drucken Bookmark and Share

by Christian Morgner

Inclusion and Exclusion in the Art World: A Sociological Account of Biennial Artists and Audiences

The issue of participation is an important feature of democracy and is often debated in the context of biennials in terms of who takes part and who does not. This paper focuses on how participating artists, often described as ‘biennale artists’, are framed in the ongoing debate around a homogenizing biennial culture. It also addresses the nature of biennial audiences, which is largely overlooked in current debate and research in this area. Adopting a sociological perspective, the paper explores the wider structural patterns that regulate inclusion and exclusion in the art world.

Democracy and Biennials
The notion of democracy is often associated with biennials and can be seen to inform a foundation myth. Perhaps the most well-known case is the Gwangju Biennale, which has its origins in the Gwangju Democratization Movement, a people’s uprising against the military dictatorship in 1980. Through the medium of the visual arts, the values of democracy, human rights, and peace associated with this movement led to the foundation of the Gwangju Biennale. Similarly, the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition) in Dresden in 1946 was established in the aftermath of WWII as a perennial exhibition every three to four years. As well as its emphasis on concepts of freedom and peace, the exhibition sought to rehabilitate artists that the Nazi regime had excluded and dismissed as ‘degenerate.’

Just as WWII prompted some European nation states to reconsider issues of inclusion and exclusion in the art world, Brazil’s cultural and economic aspirations were expressed in part through a postwar commitment to artistic endeavors. The foundation of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo in 1948 was followed by the foundation of the Bienal de São Paulo in 1951. In the opening pages of the catalogue,[1] its first artistic director Lourival Gomes Machado wrote that the biennial aimed “to put modern art of Brazil not simply in proximity but in living contact with the art of the rest of the world” and São Paulo “to conquer the position of an international artistic center.” The phrase “living contact” expresses the vision of a humanistic relationship, having a voice and being listened to, connoting the exchanges of opinions, perspectives and arguments typically associated with democratic values. That statement also refers to “conquering”; adopting a less military tone, other newly founded biennials sought to overcome their country’s peripheral status and to generate more international attention, and the dual proposition of contact and attention has underpinned biennials’ further development. For instance, the second Havana Biennial in 1986 stressed its relationship with artists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

A recurring feature of biennials is debate about democracy itself. One might think of Joseph Beuys’s Boxkampf für direkte Demokratie [Boxing Match for Direct Democracy], performed at documenta 5 in 1972, or the recent foundation of a Biennale Democrazia [Biennial of Democracy]. By bringing together controversial works of art and organizing challenging panel discussions, the biennial serves as a platform for democratic debate. These events often take on a more activist form, especially in countries with more restrictive political systems, where the biennial invites alternative modes of thinking or expression.[2]

Biennial Culture and Diversity
In light of the close relationship between ideas of democracy and the emergence of biennials, it is perhaps unsurprising that the biennial itself has come under the scrutiny in terms of how artists are selected. Of particular concern over the years is the view that biennials have given rise to the so-called “biennale artist.”[3] If biennials were seen to favor artists of a certain kind, promoted by a small elite of nomadic curators worldwide, the fear was that a homogenized “biennial culture”[4] would take over. By eradicating diversity, the biennial would become a “hegemonic machine,”[5] replicating the same assumptions and so endangering democracy.

In this regard, there are two common concerns. The first is that biennials repeatedly show the same artists.

Table 1. Repeated inclusion of the same artists

“There have been frequent repeats of the same artists.”[6]

“Biennials tend to mirror each other in terms of intent and in recycling same artists.”[7]

“Go to any biennial and you find exactly the same artists.”[8]


figure 1: Frequency of repetition at four key biennials (Source: exhibition catalogues)[9]

The statistical data do not support the supposed emergence of a “biennale artist” or the proposition that the same artists dominate biennials across the world; in fact, all of the key biennials discussed here are characterized by very low frequency of artist repetition. Instead, biennials seem generally to promote rich diversity and a culture of newness. As part of that radical diversity, biennials are not generally subject to the hierarchical structure typically associated with the visual art market, where a small number of artists garner huge rewards while an overwhelming majority are unable to make a living from their artistic practice.[10] In short, biennials embody a flatter ordering of the art world.

