apexart :: Conference Program :: Greg Burke
Critical Economy: Reassessing Critical Contexts for Contemporary Art From a Base in the Pacific
Greg Burke

My paper for this apexart conference seeks to plot recent shifts in the interaction between contemporary art and criticism, and in particular the consequent impact of such shifts on the regional and global contexts for the production and reception of contemporary art. While my starting point is the situation in New Zealand, my observations extend well beyond its shores. I note that many of the speakers at past apexart conferences have focused on the specifics of their local art scenes. My expanded approach may in part reflect the fact that as a museum director and curator I work internationally. It may also be read as a strategic evasion of the dilemma that artists and commentators from outside the trans-Atlantic art centers have long faced: how to contextualize their practice internationally without being read as imitators on the one hand, or purveyors of a neo-exoticism on the other. It certainly does in part reflect the particular complexities of the New Zealand situation, given that, despite a resurgent indigenous Maori culture, the dominant historical legacy influencing the production of art and culture is European. Most importantly, my approach aims to acknowledge that while shifts in the critical contexts for contemporary art are regionally inflected they are not regionally specific, and that they are connected to the paradoxical forces of globalization which have rapidly integrated diverse cultural contexts previously positioned as peripheral, while simultaneously confirming the concentration of economic and cultural influence in the traditional centers of the West.

My starting point is a paper I delivered at the IKT conference in Rotterdam in 1992. Titled “Exchange Rate,” the paper addressed international debates surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of cultural difference in Western mainstream reviews of contemporary art. On reflection, and at a distance of 12 years, I realize that the paper responded to the aftermath of two seemingly unrelated events from 1984. The first was the exhibition “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe—respectively Director and Chief Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art—and, more importantly, the critical fallout from the exhibition led by Thomas McEvilley in the pages of Artforum. The second was the election of a government in New Zealand that rapidly set about floating our currency and deregulating the economy, going further in this respect than Reagan or Thatcher, and thereby becoming a model for monetarist governments around the world and fuelling the ensuing global wave of deregulation that unleashed the forces of globalization as we know them today.

If McEvilley’s critique focused on what he saw as the Eurocentrism of the “Primitivism” exhibition, it did so by advocating the introduction of comparative contexts into art’s critical discourses, and in the case of the “Primitivism” show, the need to measure the discourses of modernism against those of critical anthropology. In short, McEvilley let a post-modern cat among the modern pigeons, and for the rest of the 1980s debates surrounding pluralism gained in heat, perhaps culminating in the critical response to Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in 1989, which sought for the first time to present Western and non-Western art on equal terms, and was supported with a catalog that included an essay by McEvilley. But Martin’s biggest mistake, it seems, was to choose bad examples of non-Western art, which led his critics to declare that the exhibition confirmed that modern art was the preserve of the West.

Of course McEvilley and Martin were not alone in introducing comparative contexts into art critical discourses. The momentum had been building for some time. An influential precursor was the critical journal Art & Text, which began publication in Australia in 1981. Prior to that, art journals in both Australia and New Zealand like Art & Australia and Art New Zealand had aimed to chronicle a local art history which had emerged within a colonialist context. Art & Text was blatant in its international and theoretical embrace. Not only did it publish major art critics like Rosalind Krauss, it also published leading anthropological and cultural theorists of the day, including Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. It notably published Jean Baudrillard for the first time in English; in 1983 his essay “The Precession of Simulacra” proved to be seminal in ensuing international debates surrounding post-modernism. From issue one, Art & Text also acknowledged a link between conceptual art and the introduction of cultural theory into art-critical discourses, as with the publication of an essay by the Australian conceptual artist Ian Burn. Critics like Benjamin Buchloh have noted that criticism was a target of conceptual art, given its concerns with the structure of meaning. However, such concerns could be aligned with the interests of cultural theorists who, in their revision of modernism, drew on comparative contexts to examine meaning as an effect, predetermined and constructed through the frequently covert processes of culture.

By the time of the 1992 IKT conference, European debates over inclusion or exclusion were running strong, with many arguing for the impossibility of presenting Western and non-Western art on equal terms, on the basis that even non-Western modern art was an appropriation or variant of a European source and therefore lacked the extensive philosophical heritage that underpinned European modernism. My paper sought to complicate the inclusion/exclusion dialectic by suggesting on the one hand that cultural appropriation was a two-way process and on the other that the meanings and values accorded such transactions were entirely culturally contingent. I argued, for example, that as a result of the trade in Maori artifacts, Maori cultural information was read or misread and imaginatively translated for the purposes of the European colonizers, thereby opening up the horizon of culture in a way that European artifacts could not, thus contributing to the development of the transgressive art practices that are so much a part of modernism.

