Art’s Progressive Politics: A New Public Sphere?

Donato Loia on David Joselit


he last forty years have seen a boom in academic studies. There are thousands of specialist books and articles on global contemporary art, divided by region and by particular practices, including monographic studies of individual artists. For all the insightful details, this has left behind a bewildering fragmentation of knowledge. David Joselit’s Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization is an attempt to put together some of these scattered pieces to create a comprehensive picture.

In his book, Joselit tries to provide an assessment of contemporary art’s role within globalization, and its possible capacity to reshape certain dynamics of globalization. Joselit asks: how do museums, individual artists and works of art act as agents of globalization?

His reading contends that “the arts have the capacity to act in advance of political institutions to explore global inequities,” and that “global contemporary art can make a genuine contribution to the dual projects of de-colonization and de-imperialization.” In other terms, there is a negative, harmful form of globalization, and a positive, transnational form, in which art can play a role in the formation of this global justice-oriented project. Joselit stresses the importance of a politicization of art in which the artist, as historian or researcher, excavates archives in order to narrate counter-histories and make counter-claims or to raise questions about the past and the present. In his concluding and most experimental chapter, the scholar sets the complicated task to rethink the politics of art for global times. Joselit posits that global inequities do not seem to be solved at a national scale and that transnational institutions are still underdeveloped. Thus, he argues that visual culture has the potential “to function as a transnational public sphere.” “Art’s progressive politics,” suggests the scholar, “must lie in the claims it makes for the power and validity of diverse and formerly marginalized ways of knowing. It is through such claims that contemporary art may engage in struggles for cognitive justice.” Citing the research of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Nancy Fraser, Ariella Azoulay, and Judith Butler, Joselit posits that the critical role for visual culture today is to make more evident the prejudices that create dehumanizing norms and restrict what is perceivable.

Now, Joselit supports the idea that global contemporary art can have an influence on the public sphere, but does not raise the question: what is the actual contribution that the works of global contemporary art make on behalf of citizens?

It seems to me that the elitism of certain contemporary art makes it a marginal phenomenon in the cultural life of the twenty-first century, and this issue is rarely addressed with the clarity and urgency that it deserves. This problem affects Joselit’s book too, which makes claims on contemporary art’s importance for the public sphere without ever raising the question of the impact that it has had in the last four decades there. Contemporary art’s presence in the public sphere is minimal. Some of the grand claims of this book are directed to an audience that simply does not exist. At best, Joselit’s reference to a public sphere should be limited to a transnational sphere of intellectuals that theorize about contemporary art within academic departments.

Considering the overall degree of fragmentation of knowledge, Joselit’s work is ambitious and, as inscrutable his writing style can be, it attempts something that is rare in the art historical panorama: to move beyond localities, and monographic studies. A discourse about contemporary art in general finds almost no place at all within the art historical discipline. Joselit’s work to transcend art history’s limits is part reconstruction and part contribution to what Fredric Jameson defined as “a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.” Joselit’s work seems to be going in a similar direction, supported by the desire to identify and define new criteria of comprehension and analyses of art across the global field. This project is truly valuable and important. Does Joselit succeed in such a grand enterprise? I have several doubts.


ver the last four decades (1980–2020), the geography of art history has expanded dramatically, making it impossible to justify any centrality of Western art (read Western Europe and the United States). Global contemporary art, too, has played a role in reshaping certain hierarchies in art history, moving it away from the centrality of Europe and the United States. A few tangible examples among many others are exhibitions such as the 1990 Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, which encouraged the entry of formerly marginalized artworlds into global circuits of exhibition and sale, or the rise of new museums worldwide often in competition for global visibility. Now, if the geography of art history expands and a certain history of Western art becomes merely one among others, how do we transform art history into what Joselit calls “art’s histories.” As important as this project is, it seems to me that while Joselit tries to defenestrate a certain kind of art history, he, nonetheless, allows it to keep returning through the back door by means of his distinctive mode of art writing, theory, and expectations. More specifically, Joselit’s reduction of contemporary art to a perennial responsibility “to question” a specific state of affairs is a cliché of contemporary art writing.