A second major concern is that a majority of the artists who appear at biennials are of Western or North American origin.

Table 2: Predominantly Western or North American artists

“Sometimes when I wander around the big contemporary art fairs or biennales I have the feeling that I could be anywhere: I see work by the same limited group of mostly western artists, and I would find it very hard to guess where they came from if I didn’t already know the answer.”[11]

“…international artists, mostly from the Europe/USA nexus, thus giving it an apparent “international” validation.”[12]

“The Venice Biennale released the rather epic list […] of artists who will participated in curator Massimiliano Gioni's exhibition The Encyclopedic Palace, which is slated to run from June 1 through November 24 and, despite its title, is dominated by the same American and European artists you'll encounter at most major international shows of contemporary art.”[13]

figure 2: Countries represented at four key biennials (Source: exhibition catalogues)

The supposed dominance of the European-North American complex would be seen as threat, representing a powerful and even imperialist set of values and norms that dictate the rules of the art world as a whole. This kind of hegemonic order would present a threat to the relationship between democracy and biennials outlined above. However, the empirical evidence paints a different picture. Rather than the dominance of any privileged region across biennials, each region dominates its own locale. However, this absence of any exclusive or universally favored status is not necessarily without consequences. In the context of theories of democracy, one can imagine the biennials sector facing challenges in formulating a distinct position. In healthy democracies, for instance, political elites represent certain points of view and must play a role in integrating diverse political opinion. Additionally, democracies are characterized by the possibility of change in terms of ruling party and opposition.

In a field of almost unlimited choices, it becomes difficult to make any such choice. This has implications not only for present choices and social elites but also for recollection. What does the biennial leave behind? What is to be memorialized, and what is the narrative in relation to that past? Perhaps it is because of this radical variety that many art professionals, critics and curators still claim that biennials are somewhat alike. However, as the evidence shows, this is not because biennials show the same artists but because radical heterogeneity means that exclusive or distinct positions are more difficult to formulate.

Biennials as Public Assemblies
Does this mean, then, that biennials undermine art world standards, making democratic processes more challenging? The data offer conflicting answers. On the one hand, the evidence suggests that biennials strengthen regional cultural identity at their core while also increasing diversity in surrounding regions and often internationally. This paradox clearly invites further research to assess the implications for the biennial’s democratic ethos. A growing body of literature regarding similar types of events, including fairs, world cups, fashion weeks and music festivals can be clearly divided into two streams.[14] The first addresses the outward effects of such events—for example, tourism, city branding, global reception, media coverage, and urban development. The second stream focuses more on internal aspects such as rituals, negotiations, business transactions, cognitive involvement, orientation patterns, and information-seeking strategies. The present paper offers some tentative answers from a social science perspective, discussing the data in relation to both inward and outward aspects. In practice, the inward/outward distinction cannot be sustained because both work in unison to provide mutual stability. In general, diversity and fluidity represent an inward/outward view while local/global orientations are largely products of an outward/inward perspective.

In this context, Judith Butler[15] has questioned what it means to gather in public, emphasizing the centrality of bodies (both human and non-human, as in works of art) that in their plurality lay claim to the public realm. This plurality is at the heart of the version of political democracy in which something new can appear that did not exist beforehand. This is not simply an aggregation of people or objects in a certain space but emerges from the in-between. For Butler, a key element in this emergence is that the gathered persons or objects are not just communicative acts but entail bodily enactment, or rather, bodily performance. Public assemblies can therefore be described as being performative by enacting and simultaneously highlighting the ‘being-with’ of other bodies. It follows that public assembly has a highly self-referential structure, in which the assembly defines what is but at the same time comes into being only in its (self-)performance.

As such, that performance is not the act of a single individual or object but depends on other individuals or objects. It can be argued that biennials are one case of ‘performative public assemblies’ that gather works of art, realizing the biennial in the act or performance of that gathering. The biennial emerges and thrives in this in-between. However, this is not without risk, as the gathering involves public exposure in the light of other works of art, and one cannot always know how such proximity may violate the meanings of some of those artworks. These risks are palpable in exhibitions such as Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern and Magiciens de la Terre. This notion of performance assembly relates the biennial to democracy in two respects: 1) as democratic amplifier (associated with increasing cultural variety) and 2) as democratic polarizing device (associated with global/local orientation).

