Review: The Artist and Globalization


Jim Feast


The Artist and Globalization by Robert Morgan (Lodz, Poland: Miejska Galeria Aztuki)

Review by Jim Feast

In Being and Time, Heidegger states that much more important for progress in any intellectual field than finding answers is asking the right questions. On that criterion, Robert Morgan's new book, The Artist and Globalization, is on track since it is filled with searching questions about the current art scene.

In fact, I compute this ratio for Morgan's book: 100 questions/1 answer.

I don't mean that he has one pat answer that covers everything, but that many of his questions go begging for an answer because to provide one demands rethinking the whole current art world edifice, something he is not able to carry out in every instance.

His book rests on two theses. The first is no doubt based on Morgan's unparalleled acquaintance with global art as it is being produced both in major art centers and, more significantly, in new, upstart art sectors sprouting up in Turkey, Iran, China, Korea, and other lands. The concept comes from his innovative understanding of "globalization." For many, this very word has a bad odor in that, at least in economics, it envisions a planet in which all indigenous cultures have been eliminated and replaced with an American/European/Japanese hybrid of Batmans, Hello Kittys and Harry Potters.  As Morgan sees this, "What was once the avant-garde in the West has finally collapsed under the overwhelming weight of kitsch – not genuine kitsch, but a kind of ironic pseudo-kitsch." And in relation to local culture, according to this concept, as Morgan presents it, "If a fourth century Hindu temple stands in the way of 'modernization,' the assumption is that it will be destroyed by any means necessary to further develop the region."

In the place of this view of globalization, Morgan asserts a counter-vision, which sees "artists functioning in the world today who are not part of ... [the] exorbitant multi-corporate marketplace. They live in such places as Tokyo, Tehran, Warsaw, Johannesburg, Helsinki, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Beijing, Gwanju, Tel Aviv, Ljubjana or Dublin." On the horizon, he glimpses such creators having "the potential to make a community of artists with positive energy and new ideas," something he sees as presenting "a real alternative."

And then the questions come: How will this community be formed? What will its relations be to the commodified market? How will it become more democratic and spiritually driven than the reigning system?

Not all these questions are answered as Morgan charts this exciting new prospect, but he does sketch in what he takes as necessary thematic of the (possibly) new disposition of the art world, based on both his survey of underground trends and his sense of our own epoch. A major shift will be a displacement of the current veneration of virtuality and abstract images. As he puts it in some telling phrases, "We are learning to read images faster, but with less qualitative distinctions in terms of what may be truly significant as art. In the absence of quality, we are being wired against intellect.

Yet, as he argues, virtuality is always parasitic on the tactile. "For an image to ascend into the realm of the virtual requires a substantial knowledge of the tactile environment from which it originates."Instead of creating more and more etoliated virtual environments, artists in the new, open framework will be involved in "the process of making art [which] requires an ability to think and to gain access to the sensorium of human emotions through material and through tactile engagement."

Again, this illuminating statement pulls in its train a whole slew of questions. How will this new insertion of tactility be related to the indigenous traditions Morgan sees as essential to the new vision? How can virtuality be brought into art projects as a partner not a waster? How can current trends be reversed?

This last question leads to my final point. For the high-flying utopianism in Morgan's perspective, he also has a complete grasp of the compromised nature of current art.  While artists have always been split between the two urges of making money or of going in new non-market directions, he sees this division being especially tragic in that now the commercial slant, dominated by virtuality has erased all human substance, and so more than ever needs to be overcome.