Globalization and Art in the Twentieth Century

Paula Barreiro López

In recent years the experience of globalization, and in particular its painful consequences in terms of the worldwide extension of markets, has become ever more dominant in our lives. But the roots of ‘globalization’ go much deeper than the economically determining events that have unfolded since 2008, and do not necessarily just have the negative connotations of the bitter aftertaste left by deepening global recession.

These roots can be traced back through a long history of global exchange and increasing social mobility, which relates to the economic and political, as well as the cultural, fields.1 In the latter domain, these developments found a variety of expressions and shaped distinct critical and artistic movements in the twentieth century.

The wide and integrative scope of the term ‘global’ can be useful for showing the binary continuities and discontinuities, asymmetries and symmetries that have manifested themselves in the complex construction and creation of art and culture around the world during the last century. At the same time, such a perspective forces us to consider other terms that remain in direct opposition with the notion of globalization as international, cosmopolitan, universal, imperialism or distinct forms of it, such as Americanization. By applying these differentiating parameters to new interpretation(s) of our past, transnational patterns which are key characteristics of today’s global experiences – such as circulations, exchanges and networks – come to the surface. Such a perspective challenges the hegemonic Euro-North American focus still dominating art historical analysis of the twentieth century and calls for its revision and adjustment.

Demonstration against the increasing number of evictions caused by thefinancial crisis in Spain, Madrid,16 February 2013, photo: courtesy the author


 It is well-known that (constructed) hegemonic Western discourses distorted (and silenced) practices, narratives and interactions. As has been argued elsewhere, such accounts offer limited comprehension of the aims, motivations and directions of artistic and critical movements in many places. Where the twentieth century is concerned, the narratives about art pushed to the margins of such historiographical accounts – which are to a large extent the result of colonial aspirations and the Cold War’s Kulturkampf  – relate not just to the ‘other Americas’ or the ‘Easts’ and the South, but to the ‘West’ itself.

I do not claim to be saying anything new when I point out that hegemonic Eurocentrism and Westernization are terms that reflect conceptions of a ‘West’ that is much more limited than the geographical term actually indicates. That refers to powerful discourses constructed and directed by the academies, institutions and corporations of specific countries (for example USA, France, Germany, UK) that conform to and export bodies of knowledge, which then reverberate in the other less prominent ‘Wests’. By taking a global approach, these neglected players are not just encompassed but gain importance as entities in a web of cultural practices that owes its strength to the circulation and exchange of thoughts and ideas.

To think ‘global’ can be revealing as a means of discovering and exploring a more dynamic (and, I would dare to say, more accurate) vision of the artistic and critical practices of the twentieth century. ‘Global’ and ‘globalizing’ processes shaped art and criticism during that time, influencing cultural actors and, to a great extent, driving the development of modern art.

Title page of the journal Opus International, no 4, December 1967,private collection

If we consider the Cold War period addressed by several contributions to Global Occupations of Art, the special issue of Third Text published in collaboration with Winchester School of Art,2 it becomes clear that despite imperialist obsessions within the two ideological camps – operating on a battlefield that extended as far as the Moon – the ‘experience of the global’ expressed in Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’  shaped long-term exchanges in the cultural field.3They were fostered by specific agents (artists, critics, curators) and institutions (museums, galleries, cultural agencies), leading to the creation of new competing art centres within the proliferation of biennials and worldwide exhibitions. They shaped a new physiognomy of the international art world that cannot be understood by simply considering the static contrapositions of two superpowers at war. Furthermore, the imperial forces involved in the American cultural battle for the world’s colonization provided an ideological cause against which artists and critics positioned themselves in the late 1960s, looking towards other regions (Cuba, China, Latin-America), while also rejecting the hegemonic ‘left-wing’ authority of the Soviet Union.

The monolithic view of East-West relations, as well as the still predominant accounts of the transfer of the avant-garde from Paris to New York, is challenged when the focus is widened to take in more complex and dialectic relations between art, society, means of production, politics, institutions and countries. Westernization and Eurocentrism were, and still are, claims against which multiple artists, critics and intellectuals position themselves in order to find other narratives. This special issue proves the increasing existence of a multiplicity of views, ruptures, regions and comprehensions that art historians and art critics are trying to take in account. Nevertheless, we should be fully aware that such perspectives are inevitably challenged by the power of a discursive imperialism which it is difficult to counter.4 Hegemonic accounts within art history – even those trying openly to participate in the global turn – demonstrate the difficulty of getting out of the Western shadow of ‘global thinking’.

Image - plate_3.jpg

Mural Cuba Colectiva, executed in July 1967 by various artists during the ‘Salón de Mayo’ in Havana, collection: Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana

The questions set out here do not call for simple answers and are shaping an ongoing debate: What can we expect from a global perspective? What methodological approach could depict a global perspective? It seems that focusing on specific characteristics regarded as belonging to the global experience of the world (cultural and artistic networks, processes of transfer and the circulation of aesthetic, ideological and political concepts within the artistic world) can provide a more dynamic historical perspective. But how can we integrate the local, the regional, the national and the obsessively international in such accounts as well? What can we do about the cosmopolitan claims that have appeared with postcolonial readings? Will the ‘global’ bring more clarity to the analysis of critical and artistic practices? The answers to such questions and challenges are still provisional, but are already being formulated.

1     Jonathan Harris, ed, Globalisation and Contemporary Art, Blackwell, New York, 2011

2     Third Text 123, vol 27, no 4, July 2013, Global Occupations of Art, special issue guest edited by Jonathan Harris

3     Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1962

4     James Elkins, ed, Is Art History Global?, Routledge, New York, London, 2007


Paula Barreiro López is an art historian working at the Instituto de Historia at CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), Madrid. Her research focuses on artistic and critical practices during the Franco regime and intellectual networks in Europe during the Cold War. Her latest book, La abstracción geométrica en España 1957–1969 (Geometric Abstraction in Spain 1957–1969), 2009, is the first study of geometrical abstraction in Spain within an international context.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s