Biennials as Democratic Amplifiers
The present findings suggest that biennials can be viewed as catalysts for a diverse range of artistic variations across different cultures. Many works of art depend on catalytic devices that attract attention through the reactions and connections they generate. Just as businesses form joint ventures or cooperatives, works of art rely on biennials. The biennial’s catalytic function lies in its ability to assemble and concentrate a great number of works of art from many regions and different times or cultural backgrounds in one place for a short time, so creating a diverse cosmos in that place. Building on this idea, the biennial can be characterized as a world public sphere. Unlike museum studies and theories of cultural consumption or mass communication, investigations of public spheres cannot be reduced to audiences or receivers but are more active in character. According to Jürgen Habermas,[16] public spheres incorporate three aspects of immediate relevance here as a medium for public bodies, discussions, and opinions. Habermas contends that public spheres develop from gatherings in which a public articulates its perspective on the broader society. Biennials that summon works of art can be said to entail this act of assembly. However, Habermas’s concept of ‘the public’ is more than just a large number of people assembled in one place; to forge mutual connections, these actors must share their opinions or perspectives through the medium of public dialogue or discussion, so forming public opinion.

As well as lectures, workshops, seminars, and publications, biennials create connections through the engagement and encounters of culturally diverse works of art brought together under one roof.[17] This framing is linked to the practices of nomadic curators and migrating forms and narratives that amplify these practices, forming a ‘public body’ in which the broader art world is affirmed or challenged. To that extent, biennials can be understood as multicultural platforms from which artistic observations are themselves observed.[18] Observational direction has profound implications for democracy; by linking observations within an encompassing structure to create a local/global perspective, biennials present something unique to the art world and, in so doing, diversify that world. If this polarization can more clearly demarcate different artistic approaches to important issues, biennials can contribute to democratic polarization through their simultaneous roles of amplifying and diversifying.[19]

Biennials and Democratic Polarization
The biennial’s global/local orientation is typically discussed as a promotional strategy that brings local artists into contact with the global art scene. However, the literature provides little information about the biennial’s international ‘outside.’ Nor is there any explanation of why the biennials discussed here vary so widely in their intent, or why the international ‘outside’ should be receptive to local ideas, or how this informs a multicultural art world. The underlying assumption of this classical ‘transmitter’ model is that the biennial broadcasts information to an audience or public sphere according to a program that reflects its viewers’ preferences. In contrast, this paper contends that rather than involving a physical ‘outside’ or mechanical receiver of messages, a public sphere or configuration of the public is embedded in each biennial’s observational structure.[20] This pattern of ‘being-with’—the presentation of the self in the light of other presentations—is what Butler (like Habermas, following Goffman) has called the “theatrical self-constitution” of the public space of appearance. As Goffman[21] argued,

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones [. . .] [O]n stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction.

Goffman goes on to suggest that this type of action unfolds as an encounter in which participants form a visible public for each other and their actions are influenced by the presence of other individuals; in short, they perform for each other. This performance enables the actors to present themselves to their designated public in specific ways, revealing a specific position to be observed by the public. For Butler, this idea is further transformed when people or objects assemble in public. The assembly is about the assembly itself rather than just “a performative enactment of bodies”[22]; it speaks, and about itself. Here, the public assembly extends beyond its theatrical performativity and becomes self-reflective, speaking to itself by relating itself to its other.

In each edition, the biennials studied here introduce an abundance of new artists from diverse cultural contexts and must install new frames accordingly. The creation of these frames depends on a certain density or compactness, in which deliberations occur as attributions and self-attributions of social classifications—that is, identifications emerge from a process of social comparison.[23] In this way, each biennial observes itself within the horizon of the ‘outside’, embedding this in its own observations and creating a particular point of view. Global/local observations are part of the overall framing process, forming the initial and closing brackets; a particular frame is formed through the inclusion of something external—something from outside its kin (i.e., habitual relationships). In short, each biennial sets the stage for a gathering of diversity—a showplace for its own construction of itself.

