The End of Contemporary Art

A version of this text was published in The Spectator.

Last week’s opening of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale marks a watershed for the art world. In much of the festival’s gigantic central exhibition, curated by the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa, as well as in many of the dozens of independently organised national pavilions and countless collateral events, it more obviously than ever before didn’t so much matter what was on show but why. The politics of visibility and representation has been eating away at the arts for a decade, most recently under the banner of ‘decolonisation’. In a multipolar project like the international Biennale set against the waning legitimacy of globalisation which used to drive the art world, this organising principle is finally exposed as a wholly inadequate rationale for contemporary art.

Foreigners Everywhere, the title of Pedrosa’s project encapsulates this failing proposition. The cheap pun is taken from the 2004 work of the Italian-British artist duo Claire Fontaine whose colourful multilingual neon versions now greet visitors at the exhibition’s entrance. This is a very old trick but Pedrosa wants to reclaim foreignness altogether and thus rewrite the cultural canon. By proclaiming that to be a stranger is fundamental to the human condition, he wants to inspire solidarities between migrants, queers, indigenous peoples, and, rather bafflingly, uncelebrated dead Italian emigre artists. 

Omar Mismar

In Pedrosa’s logic, all art has the same value. This exercise is challenging even on paper because it relies on playing fast and loose with modalities and histories – like in drawing a bogus equivalence between migration and sexuality – while claiming the authority of a selectively curated museum display. Subtle mosaic works by the Lebanese artist Omar Mismar, for example, which mourn the destruction of Syrian heritage in its very medium outsmart Pedrosa’s proposal by animating material history without turning into post-hoc rationalisation for identitarian theory.

Pedrosa treats his exhibition as an opportunity to reframe the Western-centric canon. Of the over 300 artists included, many are new to the biennale circuit and half are connected to the Global South. Most are thus not easily intelligible to mainstream art audiences. The exhibition’s most striking feature is its non-contemporaneity, both in its penchant for unflashy 20th-century artistic forms and the lack of interest in the political aesthetic characteristic of today’s global art. The show makes few overt references to today’s pressing topics like the war in Ukraine or the conflict in Gaza. Out in the ‘real world’, like in the mass boycott of the Israeli pavilion, artists are talking about little else. 

This text was published in The Spectator behind a paywall.

Get in touch if you’d like to read this text.

The 60th Biennale Arte continues until 24 November 2024.
Main image: Jeffrey Gibson, the USA pavilion.