Critical Eye: Doxing the Modern

Naeem Mohaiemen: Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, video, 95 minutes.


THE GLOBAL COMPLEX of art is most visible in the exhibitions, biennials, and fairs that bring together arrays of widely sourced objects.1 The latest edition of Documenta, in 2017, staged artists from the historical periphery of Western modernism alongside cosmopolitan contemporaries, with the aim of consolidating and stimulating inquiry into supposedly overlooked nineteenth- and twentieth-century precursors—a retroactive global turn. In their sublime feats of logistics, larger international shows depend on elaborate negotiations between curators, dealers, and collections, as well as on the legal and actuarial procedures undertaken by host institutions to ease border crossings.

Artworks travel heavy, and the baggage that accompanies them includes ideas about what they mean and information about the contexts in which they were produced and first interpreted. The drive to record this knowledge often hinges on the viability of translation. Yet the mechanisms by which ideas about art circulate between languages have received far less attention than the presentation of art objects. Linguistic translation is hardly just a technical problem to be solved, another border crossing to be made in the name of art’s iterative worldliness. The theoretical and practical challenges of this method inform the overall discourse of modern and contemporary art in ways that have yet to be fully acknowledged.2 

Some important, if halting, initiatives are underway both to produce translations related to twentieth-century art and to analyze the significance of the practice. Beginning in the early 2000s, the Getty Research Institute (GRI), one of the largest funding bodies for anglophone art history, launched an initiative to translate into English “major, indisputably art historical texts.”3 Later, the Getty Foundation, the GRI’s parent organization, committed funds for the online academic journal Art in Translation and celebrated the inaugural issue in 2009 with a conference at the University of Edinburgh that assessed the state of the field.4 While both initiatives underscore the fundamental role of translation in art history’s global turn, they are relatively minor in scale and ambition compared to the work that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has devoted to making the textual record of global modernism accessible to English speakers. MoMA’s early internationalism was underwritten by the polyglot abilities of the art historian Margaret Scolari Barr, who accompanied her husband—the museum’s functionally monolingual founding director, Alfred—nearly everywhere he went, working as interpreter in interviews with artists, and performing research and translation in a number of Western European languages. This globalism would be formalized with the establishment in 1952 of MoMA’s International Program, which is perhaps best known for its involvement in Cold War cultural diplomacy, organizing exhibitions of modern art for venues abroad and influence-peddling junkets for personalities like Clement Greenberg, whom it dispatched to New Delhi in 1967.

Closer at hand, the museum’s Primary Documents publication series, started in 2002, anthologizes English translations of art criticism, artists’ writings, and other literary or documentary material from regions not well enough studied, at least until recent decades, by collecting institutions and art history departments in the West. Thus far, nine volumes have been released.5 All generally deal with texts published in the twentieth century, with a few nineteenth-century exceptions. In order of appearance they concern: Eastern and Central European art since the 1950s (2002), Argentine art of the 1960s (2004), Swedish design in the twentieth century (2008), Venezuelan critic Alfredo Boulton (2008), contemporary Chinese art between 1976 and 2006 (2010), Japanese postwar art between 1945 and 1989 (2012), Brazilian critic Mario Pedrosa (2016), Arab modernism (2018), and art and theory in post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe (2018). The emergent interest in studying the history of modernism outside the West has tracked, as a lagging cultural indicator, the unfolding of a global political economy. In a 2010 interview, the current director of the museum’s International Program, Jay Levenson, described the genesis of Primary Documents in terms of logistical strategy:

The International Program, in its early years, was able to circulate an extraordinary number of shows and to send them all over the world. This was possible because of the relatively low costs of shipping and installation, the sky-high dollar of the period, and insurance values for modern and contemporary art that were nothing like today’s. Conservation was not thought to be an issue for such recently created works, and climate control and security of facilities were not the same issues that they are now, so exhibitions were sent to relatively modest venues that could never be considered today for shows of this type.6