By affiliating and linking their kin with observations from other places, biennials create an inward outlook to which observations are directed. According to Bydler,[24] “Through the biennial context itself, artistic practices are disembedded and re-embedded.” For Butler, not every biennial automatically facilitates democratic deliberation; only those biennials can be theatrical in enacting the bodily conditions of being. Beyond assembly, or even a series of assemblies, the biennial must relate itself to the struggles of other assemblies—what Bruno Latour has called an “assembly of assemblies.”[25] This entails a series of challenges, as biennials are not just art assemblies but must also serve the purposes of tourism, city branding, employment, school education, and so on. The biennial can perhaps make these other purposes part of its gathering—part of its own theatrical performance. To do so, the biennial cannot simply serve as an agent of standardization but must deploy its paradoxical structure of increasing diversity and anchoring as a polarity that can serve wider democratic goals.

Biennials and the ‘Missing’ Audience
The first part of this paper considered the inclusion and exclusion of artists within the global world of biennials in the particular context of participation and democracy, where the latter is understood as an important feature of biennials’ foundation narrative. However, there is another twist in how biennials approach participation and the issues of inclusion and exclusion. In this context, participation refers to the participation of artists or countries, as for instance, in the list of participating artists and professionals or countries with pavilions. Similarly, for open-call biennials, participation is restricted to this art world group; surprisingly, the democratic discourse rarely mentions the other key ‘participants’—the biennial audience—except when counting the number of visitors. These numbers are reported with pride in exhibition catalogues, on websites, or in press features.

Table 3: Big numbers

“Its [Gwangju Biennale’s] closing ceremony on October 23rd with a record attendance of around 800,000 visitors.”[26]

“A record number of visitors attend Venice Biennale art show.”[27]

“The 2018 Adelaide Biennial Draws Record Crowds.”[28]

“Rabat’s First Biennale Welcomes 51,000 Visitors in Three Weeks.”[29]

Some biennials collect a few additional statistical details about their visitors, such as country of origin or nature of visit (professional, etc.). Some also conduct customer satisfaction surveys or small-scale self-evaluations, as in the case of the Liverpool Biennial (2016, 2018) and the Coventry Biennial (2017).[30] Given the importance of reporting attendance figures, the biennials’ neglect of audience-related knowledge production is surprising. Beyond this lack of empirical research, there is little theorizing of biennial audiences despite the wide-ranging intellectual debates in this field and the supposed role of democracy as a common motive for audience engagement. Much of the visitor studies research literature emphasizes the role of democracy, typically with reference to external education services such as lectures, films, brochures, and audio guides.[31] As well as the acquisition of knowledge, education and learning encompass broader values like empowerment, alternative thinking, social resistance, and aesthetic pleasure, but visitor studies of this kind tend to be confined to museums and public galleries, with no links to biennials. In the interests of building such links, this paper advances a more theoretical analysis to guide future empirical research.

To illuminate the relationship between biennials and their audience, the role of the art audience must first be addressed in more general terms. Practical reasons aside, there are two conceptual arguments that explain the neglect of the art biennial audience. (1) The biennial serves a different function than the museum. (2) The audience is not relevant to the art presented at these events because it does not contribute to their status as art but is merely an epiphenomenal effect of biennials.

(1) Art museums present an art historical narrative of the development of art by focusing on established artists, often through a series of inter-connected spaces.[32] This selective practice is justified by the museum’s narrative of presenting the most accomplished works of high artistic merit. The visitor’s role is to enact, experience, and learn, broadening their feelings and knowledge through this narrative, which includes the selected works and environmental elements such as the architecture of the museum, the guidance provided, and additional reading.[33] Can this understanding also be applied to biennials? The following are some answers from a small survey of leading curators, who were asked about the function of the biennial.

