A few years ago, the enfant terrible of the Chinese art world, Ai WeiWei wrote an essay in The Guardian newspaper attacking the art world’s complicity in supporting a repressive regime in China. He asked whether it was even possible to have real art in China—scorching art market aside—when anyone who spoke out was likely to be arrested, like he himself had been.
Ai made some good points, but he ignored the fact that limitations and creativity often go hand in hand.
Take, for example, traditional landscape painting in China. During the Six Dynasties period, China’s scholarly elites were sidelined by a turbulent political situation. In response, many of them turned away from society, retreating to remote mountainous regions, where they meditated and painted natural landscapes. Out of a repressive environment evolved some of the greatest art known to man.1
Or, to use better-known examples from our own time, Milan Kundera, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were all artists who worked from behind the iron curtain, even if their work could not be published or presented in that environment.
So, great art is not necessarily incompatible with repression.
In this context, what to make of illiberal states that want to remake themselves as international arts hubs? We have Art Stage Asia in Singapore, Art Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial, and so on. It’s a matter of time before the Almaty Art Fair is announced.
Obviously, it’s an oversimplification to put all these city-states in the same boat. But still, raise your hand if you thought that art couldn’t occur in a vacuum. To clarify, art doesn’t have to represent some national soul. But surely, there has to be a cultural context, a local space that stimulates and encourages expression?
Why would bureaucrats in such tightly controlled environments contemplate the possibility of becoming centres for art? Does Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum really want to have to look at Tracy Emin’s blood-soaked period underpants? It’s hard to see the synergy here. (It’s unlikely that such provocative art will ever have a showing at these art fairs, since the curators know better than to offend local conservatives.2)
Regardless of the naysayers, the powers-that-be have foreseen that if their nations are to become centres of innovation and retain the best creative talent, if their economies are to move up the value chain, they need to provide the space for it.
And they have. Build it and they will come: the “it” being the physical space for performances and to sell art, and the “they” being art dealers and patrons. Some international artists have come too, but they don’t usually stay. (And local artists often leave.)
But what about the other kind of space? You know, the space we can’t see, but that’s essential for creative people to create? And the reason why creatives flock to cities like New York and London.
That will take much longer.3
It is possible that having only physical space could be the limitation that sparks great art. But so far, we’ve mostly seen what’s been dubbed as “grobal” art.4
Grobalism, in opposition to glocalism, refers to a world where we consume slick, mass-produced things that signify nothing substantive.5
Grobal culture is completely devoid of a local context. Think Wallpaper magazine or Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas. Or the kitschy art that carefully elides any substantive local issues but sells like hotcakes at regional art fairs.
Anyone can understand grobal art. We can all partake of it and feel cultured, like a secret handshake inducting us into the upper classes.
But it still feels like something is missing—like that empty feeling you have after finally buying that Gucci bag you’ve been saving up for.