The first Primary Documents publication was initiated by MoMA curator Laura Hoptman, edited by her and Czech art historian Tomáš Pospiszyl, and paid for in part by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a mysterious New York foundation originally dedicated to Cold War cultural diplomacy.7 The volume’s contents are eclectic, bringing together writings on dissident art from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Slovenia, and Romania, as well as texts related to Moscow Conceptualism and Soviet nonconformist practices. In the same conversation, Levenson notes the thorny issues that arise in translation. While it was “a very difficult first project because of the many different and complicated languages involved,” he argues, the volume “served as the model for the entire series,” enabling MoMA to “focus its audience’s attention on areas of the world that for one reason or another do not fit into the exhibition program; it also helps to direct the Museum’s own attention to these regions . . . in ways that would no longer be possible through an exhibition program alone.”8

Translation, according to Levenson, is more than a contextual exercise to be carried out by and for specialists; it is a core function of the museum, as valid a way to stage history as an exhibition program. Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, whose work is in MoMA’s collection, was enlisted to author the introduction to the first anthology. He confessed that the texts gathered therein might still appear “strange, confusing and difficult to understand for the outside observer,” adding that anglophone readers lacked the “context” necessary to make sense of these translated writings due to the “distant” nature of the events they record. These documents, now in English, remain partially illegible, produced in “closed countries, that—at least in the case of the former Soviet Union—virtually did not exist on the artistic map of the world from the 1930s until the 1980s.”9 A historical document extracted, translated, and re-published is hardly primary; we instead have to think of the primacy of Primary Documents in terms of the series’ role in building cultural internationalism. Primary Documents therefore offers a lens through which to view the broader historical or methodological forces that undergird MoMA’s institutional push to present a global history of art.


LAST YEAR, MoMA PS1 in Queens hosted a small and compelling exhibition by the Turner Prize–nominated artist Naeem Mohaiemen. The show’s title, “There Is No Last Man,” evokes the work of political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Though Mohaiemen has explained that his work was conceived without this explicit frame in mind,10 the wall text described the pieces on view—a film, Tripoli Cancelled (2017), and a set of paired prints, Volume Eleven (flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism), 2016—as responsive to Fukuyama’s concept of the end of history, famously laid out in a 1989 article and expanded into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. Written by PS1 curator Peter Eleey, the wall text glosses Fukuyama’s argument as “Western liberal democracy and capitalism would be the final shared fate of humanity,” then interprets Mohaiemen’s work as suggesting “that there will be no ‘last man’ or ‘end of history’ in an era marked by the growing prominence of non-Western histories that acknowledge multiple viewpoints and perspectives on the development of modernity.”

Far from refuting Fukuyama, however, this line of thought buttresses his thesis that the emergence of a defanged historicism would be one symptom of the “end of history” under neoliberal globalization. In the conclusion of his original essay, Fukuyama described the end of history as “a very sad time.” Referring to socialism as a “worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism,” he foresaw that its defeat would usher in a technocratic era of “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”11 The efforts of MoMA’s International Program to produce a coherent body of texts on global modernism partakes of just such caretaking. This risks treating modernism as if it were simply one more portfolio to be diversified, an eclectic assortment of places and events, politics and personages. Some of these “assets” call up historical emancipatory struggles, others, the activities of bourgeois cosmopolitans (at times, both at once). Yet all are united under an insatiably acquisitive historicism that restores the battered antiquarianism of the museum—more histories, more objects, more for the menu.

The push for an easily digestible globalism, be it historical or presentist, follows a broader shift in American cultural politics that was already well underway when Fukuyama eulogized the Cold War. MoMA’s International Program has, since its founding, participated in cultural diplomacy by spreading the gospel of American high culture. Earlier, this diffusion of ideals was the remit of entities such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom or the Ford Foundation. Now, however, Cold War cultural politics seem to have been reversed. The need to export American culture has been replaced by a desire to pump up Western institutions with, to recall Kabakov’s phrase, the art and literature that was previously “closed” to them. This impulse to assimilate new others, or new facts about others, is then at its most literal a drive toward the accumulation of source data, as in Primary Documents.


