“The Venice Biennale is a Tesco’s Finest mixed platter at best. “
The Venice Biennale is a focal point in the art world, often heralded as the “art-world Olympics”: it is both a microcosm of art history as we know it as well as a barometer for current and forecasted trends, resulting in its prestigious status as one of the most highly anticipated and venerated artistic institutions across the globe. It has also been described by Artnet to offer ‘a smorgasbord of art that not even the most voracious glutton could hope to consume’, signifying the scale and volume of the event, steeped in both glamour and glory. However, when it comes to diversity, The Venice Biennale is a Tesco’s Finest mixed platter at best.
Is this shortcoming a failure on behalf of the curatorial team, an active choice of ignorance or a subconscious internalisation of segregation? This is particularly debatable considering that the artistic director has total say in their artists of choice, causing accountability for a lack of diversity to lie with them. However, in reality, this conclusion is doubtful, especially when considering the fact that the organisers themselves have faced similar inequality and judgement, seeing as only three Biennales have been organised by women, and the first African-born curator was only selected in 2015.
And so, if the fault is not with the organisers, is the lack of diversity symptomatic of a lack of progression in the art-world more generally, a sector that has often been seen as ahead of the times, critical of socio-political structures and vocal in its dissemination of disparity? This justification is more likely, especially considering the fact that, as previously described, the Biennale offers a barometer for the art world, which would therefore include its participants. However, I would argue that it’s not a want of diversity within the artist community itself, but with those who conduct and control the market, who remain trapped in pre-established notions of normality that fail to embrace modernity. Such a reality is indicated by the echoing of historical complaints that have been reiterated in response to the event. For example, the call against a lack of non-male and female-identifying participants is one that can be traced back to the Guerrilla Girls’ provocative declarations of injustice in galleries and museums, though this is by far not the earliest case of such a message’s proliferation. Therefore, this tension highlights how artists of all identities can create as much work as they like, but whilst the institutional conventions and boundaries remain in place, limitations will always hinder their acceptance into the classical world. Although, it must be noted here that the upcoming 2022 Biennale, which is set to open in April, has both a female artistic director at the helm in the form of Cecukua Alemani and is also the first Biennale to have a majority female collection, with less than 10% of the space being occupied by male-identifying participants in a defiant and definitive act of positive discrimination.
However, this attempt at rebalancing the scales is not enough, because, whilst the attempted endeavour can be applauded from a singular perspective, it fails to embrace the intersectional reality of non-hegemonic identities. In other words, whilst throwing a few more female and non-male identifying individuals into the mix is a positive in some respects, another school of thought would see this as both tokenistic and reductive. The latter, regarding the oversimplification of attempts at equality, comes through the lack of racial diversity that is still prevalent, as exemplified by the last Biennale, Macel’s Viva Arte Viva, which included only 5 black artists out of the total 120 whilst simultaneously declaring itself as a celebration of “the very existence of art and artists, whose worlds expand our perspective and the space of our existence” (Macel). The former, the tokenistic attempts of declaring the end of disparity, become apparent when we realise that the increased inclusion of non-male and female-identifying individuals in the Bienalle merely forces female figures into male established boxes for, as Griselda Pollock famously questions, is adding women to art history the same as producing feminist art history?
I think not.
And so, under this school of thought, when remaining under the constraints of an institution so deeply entrapped in its own history, will we ever truly be able to accurately represent modernity? Or, is it time to retire tradition in pursuit of innovation?
Image courtesy of Naturpuur via WikiMedia Commons