News and More from the Art Alumni Group University of California, Berkeley


Friday, May 20, 2005

“One True Art World”

Berkeley Commencement 2005
“One True Art World”
by Lawrence Rinder

I recently conducted a search for the Chair of CCA’s grad fine art program. In the course of the interviews one of the leading candidates stated that he believed that there is ‘one true art world,’ embodied by the leading international galleries, the major art
magazines, and, above all, the international biennial circuit. The
lingua franca of this art world, in his opinion, is conceptualism in
all its various manifestations. In his view, an art school that does
not prepare students to compete in this world is doomed to

There is something appealing about this perspective. For one
thing, it has the virtue of clarity. These days—thanks to President
Bush’s no-child-left-behind initiative--educational institutions are
being held ever more accountable for their goals, objectives, and
above all, metrics. This mandate is spilling over from federally
funded institutions into privately funded institutions like CCA. I
was, for example, recently asked to fill out a form titled
“Educational Effectiveness Indicators,” as part of our accreditation
process. The big question is how do we know that our students are
learning what they are supposed to be learning? First, though, one
has to know what they are supposed to be learning. Which is where
the ‘one true art world’ comes in handy. To compete in the ‘one
true art world’ one needs to know about a relatively fixed set of
methods, artists, institutions, writers, and curators. The knowledge
and skills a student obtains in art school can become tools to enter
into and succeed in this world.

Imagine how simple it would be if we really could identify
some set of galleries, alternative spaces, museums, biennials, and
art magazines which could then be calibrated according to the
degree of ‘success’ participation in each conferred. We might
identify, for example, 100 galleries that legitimately signal an
artist’s entry into ‘emerging artist’ status—‘emerging,’ that is, into
the ‘one true art world.’ Another much smaller set of, say, 25
galleries could be used to identify artists who had attained ‘one
true art world’ citizenship. Each art magazine, meanwhile, would
carry a numerical weight: being mentioned in Artforum would
carry the highest reward, followed by Frieze, Art in America, and
so on, down to Coagula, for which points would be deducted. To
make the system even richer and more statistically meaningful,
imagine that every curator, too, came with a certain numerical
rating. To be curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist might get you a score
of 100; to be put in a show by me, for example, perhaps only 50.
Using this matrix, one could, hypothetically, arrive at a quasi-
mathematical means of calculating an artist’s success at various
stages of their career after graduation. By pooling such information
from a cohort of graduates one could accurately gauge the
effectiveness of an art school’s educational program.
Besides providing a clearly measurable standard of success,
the ‘one true art world’ has other things going for it. Fame and
fortune, for example. Contemporary art has become a hot
commodity. My father regularly sends me articles from Barron’s
and other financial journals extolling the rise of art as a sound
investment vehicle. Having attended several leading art fairs over
the past year, I can honestly say that what I witnessed was a
‘feeding frenzy.’ The prices of even entry-level artists were double
or triple what they might have been a year or two ago. Although
speculation on contemporary art has extended beyond the handful
of well-known names—Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, Cindy
Sherman, and so on—it must be said that the boost in prices is
circumscribed within a tightly ordered institutional frame. What
matters most is which gallery you show with and your gallery’s
ability to be selected—and it is a highly competitive selection
process—into one of the handful of leading international art fairs
such as New York’s Armory art fair (which is, confusingly, not
held at the Armory), or the Basel Art Fair (the one, even more
confusingly, held in Miami). The parents in the audience will be
pleased to know that artists who successfully enter into this world
have a very good chance of being able to pay off their student

Participating in the ‘one true art world’ also has the virtue of
drawing one into a global conversation. Because, as my fine arts
chair candidate observed, the ‘one true art world’ shares a common
language, those who participate are naturally invited into a
dialogue with others who share that language. Indeed, the mode of
conceptualism—characterized today by an interplay of text
(English only please) and image and an emphasis on content over
form--has reached even the most remote territories of the world. A
few years ago I traveled to 25 countries on four continents, doing
research for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum. I found that
artists in places as remote as Cuba, Vietnam, Colombia, and the
Philippines were doing work that would be as easily accessible to
an American art audience as to audiences of artists in their own
countries. Working with conceptual methods per se is not what
makes this art world so unified as much as simply the fact of a
shared vocabulary of forms, methods, and references. To avoid
working with these means is to effectively shut oneself off from an
extremely engaging global dialogue.

The apotheosis of the ‘one true art world’ is the international
biennial exhibition. Such exhibitions, which have proliferated
extraordinarily over the past decade, are global round-ups of work
identified by a coterie of peripatetic curators who scour the globe
for the most engaging new art. Seeing works of art in various
global contexts has the benefit of exposing images and ideas to
broad audiences as well as testing the relevance of works of art in
various cultural contexts. Furthermore, we have clearly entered an
age where everyone on the globe is engaged in common concerns,
from climate change, to terrorism, to mass migration, to the spread
of infectious disease. International biennials have become, in part,
forums for engaging in debate on such timely themes. In some
cases, as with the recent Documenta, such discussions nearly
eclipse the presentation of the artworks themselves. As has been
frequently observed, one shortcoming of the current international
exhibition system is that, for reasons of efficiency—the world is a
very big place--curators’ searches for art works often takes place in
biennials themselves, leading to a rather incestuous condition in
which a limited set of artists and even artworks cycle again and
again through this international exhibition circuit. Yet, it is clear
that the compounding effect of such multiple exposure has a
salutary impact of the careers of those who are welcomed into the
‘one true art world.’