THE EDITION OF Primary Documents on art and aesthetics in the Arab world from 1882 through 1986 was edited by scholars Nada Shabout, Anneka Lenssen, and Sarah Rogers (assisted, as is the case with most Primary Documents volumes, by a small team of professional translators). All three lead editors are art historians and executives of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA), a joint affiliate of the College Art and the Middle East Studies Associations. They have created a special section for the AMCA website with the heading “Repository of original source documents” where readers might connect some, but not all, of the English-language texts with truly primary materials.

The editors thoughtfully address many aspects of their challenge. They write with great transparency about the difficulties of translation, the inevitable omissions inherent in anthologizing, and the constraints and advantages of their geographical-linguistic framework of the “Arab world.”12 The last is an unenviable category to have to defend as a catchall for the book’s century-long span of texts, many of which, the editors are quick to point out, were not written in Arabic at all. A brief essay by the historian Ussama Makdisi, like several others interspersed like explanatory wall texts throughout the volume, illuminates that geographic frame, even if it does not address broader critiques of Western scholarly regionalism that might obtain in MoMA’s intellectual project. This is a systemic issue that the editors do not uncritically abet; the trio offer this crucial if impacted précis for their art-historical agenda: “To engage this writing about modern art, ideas, things, and events is to consider the deterritorialized aspects of historic modernism, and not a separate tradition or an ‘alternative’ modernism.”13

Fully exploring the book’s contents might occupy another book, or at least another essay. But if one text out of the volume’s eclectic spread embodies the project’s aspirations and complications, it is the earliest inclusion, Butrus al-Bustani’s 1882 encyclopedia entry with the trilingual title: “Taswir, Peinture, Painting.” This text was selected from Beirut-based al-Bustani’s encyclopedia, Kitab Da’irat al-Ma’arif (The Circle of Knowledge), which was begun in 1876 and taken up by surviving members of his family after the original author’s death in 1883. “Taswir, Peinture, Painting,” even in the brief excerpt published, registers al-Bustani’s knowledge of earlier European sources; the multilingual heading is common to other entries in al-Bustani’s encyclopedia, which from its title on suggests a self-consciousness about the centrality of translation to the formation of encyclopedic, or wholistic, cultural study. That this text thematizes translation and the global circulation of knowledge makes it an important document both here and in the broader context of the Nahda, or so-called Arab renaissance of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a period in the intellectual and cultural history of the modern Middle East experiencing a resurgence of interest among scholars.14 (A bilingual anthology of Nahda writings, also opening with al-Bustani, has recently appeared, and might be considered an oblique companion to the Primary Documents volume.15)

At the book’s launch at MoMA last year, the editors cited Robyn Creswell’s 2016 essay “Is Arabic Untranslatable?” in the journal Public Culture as a reference for some of their methodological thinking.16 Though he takes as his starting point some of the journalistic issues surrounding the translation of Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric, Creswell ultimately argues that Arabic requires a “lucid” or “eloquent” rather than “accurate” translation. He writes: “at a moment when the estrangement of English and Arabic is a brute historical fact, eloquent translations from the Arabic can provide exactly the experience of shock and defamiliarization that any powerful reading experience, including those of translations, must involve.”17 Creswell’s essay places an affective and recuperative burden on translation, one that finds uncanny resonance with the exhibitionary prerogrative proposed by Levenson above and echoes arguments by critic and art historian David Joselit. In his influential 2013 article “On Aggregators,” Joselit uses metaphors of language to describe a visual “international style” arising from the vertiginous pluralism of modern and contemporary art. This “aggregate” of heterogeneous histories produced by “uneven development” risks becoming a “blank or denatured modernism,” redeemed only by its “eloquence” and “rhetorical urgency” as transposed in the present.18 If stringing together various strains of “global” modernism in an exhibition, collection, or book series produces results that seem too diffuse to critically synthesize, let alone comprehend as a whole, then one might as well make it “eloquent” in English.