Table 4: Function of the biennial (Source: interviews conducted by the author)

“[…] should be fundamentally a place for new debates to emerge, new kinds of intellectual propositions to be grappled with.”[34]

“I believe that the biennale should propose something […].”[35]

“I think biennials are […] more like dealing with the questions of the contemporary issues.”[36]

“[…] a testing ground for new ideas […] sites for dialogue about issues.”[37]

“[…] it’s like a ‘heat exchanger’ or fishing with dynamite.”[38]

“[…] to start to have dialogue in the contemporary art sector.”[39]

“[…] possibility of seeing things from everywhere […] or creating discourses about everywhere.”[40]

These replies evidence an understanding of the biennial that places great emphasis on the present and the contemporary, with a special focus on dialogue. Unlike the museum’s focus on a selective narrative of well-established cases, the biennial sets itself apart by seeking to present something in the making. As it does not present a proven concept or idea and cannot rely on a historical narrative, the biennial cannot adopt the educative approach to audience inclusion that is typical of art museums.[41] For that reason, the audience may not appear on the biennial’s radar because it cannot operate with the visitor concept that works for art museums.

(2) In his essay “Art and Audience,” Nick Zangwill argued that a work’s status as art is not audience-dependent.[42] The audience is not a part that constitutes a work of art. He does not deny that audience members might have strong feelings when experiencing a work of art; nor does he deny that they may see a work of art as lacking any value. However, neither the experience nor the value status was intended by the artist. The artist did not create the work for the audience to experience or see in a given way; a work of art’s creation expresses the artist’s freedom or intrinsic desire, and its essence can only be explained independent of an audience. This seems especially the case in the biennial context.

Table 5: Biennial as art (Source: interviews conducted by the author)

“creative processes.”[43]

“[…] biennial is very much focused on experimental emerging art.”[44]

“[…] going beyond the borders of confirmed rules and notions of what art is.”[45]

“It doesn’t suppress but reflects.”[46]

As well as emphasizing a more open outlook, the biennial format is perhaps closer in approach to what Zangwill describes as the “essence” of art, including elements like creativity and creation, experimentation, challenging boundaries, and critical refection. That may explain why the biennial audience can be overlooked —because it is not relevant to what is created at the biennial. While some biennials organize collaborative experiments with the audience,[47] the dialogue or conversation this aims to trigger relates more to involving the participating artists whose works are contrasted and compared than the audience attending the event. This lends support to the idea that the biennial audience is not part of meaning-making but is rather an external feature—like tourism, entertainment, or recreation.

It seems impossible to develop any conceptual account of the biennial audience from such a close distance. It is necessary instead to take a step back, focusing more on the art world in general than on its constituent organizations.

The Art Audience: Theoretical Considerations
Taking a step back means in the first place considering the role of the audience in other social worlds. For instance, in the world of economics, the audience as consumer is an essential part of the economic transaction, actively intervening in the economy by selectively acquiring certain items rather than others. Without consumption, capitalist economies could not function. This selective intervention works in similar ways in politics; for instance, the distribution of power in a democracy is based on choosing political parties and the values they represent through voting or social protest. Again, without this intervening audience, the political order of democratic regimes could not function.

The art audience is not interventionist. Audience members should not touch works of art; they should not speak during a theatre performance, and they should not sing louder than the live music.[48] Much has been written about the emergence of such behavior and its strong emphasis on internal discipline.[49] Historically, this kind of behavior is relatively new, having only emerged in the last 150 years. In earlier times, the painter or composer had a different relationship with their audience—usually an individual or corporate patron that had also commissioned the work. This arrangement meant that the end product was contractually defined to ensure the quality and consistency of the work.[50]

A new audience—and a new concept of the artist—emerged in parallel when the art world separated itself from politics and religion, relying instead on its own criteria. Only then did the word artist enter common usage, denoting an expressive mode linked to concepts like originality and uniqueness.[51] Enshrined in this social understanding of freedom of expression, what matters to the artist may matter only to the artist. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that artistic activities are often characterized as deviant, mysterious, or eccentric. In contrast to the patron, the new mass audience is ‘silent’ (non-interventionist) and unknown to the artist.

