VENICE — Gone are the days when modern art used sex to earn your embarrassed attention. The latest Venice Biennale shows that to get international visibility these days, contemporary art must play with something much hotter: politics.
The Venice show, curated by Nigerian Okwui Enwezor, has brought together dozens of artists who, by different means and with varying effectiveness, denounce capitalist exploitation, colonialism, inequality and the destruction of nature. All human evils are on display here, as are sundry works and installations that denounce, denigrate and point an accusing finger at the vices of modern life.
Themes include the uncertain future that awaits us in the current capitalist system, and not surprisingly, Marx is a central protagonist. In one of the spaces, actors dressed in black read through Marx's book Das Kapital all day. This might initially seem disconcerting. But let's not forget that the first ones to arrive in Venice — most likely in their own yachts — were the art collectors and gallery owners who attend the Biennale's previews.
You mean to say that pieces on display in the pavillons will later go on show, and sale, in galleries at prices that couldn't be described as "charitable"? And in addition, these devotees of art will be leaving a trail of money spent in Venetian boutiques, restaurants and hotels? Get out of here!
It's not as if visitors are traveling here to be told that the world is full of misfortune and greed. You have the news for that. The works shown in Venice don't tell us anything that someone with a minimal level of education or information doesn't already know. The novelty is instead the spectacle of Marx and anti-capitalist posturing mixing harmoniously with mass tourism, consumerism and multimillionaires.
What Enwezor's fair suggests is that criticisms of capitalism have become another cog in the wheel of capitalism. Marx and consumerism don't flee the flow of money generated by the art market and cultural tourism. It may be that many artists really believe that their art, besides pointing to the evils of humanity, must foment values such solidarity, brotherhood, environmental consciousness, collectivity and even gratuity. The paradox is that all these values, despite their anti-capitalist appearance, are extremely useful today in selling things.
In the 1960s, advertising used values such as revolution, authenticity, sex and youth. Today, judging by the luxury art market, a critical conscience, green issues and post-colonial discourse are more effective. Cities become ecological to attract tourists, post-colonial artists fetch high prices on the market, and critical theorists become international stars.
It doesn't seem so easy today to leave or criticize the system. Whoever does is more likely to be grabbing a rope that will take him to the top — the elite's nest. Is that good or bad? I don't know. I suspect it's another of the many paradoxes of our time.