Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2021
David Joselit Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020. 344 pp.; 82 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780262043694)

In Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization, David Joselit seeks to remedy the biases that have prevented art historians working in the United States and Europe from recognizing the complex ways in which artists operating on the so-called periphery have invoked references to traditional culture. His endgame is to demonstrate how artists engage with heritage to produce work whose contemporaneity is posited in its response to the geopolitics of globalization. Joselit does this by asking how tradition has been put to contemporary uses by artists from regions that include Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe and by shifting the object of his analysis from a singular object or location to zones “between” what he identifies as three artistic traditions. Calling these traditions “aesthetic idioms” to allow for a more flexible set of artistic conventions, he describes them with the terms “modern/postmodern,” “realist/mass cultural,” and “popular/indigenous” (3). These clusters of terms are not anchored in fixed chronologies or nation-states, but they are nonetheless loosely tethered to the places of the first, second, and third worlds. Joselit uses them to map the national contours and dynamic interactivity that define the focus of his study. Present throughout the book’s five chapters, these terms recast the globe as a set of relationships and aesthetic tensions rather than national identities, in a sense replacing both fixed geography and art historical terminology.

Because Joselit works both to dismantle top-down practices for evaluating the worth of art made in the Global South and to reconfigure art historical genealogies of modern and contemporary art, he presents arguments that will affect art criticism, curatorial practice, and, especially, work by the growing body of scholars and graduate students who seek to address what is imperfectly called global art. His book adds weight to key arguments that have been made by art historians and art critics who study regions of the Global South: that the structures upon which scholars have habitually depended, including chronology, stylistic development, rupture, and fixed geographies, are tools of neo-imperialist thinking and prevent us from understanding art under colonialism, as well as the complex dynamics of art that crosses borders and involves translating and combining transcultural codes. Joselit shares tools for how art historians can describe the ways in which contemporary artists have, through the process of working within globalization, done extraordinarily important work toward assessing it and bringing a sense of awareness to its myriad shapes and effects.

Joselit’s overarching argument is that “art’s globalization . . . has the potential to redress Western modernism’s cultural dispossession of the global South” (xvii). This redressing, he hopes, will accomplish a degree of “cognitive justice,” a concept he borrows from the theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos (xviii). The reference to “debt” in the book’s title carries both metaphorical and literal meanings. It refers to the histories of slavery and colonialism and the neo-imperialist financial policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but even more to the dispossession of cultural knowledge in the Global South due to the decimation of populations and economies. In five chapters, Joselit builds an armature to support these claims by introducing new conceptual terms and pairing descriptions of these terms with case studies chronicling how these concepts have played out in different contexts. The timeline of “art in globalization” encompasses 1989 to the present and focuses on the role of heritage within modernism, the readymade, curatorial acts and museums, and information. The year 1989 marks the end of the Cold War and the entrance of Chinese and Russian art on the global market, as well as exhibitions featuring “world art” such as Magiciens de la Terre (Centre Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette) and the third edition of the Havana Biennial. The most recent work discussed was made in 2016 using photography and digital media to mine information systems by artists that include Zanele Muholi, Walid Raad, Raqs Media Collective, Hito Steryl, and others, as well as contemporary global museums in Cape Town, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Joselit’s focus on heritage enables him to redefine the methods of assessing and describing art in globalization while dismantling conventional methods of art history—what he calls “historicist models of art history” (243). He depends on postcolonial thinkers to devise new conceptual terms, and he depends on scholars writing histories of art outside the United States and Europe to show how these terms play out in antihistoricist narratives. Although curatorial acts figure prominently in his assessment, Joselit does not equate global contemporary art with biennial art. Instead, he builds his argument around theoretical terms that aid in the dismantling of dominant methods of organizing art and its histories, including “curatorial episteme,” “image deregulation,” “synchronization,” “readymade/appropriation,” and “reverse appropriation” (a term that he borrows from Chika Okeke-Agulu). These terms function differently than the “aesthetic idioms” named above. Instead of identifying visual tendencies, they serve as analytical tools aimed chiefly at disputing and recasting predominant art historical concepts. They form the backbone of the book’s argument and allow for relational analyses that can account for how meaning is produced by actors in specific scenarios and for how geopolitical conflicts are embedded in the works and their reception. To different degrees in its five chapters, the book calls on terms like these to shift and transform conventional art historical thinking. For instance, in chapter 2, “Synchronization,” Joselit presents this term as an alternative to a canonical postmodernism rooted in Frederic Jameson. The Nigerian artist Uche Okeke, he explains, developed an approach the artist called “natural synthesis” to “find a method for assimilating both African heritage and European modernism without being assimilated by either of them” (47, emphasis in original). Okeke is among the many vivid examples Joselit cites of artists who took a knowingly conceptual approach to borrow back local heritage in acts that deliberately both resisted and worked within a globalization shaped by colonial forces. In other instances, Joselit gives his chapters more descriptive titles. In chapter 4, “Curated Cultures,” he examines how artists have embraced the “curatorial episteme” by taking on the role of curator to reveal and subvert the violence of the Western museum’s practices of collecting and displaying colonized cultures.  

It is important to emphasize that Joselit develops his concepts through a process of deep collaborative thinking. To deconstruct and reconfigure his theoretical terms, he draws on the postcolonial thought of Arjun Appadurai, Dipesh Chakrabarty, James Clifford, Geeta Kapur, Gerardo Mosquera, Fred Moten, Suely Rolnik, Roberto Schwarz, George Yúdice, and many others. Then, to describe how his concepts have played out in historical scenarios, he depends on art historians and art critics of the Global South: to name just a few examples, he chronicles fascinating and complex scenarios in China, Nigeria, and Australia by citing recent scholarship produced by art historians and critics who have been writing on these regions during the past decade, including Okeke-Agulu, Ekaterina Degot, Laura Fisher, Boris Groys, Elizabeth Harney, and Jing Wang.

It is inevitable that Joselit’s account will be read as incomplete to area experts. As a specialist in Latin American art history, I found his references to this region underdeveloped and lacking the authors and artists who have been examining many of his central concerns for some time. Many of the theorists and art historians I longed to encounter in this book were missing because they are not available in English or because they write outside the discipline of art history. Area studies, which possesses its own colonial history, and art history fail to intersect for many reasons, but the issues of heritage, native traditions, and contemporaneity have been central to writers that include Juan Acha, Ticio Escobar, Mirko Lauer, and Mary Louise Pratt. Although Joselit cites Néstor García Canclini, the latter’s thinking on heritage and globalization could have been probed more deeply, especially considering that García Canclini and the abovementioned Latin Americans write in the long shadow of US imperialism.

However, Joselit’s project was not to write a complete account of global art, but rather to provide a critical framework that would prod art historians to see global contemporary art differently within globalization. At this task, there is no doubt that he succeeds. Writing during the Trump presidency, before the pandemic permanently changed globalization, Joselit expresses hope that the stakes involved in artists’ acts of turning to the heritage within globalization can help art to retain its progressive edge—that, in claiming heritage and tradition as critical tools, art can carve out spaces where citizenship and collective action can be imagined and perhaps acted upon.

Harper Montgomery
Hunter College, Department of Art and Art History