Media @ McGill

Guillaume Sirois | Making Judgement on the Arts in a Globalized World: the Case of the Venice Biennale

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As the oldest artistic event of its kind, the Venice Biennale remains one of the most prestigious and influential manifestations in the world of contemporary art (Thornton, 2008; Vogel 2010). Every second year, the always-expanding event (88 national pavilions this year) is the occasion for artists coming from different parts of the world to showcase the very best of their production. However, not every artist going to Venice is equal in this race for global attention (Wu, 2009; Tang, 2011).

The trajectory of any artist is made up of a succession of aesthetic judgements made on his or her production. This kind of judgement is commonly used to determine which artist should receive a grant, which work stands out in a given exhibition or which pieces should be preserved for future generations. Aesthetic judgements made by peers or experts have acquired a central place in the art system as it provides a form of rationality to any discussion about the arts. Nevertheless, both philosophers (Danto, 1981; Michaud 2007) and sociologists (Becker, 2008; Bourdieu 1979) recognize that aesthetic judgement can no longer be considered universally valid (as Kant notoriously argued) and must rather be understood as being specific to communities of evaluation.

In global events, such as the Venice Biennale, a wide diversity of works of art coming from different aesthetic traditions and various communities of evaluation come together. Therefore, how is it possible to produce a comparative aesthetic judgement on these pieces? Two possible strategies may come to mind, although both of them are problematic. One can consider that the whole world has come to form one single community using the same set of globalized aesthetic criteria (Bourriaud, 2009; Mosquera, 2010), or conversely, that a multiplicity of communities of evaluation exist and consequently that such comparative judgement on a global scale is simply impossible. If the first strategy completely ignores that certain artistic traditions and aesthetic discourses have been raised to the status of dominant standards, the second one would result in a flat world in which every work of art has the same value outside of its community. Both models completely avoid the conflict between various communities of evaluation. In other words, both conceptions are a way to de-politicize the encounter between various artistic communities (Hall, 1996; Bhabha, 2004). 

With the help of this grant, I will take the example of the 2013 Venice Biennale to explore how the specialized press (art magazines) produces a comparative aesthetic judgement in such a globalized context. To do that I will conduct a content analysis of the reviews of the exhibition published in the most read art magazines.

This research is a part of my dissertation that considers the system of decision-making in the globalized art world through various global institutions. As the Venice Biennale is one of my case studies, I have started my research by visiting the exhibition last summer and by collecting art magazine reviews. The grant will help me concentrate on the analysis of this material and the presentation of its results to various venues in order to get feedback on this important section of my work.

Works cited:

Becker, Howard S. (2008). Art worlds. Berkeley ; London: University of California Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. (2004). The location of culture. London ; New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1979). La distinction: critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2009). Radicant: pour une esthétique de la globalisation. Paris: Denoël.

Danto, Arthur. (1981). The Transfiguration of Commonplace: a Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hall, Stuart, Morley, David, & Chen, Kuan-Hsing. (1996). Stuart Hall : critical dialogues in cultural studies. New York: Routledge.

Michaud, Yves. (2007). Critères esthétiques et jugement de goût. Paris: Éditions Jacqueline Chambon.

Mosquera, Gerardo. (2010). Walking with the Devil: Art, Culture and Internationalization. In H. Anheier, Y. R. Isar & C. Waterman (Eds.), Cultural Expression, Creativity and Innovation (pp. 47-56). Los Angeles; London: Sage.

Tang, Jeannine. (2011). Biennalization and its discontents. In B. Moeran & J. S. Pedersen (Eds.), Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events (pp. 73-93). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornton, Sarah. (2008). Seven Days in the Art World. New York; London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Vogel, Sabine B. (2010). Biennials - Art on a Global Scale. New York: Springer Wien New York.

Wu, Chin-Tao. (2009). Biennials without Borders? New Left Review(57), 107-115.