In addition to acknowledging an anthropological context in the subtleties of cultural transaction, my paper also introduced an economic one. The paper implicitly compared transactions in the field of art and culture to the power-relations manifest in currency markets that rely, and even trade on, the inequalities of and fluctuations in exchange rates. Here the increasing fluidity of economic relativities brought on by global deregulation has not necessarily reduced the hegemony of the center, at least not in economic terms. The paper suggested that, like the currency markets, contemporary art’s values were not fixed, but operated within syntactical boundaries—national, cultural, aesthetic and economic—that accord with its values. On reflection, I omitted overt mention of the syntactical interaction between criticism and the market forces that establish the historical, cultural and intellectual significance of contemporary art, and it is this aspect which now interests me in light of developments since 1992.

There can be little question that throughout the 1980s and 90s we saw a significant expansion in the production of contemporary art and of the agencies that legitimate it, including the commercial markets for contemporary art, academic institutions, museums dedicated to contemporary art, biennials, art foundations and art magazines. In addition, contemporary art’s geographical, political, economic and cultural boundaries have expanded to incorporate a greater diversity of sub-cultures and non-Western artistic practices, and the emerging discourses of post-modernism undoubtedly helped legitimate the expansion. Take Japan, for example: during the 80s it became the focus for a number of museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe surveying the situation of contemporary art there. Prior to that, any attention to contemporary Japanese art in the U.S. and Europe was given primarily to artists making their careers outside Japan, such as Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono. The new interest in Japan may have been influenced by factors such as its bubble economy and the fact that it was a modernized and democratized state, but at least part of the rhetoric around this new interest was the notion that Japan epitomized a post-modern situation. However, market imperatives loomed large in the subsequent U.S. and European interest in the art scenes of Eastern Bloc countries, symbolized by Sotheby’s move into Russia just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A similar story is currently being played out with the current interest in China, where economic interests are not the exclusive domain of galleries and auction houses, as evidenced by the Guggenheim’s stated interest in a Chinese satellite.

If I am charting here at least a temporal link between the emergence of pluralistic tendencies within mainstream discourses for contemporary art and the economic forces that have recently propelled globalization, it is not to simply suggest that one is an effect of the other. The interaction is increasingly complex, as recent history in Australia and New Zealand reveals. For the contemporary art scene there, an interest in increased connectivity with other scenes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond predates the emergence of post-modernist debates, going back at least to the late 60s. By 1992 the Australian journal Art & Text had extended its international influence and was covering activity in New Zealand, while New Zealand had launched its own issue-based critical journal Midwest. In 1993 the Asia-Pacific Triennial, focusing specifically on contemporary art from the region, was launched and was followed in 1994 with the launch of the critical journal Art AsiaPacific, which provided a further platform for the burgeoning of art criticism in the region. Around 1994 Artforum began publishing intermittent reviews from New Zealand. Also in 1994 New Zealand launched its own recurrent international event Under Capricorn, which specifically aimed not to fit within the standard biennial exhibition format, but rather to bi-annually choose the appropriate vehicle to fit its aims. Significantly the inaugural event was a critics’ conference with the theme “Is Art a European Idea?” Of note was the presence of McEvilley among the keynote presenters. 1994, it seems, was a high point for art criticism in New Zealand.

The subsequent irony is that such critical debates were co-opted in a homogenized form to support the disestablishment of the New Zealand National Art Gallery in favor of a new relativist national museum Te Papa, which opened in 1998, a bi-cultural museum that brought together collections across a wide range of disciplines to tell stories of place.(1) Rather than being embraced, however, art criticism was metaphorically dispatched to the gulag. The national art collection in particular was treated as a palimpsest, its supporting texts rewritten to corroborate the motives of an officialized culture industry, with Te Papa as its flagship.