WHILE THE INDIVIDUAL texts published under the auspices of Primary Documents are and will continue to be immensely useful primers for students and researchers, the significance of the overall project—of reproducing this material as part of an accessible corpus on modernism worldwide—is not so easily given. For one thing, the dominance of English within the global culture industry, including contemporary art, has its own political stakes. As theorist Gayatri Spivak and others have argued, that rising market in literary translation into English since the 1970s can be attributed to the ascent of the US as a hegemonic power, and yet it is also clear that this rise reflects a complex of earlier and newer forms of capital and empire, and hence is not predicated solely on American institutions.19 Earlier in the decade, there were spirited if vexed debates about “international art English,” the odd prose of press releases and wall texts. Though much lamented for seeming to delegitimize contemporary art discourse with their imprecise summations of critical theory, such documents—often computationally translated or composed by writers for whom English was a second or third language—can be highly revealing, symptomatic as they are of the geopolitical conditions that Spivak pinpoints.20

The history of literary translations provides perhaps the most useful touchstone, and a global art history needs to be informed by the deep literature on the purpose and operation of translation. If Goethe noted the emergence of a translated world literature in his time, naming it Weltliteratur, he also spoke, in his West-östlicher Divan (1819), of a need to “orientalize ourselves” in the face of foreign literature that requires linguistic competence for its true meaning to be known. In 1952 philologist and critic Erich Auerbach announced a “terminal phase of fruitful multiplicity” for this dialectic of knowable otherness. For Auerbach, world literature’s eclectic “global” historicism was arriving at “coalescence,” and had to be made effective so that culture might withstand the shocks of the twentieth century. The following year, art historian Erwin Panofsky published an essay reflecting on his preceding three decades as a German émigré in the US. In it, he emphasizes the importance of his mastery of English and identifies the complex forces, both material and linguistic, that were then only beginning to take shape but now define the Anglophone internationalism of art history. German might have been the discipline’s native tongue (as it was his),  but in translating himself into an English-language scholar in America, Panofsky and his colleagues “loosen[ed] our tongues” in the space of this new idiom, “find[ing] the courage to write books on whole masters or whole periods.”21

The geopolitics of the twenty-first century continue to make the problem of world literature central to the discipline of comparative literature, as Emily Apter and Aamir Mufti, among other scholars, have argued. If we consider the contemporary reanimation of the primary documents of modernism as something like art’s belated “world literature” moment, it is not because the problems of translation are new (as a discipline art history has never been monolingual, and translational dispute is commonplace). Instead, what is unprecedented is the rapid entry of translated texts into the English-language corpus of art writing, and the attempts by major institutions in the West to synthesize them as a body of knowledge.   

These developments prompt foundational questions. To what extent are drives to expand the canon or “decolonize” the museum reconstitutive of the practices and traditions that produced these bad objects in the first place? Does the translational in “global” modernism, insofar as it makes difference rhetorical, repeat with a difference the canned syncretisms of historical modernism? How do we attend to the institutional geography of translation, asking where and for whom art history is being reanimated, if at all? Such concerns are hardly novel. Introducing the catalogue of the 1989 Havana Biennial, director Llilian Llanes Godoy identified the biennial with the overall objective of its organizing body, the Wilfredo Lam Center, founded in 1983 to articulate an anti-imperial “Third World” internationalism in the face of “a hegemonic ‘international’ culture.” But this move, she explains, is still riven by the tension between the exhibitionary aggregation of art objects in the name of showcasing the “diversity” of this art on its own behalf and the thornier “empirical” task of contextualization, the critical project of historical emplotment. Despite the proliferation of art institutions throughout the industrialized world in the preceding half-century, she lamented, it was still hard to find “publications of significance” covering those histories in the Global South. Yet “we too have not occupied ourselves with producing them,” she challenged, auguring the work that was then to come.22