Why would the art world develop this kind of audience?[52] One argument is that this configuration serves as a shielding mechanism or safe zone in which the audience is confronted with an eccentric expression. Unlike the audience in economics or politics, it does not intervene in the artist’s choices but lives and experiences those creative choices within a framework that cannot be altered. In other words, the art audience participates through non-participation. This configuration is not merely epiphenomenal but confirms that the artwork results from the freedom of the artist. If the audience were to intervene—like the patron, for instance—by demanding more blue paintings or more music in ¾ time, this would reduce the artist to a mere maker. In short, the audience is ignorant of its own potential for intervention and, by virtue of its great numbers, provides fertile ground for freedom of expression in diverse forms.[53] In the art world, this audience configuration is at the very heart of meaning-making; it also means that an art audience need not necessarily physically attend the museum or the biennial. Ivo Mesquita made this point in an interview in 2008.[54]

The biennial [Sao Paulo] is very popular; not many people come, but they defend the biennial. It is interesting because there is an identity. If you take a cab here in São Paulo, [saying] I want to go to the biennial, they’ll bring you here. Yeah, they know where it is. This pavilion, this park—this is the biennial thing. They know it’s right there; people know it is important. Usually, most people say “Oh, yes, I know the biennial.”

There is a large art audience that does not attend museums or biennials but nevertheless respects and even defends the identity of art as something that needs to exist, and that should exist without interference, in its own right. Not much is known about this wider art audience, as research to date has focused exclusively on those attending museums.[55] However, by repurposing existing statistical data, we can get some sense of what this audience might look like. For example, research on social change in UK society identifies a subgroup of people who are “inner directed”—that is, motivated more by self-actualization.[56] This group is not reclusive but rather exhibits high tolerance of other people’s positions and values like caring, autonomy, and self-realization, emphasizing the democratic process, experimentation, and self-exploration. In 1989, these people represented about 40% of the UK population, but the research does not make an explicit link with art institutions.

Research on arts and culture typically assumes that supporters of the arts confine themselves to a particular genre that reflects the tastes of their socioeconomic group—for instance, it is often assumed that the upper classes like only classical music while the lower classes prefer mass cultural products. In fact, as Peterson[57] demonstrated, people who support the arts tend to support all the arts. This does not mean that they like everything, but there is no associated aesthetic or social orientation to any specific cultural practice. In other words, the wider arts audience participates without demanding a particular aesthetic.[58] This aligns with other evidence regarding the political and cultural values of people who go to art museums.[59]

This wider audience is also considerably larger than those who attend theatres, opera houses, biennials, or museums.[60] As indicated above, its configuration is based on ignorance of its own potential for intervention, raising the question of why such a configuration is in any way appealing. As a contractual arrangement, the individual or corporate patron’s commission was designed to ensure a work’s quality and coherence in line with the patron’s expectations, ensuring that they would know (more or less) what they would get. The art audience seems to work the other way around, placing the emphasis on the unique and original nature of art—its potential for novelty and surprise. Rather than fully defined parameters, these new experiences depend to some extent on uncertainty; rather than predictability, this audience is aleatory, deliberately avoiding any such predetermination.[61] This moves us a step closer to conceptualizing the biennial audience.

The Art Biennial Audience
As well as the art audience that does not attend biennials, there is an art audience of the kind described above that also attends such events. There is good evidence for the widely held view that social stratification and cultural consumption are closely related, and some people seem likely to be attracted to arts-related practices that enable them to put their cultural awareness and repertoires to use.[62] So-called ‘cultural elites’ attend art museums, read more (and more varied) books, listen to a range of musical styles, and are the core audience for theatre and dance.[63] A range of statistical variables have been used to categories these elite consumers, including education (formal and informal), income, and mobility.

According to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, education is the strongest determinant.[64] In his early writings, Bourdieu[65] related education to the ability to “read” works of art by deciphering their meanings and codes and having the requisite linguistic skills to talk about them. At first, Bourdieu linked these “reading skills” to education, but in his later writings,[66] he dismissed this as an unduly intellectualized account. Instead, he argued, education is not simply a form of knowledge that facilitates comprehension of works of art but legitimizes certain objects as works of art under the “pure gaze”—a social apprehension that shifts the focus from function to content. As he put it, “Educational qualifications come to be seen as a guarantee of the capacity to adopt the aesthetic disposition.”[67] The pure gaze determines the only valid or legitimate version and dismisses others, turning the arts into a game of class differentiation.

