Media @ McGill

Guillaume Sirois | Aesthetics, Ethics, Politics: Making Judgment on the Arts in a Globalized World

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My dissertation focuses on judgment-making processes in the art world that take place in a globalized context. Thus, it builds on the notion of global governance to study how decisions are made in a multicultural environment. The dissertation is built around three case studies (chapters 3, 4, and 5) that each considers a global institution in which comparative judgments are made about artworks coming from very different cultural contexts and aesthetic traditions. Examining these cases, the dissertation proposes a journey through the global art system in which the reader encounters not only different types of institutions and events but also six major figures of authority of this globalized art world: the curator, the critic, the expert, the bureaucrat, the jury member and the philanthropist. An examination of each of these figures allows me to explore specific configurations in which artistic judgment takes place.

Chapter 1: Making Artistic Judgments in a Globalized World

This chapter presents the main theoretical framework of the dissertation. First, it looks at how power is exercised in the art world and identifies aesthetics as an important source of authority and legitimacy. Indeed, this ensemble of knowledge and practices is commonly used to bring a form of rationality to a world of tastes and preferences. Then the chapter considers how this form of authority is carried out in a global context by questioning not only the foundations of contemporary aesthetic judgment but also the condition in which such a judgment is made (actors, institutions, processes, etc.). The chapter concludes with a number of questions that remain unanswered in regard to comparative judgment exercised in a multicultural context.

Chapter 2: Researching the Globalized Art World

This brief chapter is focused mainly on methodological questions. It first discusses the choice of the three case studies to research the main question of the dissertation. Building on Raymond Williams’s notions of the dominant, the residual and the emergent, the three cases allow me to study contrasted types of institutions and judgment-making processes as well as different historical contexts that have led to the constitution of the global art world as we know it today. Moreover, this chapter describes the mixed method used in these cases, which involves historical contextualization, content analysis of documents, quantitative analysis and close reading of some artworks.

Chapter 3: Artistic Diversity at the Venice Biennale and the Fight for Global Attention

This chapter presents my first case study, which focuses on exhibition reviews of the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale (2013), published in the most-widely circulating art magazines. This chapter first examines the historical context in which the Venice Biennale has emerged and transformed to become one of the most influential contemporary art events worldwide. Second, it describes some of the power relations involved in writing and publishing activities in art magazines. Third, the chapter delineates four positions adopted by art critics concerning the question of artistic diversity. This continuum of positions allows me to discuss two key questions: the singularity/plurality of artistic language across artistic communities and the domination of one language over others.

Chapter 4: Aesthetic Choices and the Valuation of the Past: The UNESCO World Heritage List

This chapter concentrates on the second case study of the dissertation. As the World Heritage List (WHL) has been in operation for 38 years now, the chapter adopts a historical perspective of how the list has been constituted over the years. After a first section that situates this initiative in the history of the organization at its origins, the chapter turns to its governance system to demonstrate that experts are dominant at each step of the decision-making process. Therefore, the remaining of the chapter explores how these conversations among experts have led to a modest redefinition of the key terms of the WHL. These changes have aimed at producing a more-inclusive instrument, taking into account the plurality of cultures represented by UNESCO. Nevertheless, as the final section of the chapter shows, the constitution of this repertoire of Western artistic canons continues to exercise a major influence on how our collective past is considered.

Chapter 5: The Future Generation Art Prize and Individual Artistic Success in a Digital World

This chapter is dedicated to the third case study of the dissertation. The Future Generation Art Prize is a new prize, launched in 2009, by the Ukrainian billionaire and well-known art collector Victor Pinchuk. The chapter focuses on the decision-making process by which the initial roster of more than 4,000 applications, received after an online open-call, is reduced to a short list of 21 candidates and, eventually, to a single winner. The chapter explores the importance of prizes in the art world and the place of philanthro-capitalism in such an endeavour. This third case study also allows me to study another facet of the globalization of the art system: in this framework, artists compete as individuals instead of as official representatives of their countries. Yet questions of domination and inequalities among world cultures are not absent from this competition for global prestige.

Chapter 6: Struggle and Competition in Global Artistic Prestige

This conclusive chapter will build on the findings of the three case studies to shed light on how judgment on the arts is made in a multicultural context in which different cultural and aesthetic traditions are called upon. Therefore, this dissertation aims at producing a more in-depth comprehension of mechanisms of power at play in the globalized art world. I hope to show how the aesthetic, as the basis of authority and legitimacy in the arts, is also the foundation of under-theorized structures of domination in this art world. Thus, the dissertation will produce a critique of the common ethical discourse of cultural diversity as a satisfactory response to the struggles over differences in the art world.