The expediency of such an approach is no better demonstrated than by the fact that Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser, two of New Zealand’s most internationally exhibited contemporary artists, were actively courted by Te Papa for inclusion in identity-based exhibitions, despite the fact that by 1998, they were clearly probing and challenging their identification as contemporary Maori artists. Their recalcitrance was not only a response to the corporate approach of Te Papa. It was as much a response to the increasing institutionalization of multicultural discourses via international exhibition and publication platforms, such as ethnically or regionally focused exhibitions, biennials and magazines. Both are now resisting such opportunities. Fraser for example recently turned down the opportunity to be included in the exhibition Paradise Now at the Asia Society in New York, an exhibition mainly focused on Polynesian artists, most of whom live and work in New Zealand, and the first museum show of any moment in New York to include New Zealand contemporary artists in numbers. Let’s be clear: contemporary artists from New Zealand are marginalized if only by dint of sheer geographic distance from world centers. Consequently, many artists, Maori or otherwise, are particularly attuned to the politics of marginalization. For Robinson and Fraser this means being careful to not be locked into a multicultural sub-category in terms of the reception of their work.(2)

That regionally and ethnically defined platforms for contemporary art now have global market traction has been reinforced by the recent move of the Art AsiaPacific magazine to New York City. What was once bound by geographic specificity now seemingly rides the slipstream of global migration and diaspora. The jury is out as to whether such developments are driven by an intellectual conviction of the validity of including alternative artistic practices within the discourses of modern and contemporary art, or whether they are symptomatic of a prevailing tendency toward a compartmentalization that suits the categorizing tendencies of the global art market. Whatever the case, the region defined geographically as Australia and New Zealand is currently experiencing a decline in opportunities for the publication of criticism. New Zealand’s one journal of contemporary art criticism stopped publishing in the late 1990s, while the Australian-born Art & Text moved off-shore to Los Angeles around 2000. The magazine, now artUS, continued to cover Australian and New Zealand art, but on a much reduced basis and by adopting the quota model used by Artforum. Like Artforum the magazine also adopted a policy of only reviewing shows by local artists, excluding the possibility of reviews of, say, European or American artists who may have realized major projects in New Zealand, a form of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, and an indicator that moves to include alternative discourses are not necessarily neutral.(3)

The decline of criticism in New Zealand seems not to have had a negative effect on the market, however, ever vigorous with prices comparable to the U.S., often for work that would otherwise struggle to achieve serious critical attention. Instead we have seen an increase in art-investment reports and artist-lifestyle journalism, while work worthy of critical attention is often denied a platform. Although the New Zealand situation has its own particularities, a number of critics in other parts of the world are also lamenting the withering influence of criticism. Rosalind Krauss has noted the diminishing value that both artist and dealer have placed on the role of criticism in the last decade and has further commented: “This sense that there is a kind of discursive space within which the artist has to be placed in order for a work to take on a certain kind of importance has more or less vanished in established magazines as well.”(4) So in the major magazines, opportunities for extended critical essays are increasingly being given over to the notion of previews and top-ten journalism while the advent of the Frieze Art Fair is surely an example of the increasing interdependency of art magazines and the commercial market.

Other critics such as Benjamin Buchloh see museums and academia as implicated in the diminishing of the critical dimension in favor of institutional and economic interests. The judgment of the critic he says “is voided by the curator’s organizational access to the apparatus of the culture industry” citing biennials and group shows as an example.(5) Buchloh acknowledges that he exaggerated to make his point, and here we must be careful not to oversimplify the situation. It may well be that the critical impulse has just gone under cover. Take the recent upsurge in biennials. It is tempting to interpret this trend simplistically as an example of contemporary art being co-opted by the culture industry to serve the imperatives of globalization. Certainly we can find evidence to support this view. It is hard to imagine the Queensland Government financially supporting the Asia/Pacific Triennial to the extent it does if it did not coincide with their trade agendas with Asia. However a rhetoric that suggests an increasing homogenization and delocalization of biennials is not supported by closer inspection. As Okwui Enwezor has pointed out, there have been many divergent imperatives involved in the founding of biennials.(6) To be sure, some, like those in São Paulo and Sydney, were established by Italian immigrants with Venice in mind, to act as beacons to the world, signaling the progress and post-colonial modernity of those places. Even so, from the very first Sydney Biennale in 1973, European modernism has had to coexist with Pacific, Asian and South American modernisms. Enwezor has also pointed out the founding of a number of these events has been informed by historically traumatic events; Documenta following the Second World War and the Johannesburg Biennale following the end of apartheid are two such examples. Then there are the biennials, like the Asia/Pacific Triennale and Gwangju Biennale, founded in part to reflect regional discourses not solely predicated on European influences.

