Venice Biennale: Overblown Spectacle, Shallow Content

The 54th edition of the Venice Biennale opened this month and remains on view through late fall. The core of the show is the Giardini park where 29 national pavilions present official exhibitions sent from Europe and the Americas, with a few from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, relative latecomers to the international art circuit. Nations lacking permanent pavilions get space in the nearby Arsenale or around town. A record 89 nations are participating this year, up from 77 in 2009.
Installation at U.S. Pavilion of 54th Venice Biennale
Allora and Calzadilla’s “Gloria,” an inverted tank with a runner on a treadmill on top.

Like so much of the art world, this year’s Venice Biennale is an example of the overblown spectacles, predictable politics and perverse performances that characterize cultural gatherings around the globe.

It seems artists no longer believe a canvas or a sculpture can make a sufficiently loud statement in a biennale. Instead they go for the grand gesture, creating massive theatrical environments whose scale and ambition cannot mask shallow content. New Yorker magazine critic Peter Schjeldahl dubs the phenomenon “festivalism.”

Click here or on an image to read my review in The Washington Post.

Here’s the scene in front of the U.S. pavilion: A sand-colored Army tank is flipped upside down with its turret on the ground. On top of its elevated undercarriage is a treadmill with an athlete dressed in red, white and blue and running in place, his action seeming to power the tank treads that roll with an ear-splitting clatter.

The contraption — conceived by the artist couple Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla — constitutes an unsubtle critique of American values.

Allora and Calzailla piece in U.S. pavilion.
In the U.S. pavilion, the “Freedom” sculpture from the Capitol dome lies in a sun-tanning bed.

The theme continues inside the Jeffersonian-style pavilion where a scale model of the “Freedom” sculpture from the Capitol dome lies in a sun-tanning bed, an ATM rigged with a pipe organ plays heavenly chords when visitors withdraw euros, and gymnasts perform muscular routines on painted-wooden replicas of business-class airline seats.

Gymnast performs on sculptures of luxury airline seats in U.S. pavilion.
Gymnast performs on sculptures of luxury airline seats in U.S. pavilion. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman)

Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which commissioned the works, told me the exhibit is “an unabashed celebration of American commercial power around the world . . . richly dipped in irony.”

“Gloria,” as the conceptual installation is titled, may take issue with America’s devotion to militarism and mammon, but it also betokens our government’s respect for the First Amendment. How else to explain the State Department’s approval of an exhibit that satirizes ugly Americanism? (The selection was recommended by art professionals convened by the National Endowment for the Arts.) And if the overturned tank is “festivalism” writ large, it’s not alone at this year’s biennale.

I will have more on this year’s biennale in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile, click here or on an image to read my complete review in The Washington Post.

Jason Edward Kaufman



9 Responses

  1. But why exactly is it art? I know the Biennale has never really presented true creative art except when it had to, in the 50s when all its favorites were discredited by WWII and the early modern masters were belatedly honored. But it is and always has been about amusing the effette, entertainments for the absurdly wealthy who are hollow and lack sensitivity to the real world and the human essence. Before it was presenting a false world of pseudo classical nature that elevated teh vieweres into a “higher” plane than the rest of humanity. But you know what Hemingway said about the rich to poor delusional Fitzgerald.

    Now it is contempt games and therapy, aburdist entertainments to sperate them from humanity while wearing imperial clothing, to pretend to be superior in thought and understanding, while truly thumbing their upturned noses at the world and off to decadent partys. It is not for US, but them. As all academic art is and always ahs been. Fine art appeases their sense of aloofness and hem a desire for control which they truly do not have. It is illusion, all drived from their sociopathic god Duchamp, who truly jsut laughed at THEM and took their money, and back to his games in solitude. Even in the 60s Picasso said that all they were tdoing, retreading Duchamp retreads, but they dont want to hear that. It would spoil a good party.

    As long as the word art has no meaning, and recognizing it is a limited word adn truly has many purposes, and when we start to define what they are and that form follows purpose, then we can have true creative art again, though it will never be accepted by the wealthy except in the few casses that prove the rule, always has been tht way. When one is a slave to immage, this is what happens. And that is all these folks are, self image while the world shrugs and goes it own way, though we do still desire art that fulfills its role in human culture, one abandoned by the Academic/museo/gallery complex in search of career and wealthy when truly being but jesters and sycophants.

    Thre is no “debate” in the art world about meaning, purpose, adn what art truly is. taht would take commitment, responsibility and sacrifice, unknown qualities in the contempt artscen of today which is really but the society page. It has nothing to do wiht creative art. When we start dealing with the essentials instead if irrelevant concepts, art will be shown and created. It only come in large spurts when human culture fundamentally changes, our view of ourselves in the universe, and the universe itself, and so what we call god. Purpose. And seeking meaning in life, not its avoidance, which this is a celebrtion of. False “creativity” is grossly overrate, truth is what matters. Braque and Picasso never claimed to being seeking the new, to trivialize art as amusement, but seeking what IS while building on what came before.

    art collegia delenda est

  2. Donald F…I could not agree with you more. The art world is but a reflection of the pain, misery + suffering that is happening on a global scale. A house of mirrors, dressed as entertainment. Thanx for your candid remarks.