Why, then, did I not hire this particular candidate? What art
school would not want to prepare its students to compete in such a
cosmopolitan, remunerative, and intellectually stimulating mileau?
To begin with, the ‘one true art world’ is a lie. There is no
more ‘one true art world’ than there is ‘one true music world’ or
‘one true writing world.’ Certainly there are many whose financial
and professional interests compel them to profess such a thing, yet,
thankfully, despite appearances, the scope of global creativity has
not yet narrowed to such a radical point. While I think there are
dangers in making analogies between politics and artistic practice,
I can’t help but note the similarities between the ‘one true art
world’ doctrine and that of America’s triumphalist neo-

In the aftermath of the Cold War, when it seemed that the
world was on the verge of at last obtaining a peaceful, multilateral
status, American neo-cons laid the foundation for what has become
the age of American Empire. At the heart of neo-conservative
ideology is the notion that America’s ‘way of life’ is the best in the
world and that no one in their right mind would not want to live the
way we do. At least in principle, this doctrine asks us to imagine a
world that enjoys all the freedoms and economic opportunities that
we enjoy right here at home. However, evidence suggests that this
appeal to global equality cynically masks a more rapacious agenda.
In fact, neo-conservative doctrine is based on the unassailable
superiority of America’s military (including the once repugnant,
now-official policy of pre-emptive military strikes), neo-liberal
economic theory (the selective application of which has greatly
benefited American businesses while ruining the economies of
poorer countries around the world), and the international export of
American-style democracy (a praiseworthy ideal that seems to be
executed only whenever it is immediately beneficial to American
business or strategic interests.) The Bush administration’s support
for Uzbekistan’s brutal regime alone indicates the hypocritical
selectivity of our country’s ‘democratizing’ agenda. At heart, the
neo-con game is to dress the wolf of American hegemony in the
sheep’s clothing of equality, democracy, and free-trade for all.
The neo-con American triumphalism that emerged in the
aftermath of the Cold War as an alternative to multilateralism,
finds an aesthetic echo in the ‘one true art world.’ Both phenomena
are marked by a profound narrowing of options at precisely the
moment when a radical openness seemed newly possible. In the
case of the neo-con agenda, the need for an American Empire
crowded out diverse opportunities offered by the end of the Cold
War. The ‘one true art world’ on the other hand has crowded out
the array of diverse possibilities that emerged at the fall of
Modernism. These possibilities are not just aesthetic—the diversity
of practices suggested by the once-fashionable term
Pluralism—but also institutional. The questioning of the single
aesthetic standard and historical trajectory that defined Modernism
brought about the creation of hundreds of so-called alternative
spaces, dedicated precisely to cultivating alternative visions of the
arts. The term post-Modern meanwhile came--initially in the field
of architecture--to stand for this new sense of openness and
possibility. With the emergence of new opportunities for
historically excluded populations such as women and artists of
color as well as an increasing interest in the arts of contemporary
non-Western cultures, it seemed to some as if we were on the
verge of a new age, vastly more dynamic and inspiring than what
had come before.

Yet where do we find ourselves today? Do we live in a world
where, liberated from the restrictions of ideological boundaries and
inspired by cultural difference artists are celebrated for the sheer
creativity and diversity of their work? Sadly, not. It seems we
have, instead, traded one set of restrictions for another. In today’s
‘one true art world,’ you are not welcome unless you speak the
common conceptual tongue, a tongue that is not as universal as its
champions would have. Indeed, while international biennials now
take place in Pusan, Dakar, Sharjah, and Shanghai, the works of art
one finds in them depend on a set of styles, methods, and themes
that are largely the product of Western, especially American
cultural institutions (i.e. schools, galleries, magazines, etc.). What
is this if not another form of neo-conservativism in which the wolf
of American hegemony and economic advantage is guised in the
sheep’s clothing of free-trade and cosmopolitanism? Just because
McDonald’s is everywhere doesn’t mean its good for you.
Is this really the art world we want to inhabit? Are the
measures of accomplishment in this ‘one true art world’ truly the
‘educational effectiveness indicators’ we should aspire to fulfill? In
my role as an art school administrator I will be dwelling on these
question for some time to come and, I trust, imagining alternatives.
As artists who are about to begin your professional careers, you too
may choose to resist the narcotic allure of the ‘one true art world.’
Unlike curators, dealers, collectors, and critics, you have the power
to create, and in your creativity lies the possibility for imagining
not one but countless diverse and dynamic art worlds.
I encourage you to confound expectations, make your own
rules, make your own institutions, and thrive in the margins. Show
the ‘one true art world’ a thing or two. And have a wonderful time
doing it.

posted with Mr. Rinder's permission