From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
The University of Texas at Austin has been a lively source of activity in the visual art community over the past couple of weeks. Tongues are wagging about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s loan of 28 sculptures to the University through the Landmarks program, the opening of two significant exhibitions—Reimagining Space and The New York Graphic Workshop—at the Blanton and the first of this year’s Lectures on Art in the Black Diaspora. …might be good will dedicate many of our virtual pages to these events over the next month: the Met sculptures will enjoy Eric Zimmerman’s attention in our next issue and reviews of Reimagining Space and The New York Graphic Workshop will appear in early November. However, the most recent lecture in the series, Lectures on Art in the Black Diaspora, steals the spotlight today.
In the first of three lectures in the series occurring this fall, Kobena Mercer spoke under the title, “What Difference Does Diaspora Make? Art History After Globalization.” As the title suggests, Mercer discussed the consequences of globalization on the way we write art history. Here, I want briefly lay out some of Mercer’s argument and discuss its relevance to the field of contemporary art; the way we write art history always has repercussions in today’s art production, exhibition and criticism.
Mercer began his lecture by critiquing the contemporary art world’s approach to difference. To be considered fully contemporary, Mercer said, art institutions must simultaneously exhibit difference and be silent on the subject of difference. Non-inclusivity is unacceptable and multiculturalism is passé. The result of the push to include diversity and the pull not to speak about it, Mercer concluded, is the erasure of difference.
Mercer suggested that the cause of this erasure of difference was, in part, the tendency to understand globalization as a contemporary phenomenon. In resistance to the erasure, Mercer proposed a deeper understanding of the history of globalization during the modern period. This history must disassemble the concept of a singular Modernism and create a framework of multiple modernities. Such a framework, Mercer argued, could provide a richer past through which to recognize difference in contemporary art.
The concept of multiple modernities is not a new one; sociologists Shmuel Eisenstadt and David Martin, and social philosophers Charles Taylor and Peter Wagner, among others have elaborated the idea of multiple modernities. Over the past quarter of a century, their theories have challenged the assumption that the Western program of modernization produced the homogenizing effects attributed to it. In his lecture, Mercer simply encouraged art historians to take up these theories and apply them to the study of art. Off the top of my head, I can think of many situations in the contemporary art world to which theories of multiple modernities could be productively applied. In fact, the criticism surrounding some international exhibitions, such as Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum last year or the controversial installation America/Americas at the Blanton, appears to be, at its core, a call for more explicit recognition of the multiple modernities thesis within the field of modern and contemporary art. By contrast, another exhibition organized at the Blanton, Geometry of Hope, has been lauded, in large part, for its particular attention to the variety of manifestations of modernity in Latin American art.
If you missed Mercer’s lecture, you still have a chance to catch the next two lectures in the series: photographer Renee Cox will speak on October 28 and painter Beverly McIver will speak on November 11. The series, now in its third year, has consistently brought preeminent scholars and artists—Adrian Piper and Charles Gaines, among others—to Austin and has drawn large, multidisciplinary crowds. Given the series’ excellent track record, we can expect Cox and McIver to be as engaging as Mercer was this week.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.