It seems that the only way to value contemporary art, for Joselit, is to identify a distinctive political message within the plurality of its creative expressions. It is true that, as Joselit makes clear, societies are never empty vessels, and he expresses a desire to widen the “art’s histories” in time and space to renounce the privileged position of “the West.” However, his rhetoric defeats his argument. His “art’s histories” is defeated by the language and style of a very specific mode of art writing. Joselit constantly questions the validity of Western modernism by saying that it created its own mythology based on ruptures and by prescribing the work of artists so that it marginalized a great amount of art not concerned with newness, originality, and so on. Art history, even when open to encounters with art outside the North Atlantic part of the world, has often been too caught up in the paradigm of Western modernism, which has constantly devalued tradition or heritage as a resource. Joselit is right in this analysis. However, Joselit himself is not shy in creating a prescriptive paradigm for the arts—this time for the whole realm of global art. The purpose of visual culture Joselit identifies seems to be one and only one: to seek justice. However, this seems to prove that, today, politics haunts global contemporary art at a time when it has become unclear what art serves. Joselit believes that art’s greatest capacity, in the twenty-first century, can be to train “spectators as citizens,” and to foster claims for “cognitive justice.” But I fear that similar statements, with their air of empty vagueness, tell us more about what is circulating within art writing, than anything substantial about art per se.

Joselit is onto something, though, and he recognizes an important political task and historical need for the life of a global culture: to construct a new public sphere. Indeed, there are challenges—environmental, cultural, political—that resonate and have consequences on a global scale. Yet if one would like to understand, in Joselit’s book, what should qualify a transnational public sphere inspired by global contemporary art, one would mostly find labels and expressions which are as politically correct as painfully vacuous. For instance, we are told that contemporary art may engage in struggles for “cognitive justice,” but it is far from self-evident what cognitive justice is. Joselit, directly or indirectly, is an advocate of progressive politics and of projects of “decolonization” and “deimperialization.” Yet the specifics of such projects are hard to define. Joselit’s use of similar terms are not grounded in historical or political analyses, as much as in the self-referential world of academic turbo-theory. Often one has the impression that this book is not about art in globalization, as much as about modes of theorizing contemporary art in globalization.

Finally, a new art history evoked by Joselit should also face the elephant in its disciplinary room: the term “art” itself.


hy, in the first place, do we use the same term, “art,” to talk about these diverse objects? Does it make any sense to use the same term, “art,” to refer to an Aboriginal Australian painting, a sculpture by Jeff Koons, and a poster of Chairman Mao? While Joselit spends much of his intellectual energies discussing the instability of “modern” and “traditional” as categories, he leaves completely untouched the category of art which, in art historical discourses, is the unstable category par excellence. A proper analysis of this problem is impossible in the space of this review. But it seems to me that we have inherited institutional structures—the museum, the academy, art biennials, art magazines, and so on—that are predicated on a more or less coherent field of art.

Yet, today, art seems to have an essence in general, without having any particular essence, as philosopher Arthur Danto already noticed a few decades ago. We know that art means something, but we do not know what it actually means. It is true that in his last chapter, Joselit adopts the term “visual culture,” perhaps as a way of pointing towards an abandonment of the category of art itself. But, if this is the case, why does this book study art in globalization, and why does it spend so much time on those institutions, like museums, that are devoted to the celebration, conservation, and museumification of a special class of objects? As much as the author would like to abandon art history, Joselit remains a scholar of the economically important, but often solipsistic field of art for museums, galleries, and biennials.

Donato Loia is a PhD Candidate in Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Texas at Austin, and the 2022-2023 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Blanton Museum of Art. His work has appeared in Religion and the Arts, Visual Studies, Critical Inquiry, Mise-en-Scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, among other places.