Despite appearances to the contrary, the fundamental nature of art production remains largely intact: artists still create, patrons still collect, and critics still critique. Yet some accentuations within this value chain do indeed appear to be novel (or at least more apparent): the art industry’s privatization and its (at times) politically suspect diffusion into developing economies offer two prominent cases in point. Echoing Bankowsky, one might say that today’s art is just more: more visible, more mediated, more spectacularized, more institutionalized, more scrutinized, more expensive, more profitable, and more “global.” “The international Guggenheim conglomerate isn’t so much ‘McMuseum,’” Peter Plagens elsewhere reflects, “as it is Boeing or General Dynamics—contemporary art on a military-industrial scale.”
Buttressing these developments is an attenuation of interest in specific regional activities. On one level, this is a natural byproduct of the exhibition industry’s globalization, whereby biennials, project spaces, and conferences from Cuba to Korea take local socio-political contexts as points of departure. Equally, this interest in the regional appears to constitute the inevitable flip side to 1990s-era globalization hyperbole, with the now hackneyed promises of multilateral cultural exchange replaced by more nuanced readings of these processes’ complexities (as epitomized in the five “platforms” of Documenta XI, 2001–02). Whatever its roots, the increasing attention focused on artistic proceedings outside of traditional Western art centers is having a formidable impact in the classroom, salesroom, and across tireless rumor mills; as in other industries, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East have become pivotal foci of speculation.
Counterbalancing this trend—and following in the wake of 9/11 and the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush—is the zeroing in of (primarily European) interest in American art and artists. In the past year alone, one could cite “Uncertain States of America,” “USA Today” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, “This Is America: Visions of the American Dream” at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and even “Day for Night,” the 2006 Whitney Biennial (curated by Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, European curators now ensconced in American institutions).
Any cross-cultural interpretation is bound to create misunderstanding, and surely each of these exhibitions draws a limited portrait of the culture it seeks to portray. A somewhat atypical example, “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 2000–2003,” held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, exemplifies the dangers inherent in such projects. While many of the above exhibition organizers are one step removed from their subject matter—in the center looking at a periphery, or vice-versa—a two-step removal marked the organization of “The American Effect,” in which an American curator, Lawrence Rinder, traveled outside of the country to find artists whose art critiqued the United States. The resultant exhibition was, in the words of one reviewer, “hectoring and jejune and did little to advance the terms of that encounter.”
This is undoubtedly a moment marked by a serious interest in the actions America is taking on the world stage—actions that have been described as a cause for grave concern. We do not attempt to authoritatively engage those concerns here. We do, however, think that this sampling of discourse by and about a country’s visual artists leads to insights about its politics and society not gained elsewhere.
Many of the artists in this reader’s eponymous exhibition would, of coure, be quick to disavow explicitly political readings of their work, preferring, as Kori Newkirk recently stated during a panel discussion at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, to “seduce first.” He continued: “‘Political’ content can [simply] come in through the side door or window.” The art world’s definition of the term political remains fuzzy (as Pamela M. Lee rightly notes of its definition of globalization as well), but, on occasion, this thinking-through-form counters the obfuscation that now stands for contemporary American political discourse. At the very least, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in the United States today, and results in some inspired debate. We hope that this book serves not only as a valuable compendium of recent writing about contemporary art but also as inspiration to seek further understanding of these “Uncertain States.”
We would like to thank Julia Peyton-Jones, Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Hans Ulrich Obrist for inviting us to undertake this project and for being instrumental in its realization; Caroline Schneider of Sternberg Press for ably seeing the book into print; the artists for their consistently trenchant criticisms and honest responses; all of the authors and publications who granted reprint permission; Charles Gute and Nicole Lanctot for their unflagging copyediting efforts; and David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey of Dexter Sinister for their grace under pressure. Likewise we wish to thank Greg Allen, Eric C. Banks, Christopher Bedford, Tom Eccles, Bettina Funcke, Liam Gillick, Rachel Harrison, Michael Ned Holte, Gareth James, Miriam Katz, Molly Nesbit, Lauren O’Neill-Butler, Scott Rothkopf, and David Velasco for their thoughtful contributions to the dialogue that produced this book.