There is also Manifesta, which, with its restricted European focus, could be read as a desire to reverse attempts to open up contemporary art to alternative cultural histories and a European desire to reclaim the mantle of the avant-garde. Yet its stated aim is to engage both with critical practice and the pluralism of contemporary art. And it is telling that the emergence of Manifesta followed Documenta IX, an exhibition that avoided the political and cultural issues of the day and seemed to privilege its financial and popular success over critical engagement. That Katalyn Neray of Hungary was its first director also signaled the ongoing
willingness on the part of Manifesta to engage alternative histories within Europe’s newly expanded borders. In effect, Manifesta inserted regions and ethnicities into the discourses of European modernism and their aftermath. It is a move that has some parallel at least with the transformation of Art & Text into artUS, a magazine that consciously embraces art in the U.S. in terms of discourses of regionalism rather than centrism, while aiming to provide an antidote to the diminishing influence of criticism. For the editors, artUS is not a form of patriotism, but rather an opportunity for self-critical reflection on the fact that forms of globalization are “belief systems or aspirations that are highly ‘interested’ and one-way.”(7) The irony here, of course, is that the magazine has its roots in Australia.

There can be little doubt that it is increasingly difficult for critical voices to remain institutionally and commercially independent in the face of the increasing primacy of institutional and economic interests. What I have attempted to map here, though, are the subtle, unpredicted and sometimes hidden effects of this increased instability in the boundaries between critical discourses and national, cultural, aesthetic, institutional and economic imperatives. Such instability mirrors aspects of globalization, and the risk is that critical platforms that once challenged the exclusivity of modernism are now providing a liberal face to a totalizing system founded on hegemonic and ideological impulses. Nevertheless, within this context, resistant discourses continue to be pursued, albeit in new formations. In order to avoid being co-opted by other agendas, such formations may need to be more nomadic and assume limited life-spans.


1. Since 1990 New Zealand is officially a bi-cultural nation acknowledging an 1840 treaty between the indigenous Maori and the British Crown. In practical terms bi-cultural is interpreted as Maori and all other non-Maori migrant cultures.
2. Wystan Curnow noted, in his paper for the 1999 apexart conference titled “Writing History on the Margins: New Zealand”: “No Documenta director has ever visited New Zealand, no New Zealander has ever exhibited either at Documenta or the Venice Biennale.” The 2002 Documenta was notable for its significant inclusion of artists from Asia and Africa, not surprising given that its director was Okwui Enwezor, a critic and curator involved in the engagement of alternative discourses that extend traditional discourses of modernism. Despite this, Enwezor spent a total of three days researching in Australia and none in New Zealand, and no New Zealand artist was included in his Documenta. In 2001 New Zealand was represented for the first time in Venice with the exhibition Bi-Polar, featuring the artists Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson. The title in part alluded to the risks of ethnically defining, and thereby closing down, the interpretation of the artists’ work, risks exaggerated by the context of the Venice Biennale, which remains structured around nationalisms.
3. My intention here is not to critique these magazines in particular but to indicate contradictions that exist in the current critical economy legitimizing contemporary art. Very recently Artforum began to relax the policy.
4. Rosalind Krauss in “Round Table: the Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October 100, Spring 2002, p. 202.
5. Benjamin Buchloh in “Round Table: the Present Conditions of Art Criticism,” October 100, Spring 2002, p 202.
6. Okwui Enwezor, “Mega-Exhibitions and the antinomies of a transnational global form,” Manifesta Journal (Moderna Galerija Ljubljana and International Foundation Manifesta), no. 2, winter 2003/Spring 2004, pp. 6-31.
7. The editors, artUS inaugural issue, The Foundation for International Art Criticism, Nov.-Dec. 2003.


A native of New Zealand, Gregory Burke is currently the Director of The Power Plant, Toronto. At the time of the apexart conference Burke was the Director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand’s only collection based contemporary art museum. In 1999 Burke organized Curating Now, an international conference held at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery; he has also been instrumental in arranging opportunities and residencies for New Zealanders in Berlin, New York and Sydney. In 2001 Burke curated New Zealand’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale and was the New Zealand Commissioner in 2005. He has also worked as an artist, curator, and in development and policy advisement.