One might wonder why the arts would render this aesthetic disposition universally valid. Bourdieu seems to suggest that the emergence of “an autonomous artistic field capable of formulating and imposing its own ends against external demands”[68] is “the only way to recognize the work of art for what it is, autonomous.”[69] For Bourdieu, autonomy is a kind of self-isolation, but does autonomy automatically mean self-isolation? As Umberto Eco puts it, “More than recognizing the world, art produces complements of the world—autonomous forms that join with those that already exist, with their own rules and a life of their own.”[70] Autonomy in this sense is not a reduction or removal but an enrichment in two directions. As Eco has stressed, art adds a kind of contingency to the world, to existing forms; one might, for instance, think of blue horses.

There is also an understanding of autonomy as greater freedom of reflection and a rejection and negation of art itself.[71] Rather than advancing a single pure principle, what stands out is the seemingly endless production of artistic variety (including attempts to end art through art itself). None of the biennials repeatedly feature the same artists, and they challenge any unduly colonial gaze. Rather than scanning works from the singular perspective of the pure gaze, these events frustrate any such outcome for the viewer or reader. Kant believed that this frustration results from a kind of uncertainty, in which works of art spark “much thought, without, however, any definite thought, i.e. any concept, being capable of being adequate to it.”[72] However, this would be to fall into the trap of categorizing all works of art as uncertain and open; in fact, many works thrive on their blatancy. The art audience configuration described above, characterizing non-participation as a form of participation, suggests another direction. While there is a strong desire to participate, understand, and define, one must frustrate the outcome of this endeavor.[73]

On visiting biennials, what struck me most (from an ethnographic perspective) was the number of people sleeping in plain sight, transforming relaxation areas, benches, and green spaces into bedrooms. Kant hoped that the experience of uncertainty would trigger a kind of pleasure or sense of joy in some higher quality.[74] What we actually find is indeed a strong desire or passion, but one that is frustrated or overwhelmed, even enervated, from which something new can emerge—a shift in perspective, even suspense. In contrast to Bourdieu’s account, this may explain why education plays a role in people’s actual attendance. In most areas of our daily life, we can usually work towards a desired outcome. While education may involve a desire to learn in pursuit of a certain outcome, it is also true that no matter how hard we learn or how much knowledge we accumulate, we remain powerless over the narrative of the test and its result. The nature of the test requires us to participate without intervening in the test itself (otherwise known as cheating). One cannot design the test in support of one’s desired outcome. While this may be a source of anxiety or stress for some students, there is evidence that, in an unalterable situation, there is actually an opportunity to express oneself, and to demonstrate one’s knowledge and skills.[75] This highly personal dimension of testing can provide enjoyment and satisfaction.[76] In the same way, one may not wish to engage with cultural products that frustrate certain desires, but education prepares us to appreciate the value of this experience.

Works of art, especially in their abundant variety at biennials, seem to offer this potential. It follows that biennials should get to know their missing audience in order to understand what it means to engage in the essence of art by participating without intervening in the preferences of others. The frustration of existing desires can be a source of satisfaction, especially as one of many sharing that experience. Further research informed by this perspective can enrich our understanding of the democratic potential of the biennial beyond prevailing assumptions.

This paper has considered the role of democracy in terms of the inclusion and exclusion of biennial artists and audience. The issue of democracy informs many aspects of biennials and stimulates critical debate. The paper considered both the dominant issue of artist selection and the neglected issue of the biennial art audience. Artist selection provokes critical debate about selection patterns that favor the same artists, especially Western and North-American artists. This bias is a significant concern as it threatens to undermine diversity of opinion, turning biennials into hegemonic machines. However, the statistical data from a number of key biennials suggest that the situation is more complex than is commonly assumed. The inclusion of new artists co-develops with the localization of selection strategies, simultaneously creating diversity and sameness. Based on these findings, the theoretical arguments developed by Judith Butler and Jürgen Habermas were deployed to explore the theoretical consequences of this empirical investigation in more detail. These theoretical considerations offer a new perspective on biennials as public assemblies that reflect democratic potential but also highlight the risks of such gatherings of artistic objects and ideas. That risk is evidenced by the biennials’ missing art audience. Critical debate focuses on curatorial strategies, artist selection, and biennial culture, overlooking the role of audience. To date, no empirical research or grounding theoretical debate has addressed patterns of inclusion or exclusion in this context. To address this gap, the paper elaborates a theoretical argument that looks beyond Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of art audience as a class phenomenon, highlighting how the art audience is more than the group of people attending such events and contributes to the essence of art. In the light of this important finding, it seems clear that future biennials should get to know their art audience.

