ArtReview's Power 100: aesthetics sacrificed in the name of morality

ArtReview magazine honored the Black Lives Matter movement as the most influential art personality of the year, but the ranking leaves very little room for art that does not represent the social claims of the year. Is that fair?

Je est un autre. “I am another”: this was what a 16-year-old Rimbaud wrote in the intense days of the Paris Commune, in two letters sent one to Izimbard and one to Demeny, to assert the need for a poetry that would free itself from the excesses of subjectivism and formalism and affirm its social function. Perhaps, however, not even Rimbaud would have been able to imagine that, one hundred and fifty years later, the social function of art would have become almost the only one admitted by one of the most discussed art magazines, ArtReview, which as it is now well known, since it has been discussed for a month(ArtsLife for example has initiated a lively discussion), proposed this year a Power 100 extremely devoted to the topics of the current political debate. This year’s “annual list of the hundred most influential personalities in art” assigns first place to the Black Lives Matter movement, second to the ruangrupa collective, and third to scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy. Few artists, as usual for ArtReview’s Power 100: first is Arthur Jafa in sixth place.

Last week, ArtReview ’s ranking jumped to the attention of Le Figaro, which devoted a small investigation to the Power 100, in which space was given to an interesting position of Camille Morineau (former curator at the Centre Pompidou and now president of the ?cole du Louvre) who, in stating that the recognition of an artist is given by three subjects, namely museums, publications and the market, retorted to those who consider the politicization of the Power 100 to be excessive, arguing that the prominence of women, blacks and the LGBT movements that monopolizes the ranking this year is a symptom of the fact that in relation to these subjects we are serving a delay that will balance out over time. A reading that makes sense as long as the just attempt to fill the gaps with a systemic response does not fall into the conformism of a list that, this year, has systematically eliminated all artists far removed from the political activism of those who dominate this year’s ranking: for example, gone in one fell swoop are Pierre Huyghe, uninterruptedly present since 2013 and capable of coming second in 2017, and then Haegue Yang, Philippe Parreno, William Kentridge, and surprisingly even Yayoi Kusama, who will also be among the already announced protagonists of 2021. The trait that unites them is their distance from the social demands that almost all the artists on this year’s ArtReview list make themselves instead.

Bristol, giugno 2020, l'abbattimento del monumento allo schiavista Edward Colston durante una protesta del movimento Black Lives Matter
Bristol, June 2020, the tearing down of the monument to slaver Edward Colston during a protest by the Black Lives Matter movement

A few trends emerge from this. The first is that the art world continues to pander to the polarization of political debate, in accordance with a trend that began at least in the last two years and was discussed more than a year ago in these pages by Magnus af Petersens: “censorship now comes from the left as well,” Petersens wrote, and meanwhile “the art market continues to expand its influence,” while “some artists have developed an interest in self-management and activism.” And where direct activism is lacking comes artworks, which, now deprived of their aesthetic value, seem almost to act as an accessory to the ideas of philosophers and curators. And we are not talking about journalists or critics, they are hardly ever taken into consideration by ArtReview: not even winning the Pulitzer Prize was enough to get Jerry Saltz on the list two years ago. It is true, however, that ArtReview has always given greater weight to curators, theorists and philosophers than to artists, so much so that there have even been years when there were only six artists on the list: the humility that Lionello Venturi demanded of critics sixty years ago is evidently not an indispensable quality according to the compilers of the Power 100.

The excessive presence of figures who are supposed to accompany the artist’s work has been noted by many, but if until now the aesthetic principle still had its relevance to ArtReview’s ranking, this year it was definitely set aside in the name of moral principle: it was decided that in 2020 contemporary art must be the handmaiden of certain social claims and solicitations coming primarily from overseas, and everything else was excluded. Yet there are artists who, alien to the political presence of the many who occupy this year’s rankings (almost all of them deserving, of course: the first, Arthur Jafa, is one of the most interesting living artists, and the operation he has been involved in this summer was one of the few occasions by which contemporary art has imposed itself in the public debate), are nonetheless culturally and artistically no less influential than others. The contradiction of ArtReview ’s choices is quite evident: it is as if, in the name of compensation for delay, the heterogeneity and variety of artistic freedom of expression has somehow been disallowed. This is probably the real theme that emerges from the Power 100: if the alternative has become an institution, it will be interesting to see how that “left-wing censorship” that in more or less larvae forms has crept into the cultural debate will evolve.

It is also worth noting ArtReview ’s attitude toward the market this year: Le Figaro writes that “despite all good intentions, the key issue remains money,” since some stainless presences, such as Larry Gagosian’s or David Zwirner’s, have not failed (the two gallerists have been in the rankings more or less as long as the rankings have existed), but it is also true that mostly gallerists who espouse the causes that innervate the Power 100 have been rewarded, and that, on the other hand, there have been major demotions, such as that of the director of Art Basel, who lost some 40 places, despite attempts to keep the fair alive in a dramatic year for everyone. A drama, that of the pandemic, which moreover almost does not enter the Power 100: it is as if nothing has happened in the museum world.

If for Angelo Conti, a refined and forgotten critic, the critic is the artist’s conscience, the intrusiveness of a conscience bloated with respectability and forgetful of its role, which is to explain the mystery that animates the artist’s work by being the interpreter of its symbolic bearing, risks condemning art to complete irrelevance in a world where art and culture are already in increasing danger of being excluded from public debate, risks mortifying the product of an artist’s expression, risks alienating the public, risks marginalizing works by artists who may be great and original but whose art does not align with the dictate of those who write the lists. Of course, we all hasten to remind ourselves that the list is an expression of the thinking of an Anglo-Saxon area magazine and, like any such ranking, should not be regarded as something that is written in stone. Especially since the 2020 one appears to have been compiled on the emotional wave of a very particular and difficult year. We may underestimate the ranking itself: but can we say the same of the indications it underlies?

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