Curating Cultures: An Empirical Inquiry

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Calder, Toni Laviece
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<p>The last twenty-five years have witnessed not only a veritable explosion of critical discourses across the entire gamut of academic disciplines, but also the virtual inseparability that characterizes their contemporary entanglement with one another and within the field of art history. Moreover, it is safe to say that each and every one of those fields of inquiry has made its mark on the discourse of non-Western art in some way. But while the post-colonial writer may address the visual arts and their involvement in Western cultural hegemony, or the curator of an exhibition might quote Said, or the catalogue might include an essay by Bhabha, the gulf between theory and praxis remains wide and largely ignored by individuals on both ends of the divide. </p><p> Despite the recently-booming Middle Eastern art market, despite the successes of magazines and journals like Third Text, Nafas, Canvas, and Bedouin, despite the recent openings of modern and contemporary art museums and galleries throughout the Middle Eastern region, despite the brilliant insights and contributions of critical theory, anthropology, cultural studies, and the new museology on the disciplines of art history and criticism, despite the establishment of academic and professional associations like the Middle East Studies Association and the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey, and most specifically, despite the recent surge of exhibitions of contemporary art from the Middle East and its diasporas both in Western art institutions and internationally, there nevertheless remains a conspicuous lack of self-reflexivity and criticality on the part of art historians, scholars, theorists, critics, and curators in terms of how contemporary Middle Eastern art is framed, mediated, and represented, specifically in and through the art exhibition. </p><p> By looking critically at three recent exhibitions of contemporary Middle Eastern art, namely, Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists, Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, and Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art From Pakistan, we will examine some of the nuances and complexities of contemporary Middle Eastern art practice and its dissemination. These exhibitions serve as case studies with which we can articulate some of the strategic curatorial approaches adopted within the exhibitions, unpack the theoretic underpinnings of such curatorial tactics, and elaborate on the ways in which the exhibitions succeeded and failed in their aims and within the larger project of contemporary Middle Eastern art. Exhibitions cannot simply appropriate the buzzwords of theory - the Other, hybridity, and transnational, for example - without taking responsibility for how their particular exhibition participates within the larger discourses they claim to address. If art institutions more rigorously investigate and acknowledge the enormous discursive power of the art exhibition within contemporary socio-political and cultural arenas, then there might be a genuine possibility that the non-Western art exhibition might achieve that which it has claimed to do all along: to educate, and to foster inter-cultural understanding and communication. A dire need for widespread investigation of contemporary non-Western art exhibitions exists; with enough data we might learn something about how we continue to frame art and artists categorized as non-Western, which applies not only to the Middle Eastern artists addressed in this project, but also to artists from other marginalized areas of the world, including Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, as well as the indigenous populations of the Americas and Australia, and other communities marginalized by gender, sexuality, religion, and other `othering' categories.</p><p> While post-colonial studies, postmodernist theories, and museum studies may have once belonged to the larger discourses of critical theory, I would argue that in their failures to pursue practical verification of their conclusions, they have lost their critical edge. Critical theoretical discourses must not only describe and evaluate diverse fields of social, cultural, and political practice, but also provide practical proposals to implement their critique in the form of normative social change. In other words, legitimate critical theory must be transformed into praxis. Practical validation of theory is a key part of the process of critical inquiry itself. The confluence of this dual inquiry is the site where the research of this thesis may illuminate new areas for the application of practical social theory as well as possibilities to improve the production and reception of future exhibitions of contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa, and their diasporas.</p>
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
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