Editor’s Letter

Tyeb Mehta: Diagonal Series, ca. 1970, oil on canvas, 59 by 47 1/4 inches. Collection Angeli and Vish Sowani. From the exhibition “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” at the Asia Society, New York, Sept. 14, 2018–Jan. 20, 2019.

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The cover of the July 1989 issue of Art in America features a photograph of the whole earth. Announcing the “Global Issue,” the image is surrounded by an array of names of countries and cities, from Haiti to East Berlin to Tokyo, suggesting nodes in a worldwide cultural network. In the 1960s, counterculture impresario Stewart Brand campaigned for NASA to release a photograph of the earth from space, and he published it on the cover of the first issue of his Whole Earth Catalog, an influential guide to enlightened, or at least hippified, uses of technology. He believed that humanity could be improved in some ineffable way if—as he often put it—we could see ourselves in the mirror. Published at a moment when telecommunications and rapid international travel could ostensibly make Brand’s vision a reality, that 1989 A.i.A. issue documents less the emergence of new global consciousness than the fraught process of globalization.   

“If we reconsider the photographic image of the whole world—of spaceship earth,” artist Martha Rosler stated in her contribution to the magazine’s symposium of artists and critics, “it represents an identity that can only be envisioned from outside, a mirror-phase identity firmly located in the Imaginary.” The fantasy of an interconnected global village that held sway in the ’60s, Rosler argued, belies far more consequential “disconnections,” divisions along lines of class, race, and geography. Rosler, whose current retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York is reviewed this month by Alexander Dumbadze, was hardly alone in her skepticism. While contributors to the “Global Issue” were aligned in advocating an art world with horizons wider than traditional Western cultural centers, they also recognized that achieving true cultural exchange meant asking hard questions about real power imbalances. How could cultural integration happen without flattening productive differences? To what extent are networks of artistic exchange conducive to expanding markets? What would a postcolonial museum look like?

There were no easy answers presented in 1989, and, thirty years on, such questions remain unresolved. Several essays in this issue consider recent efforts to understand modernism as an international phenomenon and upend conventional thinking about centers and peripheries. Prajna Desai considers a recent exhibition at the Asia Society in New York that surveyed the legacy of the Progressive Artists’ Group, an organization of modernist artists founded in India in the mid-1940s. Aiming to establish the group’s modernist bona fides while asserting its specific Asian roots, the show, Desai argues, risked reducing complex paintings to illustrations of national identity. Mostafa Heddaya draws attention to the under-acknowledged role of linguistic translation in developing global histories of visual art. Focusing on the Museum of Modern Art’s Primary Documents series—anthologies of translated critical texts from various regions outside western Europe and North America—he assesses the implications of this move to create an English-language corpus of art historical texts.

Global art history requires more than an expanded sense of cultural geography, as Christopher Green contends in an essay about recent exhibitions of Native American art. This fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York installed a collection of Native artwork, crafts, and ceremonial objects in the American Wing rather than in the galleries set aside for Indigenous cultures. The move could be interpreted as part of a broader process of decolonization within museums (wall texts acknowledged that the Met sits on Lenape land). But, as Green writes, the museum’s display conventions, geared toward highlighting aesthetic values, also obscure the context and purpose of the artworks. This is not to say that museums should simply give up—Green celebrates a traveling show of contemporary Native art organized by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—only that the proper presentation of non-Western cultures requires Western institutions to take a critical look at their own histories, biases, and missions. As A.i.A. contributing editor Craig Owens wrote in 1989, “Perhaps it is in this project of learning how to represent ourselves—how to speak to, rather than for or about, others—that the possibility of a ‘global’ culture resides.”