  3. Donald F: What are you talking about? There is always debate (or “debate”, as you put it) about what art is. Every artist goes through it, every gallery and museum wrestles with their understanding. To be an artist is to be in conversation – which includes debate – with the difficulties in coming to an understanding of just what art is. This is not even limited to artists. To look at a work of art is to enter into that discussion. Forget the art market; that’s just a playground for the rich, and a few artists who get to take advantage of it, or are taken advantage by it. Art is a constant search for meaning.
    As to “…the absurdly wealthy who are hollow and lack sensitivity to the real world and the human essence” I am sure there are some wealthy people who fit that definition exactly, but there are also many who do not. You oversimplify. Since you do not define “the real world and the human essence” I cannot comment on those. Ask artists if they are expressing those things, and I think many will say yes, but I doubt you will agree with them. So, does that make them wrong, or you, or neither?

  4. Therapy is not art, and there is no dialogue with a work of art. It is a triggering mechanism, one built to evoke passions and knowledge of things unknown. The artist explores within the work, starting FROM a motif, concepts and ideas, then evolved in contact with life. There must be a guiding passion, for knowledge meaning and purpose to keep on course, yet evolve and layer with all the infinite life beyound us and our understanding. Todays artiste thnk she undestands all is above live and what we call god, whne he is but a feeble, fat filled cranium organic being of misfiring synapses and pulsating hormones. He has no humility, and so is hollow. He knows nothing yet claims knowledge. An artist like Braque, loses hmself, knows he is but little, yet more because he is part of the infinte. True art is poetic and musical, decadent art alway prosaic, and now psychobabble.

    What the artschools claim is “dialogue” is meaningless, self absorbed, toys to enterain the effette. Very little asking good questions, because artists know so little of the world, only what their pavlovian training has limited them into believing, yet claim to present answers in thier limited illustations of adolescent “concepts”.

    We are small and limited with death soon to take us, and so must work towards WE, for the individual has no meaning except in how he particpates in life. Not society, for art is now but society pages, but defining who WE are, exploring nature, and searching for God. Mind, body and soul for as cezanne said artists are priests and the daycare centers of art academia are but shallow careerist hedonists. Ignorant of philsophy, science, and theology, what man is, where he is, and what he strives for. As Gaguin painted,
    Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

    The Venice Bienalle and all academic showings is
    What can I get? How much can I get? Who can I have?
    It is souless, and truly but masked barbarism, while Gauguins is the evolving nature of man. A seemingly barbaric world of nature amnd living wiht it in harmony, and seeking higher purpose.

    Save the colorful and spiritual Watts towers(Nuestro Pueblo, OUR town) tear down the drab and souless Ivories.

  5. Read Donal Kuspit’s survey of 20th Century Art ( not the exact title) where is assessed that the last half of the 20th century art failed largely due to ready-mades “bastardized” by practitioners which led to the loss of fine arts and skill became a thing of the past. The 21st Century, however, seems to return the skill back by the young generation of artists even as the opportunists continue to degrade it.

    1. Teresa, the notion that the readymade and the ensuing adoption of Conceptual approaches precipitated the loss of traditional “skill” is well worn, not Donald Kuspit’s alone. But I am interested in your belief that traditional skill is on the upswing. Could you mention a few examples? The reason I ask is that we’ve witnessed neo after neo movement, reviving Expressionism, Pop, Realism, and of course Minimalism and Conceptualism, of late, but many would say that photography and new media are supplanting traditional modes of painting and sculpture as the current means of self-expression. Old notions of skill seem to be falling away, their pracitioners increasingly unusual artifacts of a bygone era. I feel they are all means rather than ends – they can be used to make significant art, just as the old methods could be, though our fascination with novelty lowers the bar, and few critics can see far enough – back as well as forward – to distinguish the great from the meretricious or routine.

  6. In part, true. Lots of journalists have been saying the the “off” expos of the Biennale, and private expos are more exciting. I found the Biennale has too many negative and hard, brash exhibits. Lots of people, including art students, were saying “Where is the beauty in the art?” I agree with the desire for that aspect in art. See my sculpture in ‘L’Apparence de l’Art” in Venice at Zattere 51, thro’24

  7. It is a SAD state of affairs and the irony about the “unabashed American commercial power” is that the American economy is dead and the country is looking more like a Banana Republic every day. This is truly BAD art. If it is a statement about war, then it did not go over. These shows have become meaningless, and who cares anyway? Art has always been the last thing on the minds of the American public.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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