surveilled and dictated terms of encounter. Where a select minders of art and culture predetermine decisions of what is Art and what it is not, what is revered and what is not. So the most important questions that arise today are connected to the definition of Art. Since it is literally impossible to answer that question without being subjective, we have to learn to ask a different question, who decides what is Art? And who all gets to see it. Here, a very interesting relationship develops between the curatorial intent and the reception by the viewers or audience. Who all is the audience of Art and what is the influence of its audience on Art itself. Are educated or informed audiences a result of critical Art making and showing or is Art influenced by the expectations of its receivers?
Exhibition of the Rejects, Salon De Refuses in Paris in 1863 was an example of retaliation against the conservative taste and criterion of Realist Painting at the time. The Impressionists like Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Courbet and Picasso were all part of the rather sizable group of artists whose works were not accepted by the juried selection for the annual exhibition of the French Arts Council. The Impressionistic style at the time was widely denounced by critics world over. That further fueled the retaliation and Napoleon III allowed the exhibition to appease the rejected artists. This marks the beginning of activism or antiestablishment movement with the artists at the center of the resistance. Critical and radical practices in Art had always been met with skepticism by the establishment. It was not until the Venice Biennial in 1895 where a celebration of the avant-garde art of the time took place through an established platform by the city. It was initiated to give Italian artists a representation along with a very small selection of international art. ‘But by the 1920’s, it became the juncture for avant-garde art by initiating to show works from impressionists and post-impressionists. The biennale kept on adding international pavilions and except for the interruption by the World Wars, the exhibition kept on growing into festivals of other art forms like film, music and dance. Today the biennale program is one of the most intensive across the world with kids carnivals, education programs, architecture exhibitions, and cinema and theatre workshops. The Venice Biennale sets the example of the experience that the cities of the world are pockets of culture and art. Its not about the countries and nations, its about the cities, communities, and what they represent within themselves.
There are so many cities in the world that now host art fairs, biennials or triennials. Some of the examples are Istanbul Biennial, Sharjah Biennial, Sydney Biennial, Yokohama Triennial; Art Dubai, Sydney Contemporary, Documenta in Kassel which follows the one in 5 years model. Then there is Art Chicago, Art Basel Switzerland, ARCO: Spain since 1980. Over the years, the identity of the art fairs is so closely intertwined with the culture, tourism and popularity of these cities that it is difficult to say which came first. The cities build on their revenue and tourism through hosting these art fairs. The regular programming of international exhibitions and festivals is connected to building industry linkages, governmental support programs, education and economy. Take the example of the Art Basel Miami. Ever since the addition of Miami chapter of Art Basel, we see the union of Miami Beach town; a hub of parties, tourism, sea sports, and tropical weather with one of the biggest art events world has see. The other two chapter of Art Basel are in Hong Kong and (initially) Switzerland. Each venue provides a unique culture of socio economic blend to offer representation to artists from USA, Asia and China; and Europe respectively. But Miami legitimizes the inclusion of entertainment, recreation and socializing to the art fair agenda of talks, discourse and workshops. Through the Art Basel, Miami has done for art what Vegas has done for casinos.’ (Ain, Artnow 2017 )
Taking the case of the Venice biennale, we see that all the cities in the world that host biennales bring their own cultural flavor to the event. The cities own history, cultural particularities and socio-political and ethnic representation are showcased through a biennale. The new case of the biennale is that of a critical space for art innovation and experimentation, and contemporary discourse. The very nature of contemporary art is defined by the space of a biennale; its curatorial appointment, its link to activism, ideas on inclusivity and representation of color, race, creed and gender (all ideas linked to Western Biennale). And yet, having marked all these checkboxes, the discourse around the biennale is a controversial one for it opens debate about exclusivity and curatorial biases, it promotes a philosophy of liberalism but it does so through the filter of an appointed curatorial vision. For example the curator Okwui Enwezor who just passed this year, was the first colored curator appointed at the Venice Biennale in 2015. He was a Nigerian curator who brought African Art and other non-European Art to the forefront through the platform of the biennale. His vision is often praised for diversity, confrontational approach and acute understanding of the politics of representation. He furthered the cause of the Venice Biennale as a cutting edge laboratory and fully exploited the model of the biennale as a critical space.
Biennale is about the city and how much can one deviate from that model- city raising its own identity and establishing its own economy by inviting a host of other national pavilions by curated filters. Recently I came across a podcast that discussed the climate change issue through the platform of the Venice biennale. Venice as a water town is said to be gradually sinking. Whether climate change is real or not, (It is. Only referring to the current global debate) the art discourse taking responsibility to initiate a sustainability model for the city that it is part of and which it is a by-product of. In a way, it can be read as a self-examining model for reciprocity and reclaiming agency. Art and hence biennials are increasingly becoming activist spaces for politicizing the everyday, demarcating the marginalized and reviving the unheard and the undersighted.
Venice is sinking
I’m going under
‘Cause beauty’s religion
And its Christened me with wonder
And if Venice is Sinking
By the Spirit of the West
The emergence of the curator as the distinguished visionary with foresight and intellect is defined to its full capacity at a biennial platform. A large collection of ideas, thoughts and carefully selected names is a curator’s vision for the show. However, many biennials are accused of using popular themes for the sake of garnering public interest and political correctness. The curators are also accused of a myopic view or selecting already famous artists or even, nepotism. Speaking of nepotism, the art world has a very flexible view of the matter; it does not always look at niche groups and activities as a backward stance. Artsist, curators, critics and thinkers coexist in groups and herd in numbers for their sustenance and growth. Hence more often than not, art fairs and biennials become a repetitive party of incestuous names and faces. The film The Square takes on a humorous view of this very aspect of the art world, among others and has created an ironic piece.
Katherine Tuider, the curator of Honolulu Biennial speaks about the model of the biennale and explains how choosing artists and works that do not fit the obvious criteria of a biennale exhibit is an unusual task for the curatorial team. The obvious choices for biennales mostly happen to be large scale works. One could call them big and loud installations, mostly relying on multiplicity and quatity to make an ompact. In short, we are creating spectatorship in the name of art. A number of times small, sensitive and emotive works are lost in the sheer scale of the festival that the biennale ends up being. Tuider speaks of the city and how the biennale is tied to the fruits of what the context has to offer. And what sets the place distinctly apart from others. A lot of artists who are underrepresented are often lost in this model.
This is one of the big controversies around the biennale model. National pavilions are being represented where a global village- a cultural ‘mela’ seems to emerge. The works inevitably refer to issues of identity and representation. The complexity of the problem is often lost as gross approximations are made in favor of awe and impact. The Great Exhibition, London from 1815 still rings true as a fair or a circus where different nations of the world are represented for the exotic or strange or awe-inspiring that they have to offer. It runs a risk of oversimplification or propagandizing the strange, the sore thumb to make a case for the eccentric and inspire interest. The artworks with the biggest controversy, the longest duration, the largest scale, the most people, the susceptibility to being a wonder or most grandeur earns the most points and wins the most favors. The biennial at its worst is a party for a niche, celebrated bunch who come to see the show, wear their Sunday best and indulge in small talk. At its best, it’s a space for critical dialogue, creative solutions to local issues and serious reflection on the definition of ‘contemporary art’.