Christian Morgner, University of Leicester, is a social scientist working on a comprehensive theory of culture at the intersection of sociology, communication and cultural studies. Culture is not only a focus of his research but is also a conceptual resource that considers notions of practices and networks of meaning-making. While he has been working with the qualitative methods that are often used in this field, his research has taken a more quantitative direction. For example, he has used network analysis to study how meaning is transformed and mediated. As such, his research combines social theory and empirical research. To develop this comprehensive theory of culture, he has not limited his research to the study of cultural institutions, like biennials, art capitals, creative practices, and culture, but has also worked on broader, but related, dimensions of culture, such as risk cultures, arts, health, media cultures, urban culture, and subcultures. He has previously held a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Hitotsubashi University, Japan, and was a Research Affiliate at the University of Cambridge. He has also held visiting fellowships at Yale University, University of Lucerne, University of Leuven and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris).



[1] Adele Nelson, “Monumental and Ephemeral: The Early São Paulo Bienais,” in Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s-1950s, ed. Mary Kate O’Hare (Petaluma: Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 2010), 127-139.

[2] Léa-Catherine Szacka and Luca Guido, “The Biennale as Agent Provocateur for Democracy,” Volume! La revue des musiques populaires 41 (2014): 22-25.

[3] Vasif Kortun, “Round Table Discussion for Curators,” in Unfolding Perspectives. Three Days of Lectures and Discussions at the Ars 01 Exhibition, ed. Aiha Catherine (Helsinki: KIASMA - Museum of Contemporary Art and NIFCA - Nordic Institute of Contemporary Art, 2002); Jeannine Tang, “Biennalization and Its Discontents,” in Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events, eds. Brian Moeran and Jesper Strandgaard Pedersen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 73-93; Aaron Moulton and Geert Lovink, “The Soros Center was a Perfect Machine”: An Exchange between Aaron Moulton and Geert Lovink (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Web publication/site: Artmargins, 2009) [accessed 07.05.2019] https://artmargins.com/the-soros-center-was-a-perfect-machine-a-dialogue-between-aaron-moulton-and-geert- lovink/; Kezia Toh, “Anyone can be a Biennale ‘artist,’” The Straits Times, October 18, 2010, C10.

[4] Caroline A. Jones, “Biennial Culture: A Longer History,” in The Biennial Reader, eds. Elena, Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 66-87. Also see John Byrne, “Contemporary Art and Globalisation: Biennials and the Emergence of the De-Centred Artist,” International Journal of the Humanities, 3(1) (2005/2006): 169-172; Gustavo Grandal Montero, “Biennalization? What biennalization? The documentation of biennials and other recurrent exhibitions,” Art Libraries Journal 37 (1) (2012): 13-23.

[5] Oliver Marchart, “The globalization of art and the ‘Biennials of Resistance’: a history of the biennials from the periphery,” World Art 4(2) (2014): 263-276.

[6] Tomur Atagök and Susan Platt, “The digestible other,” Third Text 15(55) (2001): 103-109.

[7] Nkule Mabaso, “Smooth Nzewi interviewed by Nkule Mabaso,” OnCurating 32 (2016): 55-60.

[8] Rosa Lleó, “A Conversation between Wilfredo Prieto and Rosa Lleó,” Mayoral Magazine, October 11, 2019, [accessed 21.01.2020] http://galeriamayoral.com/en/magazine/a-conversation-between-wilfredo-prieto-and-rosa-lleo/.

[9] Figures are based on all editions from the first to the latest event.

[10] Pierre-Michel Menger, “Artistic labor markets and careers,” Annual Review of Sociology, 25(1) (1999): 541-574.

[11] David Barrie, “A Bigger Picture: Why Contemporary Art Curators Need to get Out More,” Arthur Batchelor Lecture May 6, 2010, University of East Anglia.

[12] Alan Cruickshank, “Parergon: Southeast of The Southeast,” Di’van: Journal of Accounts 7, (2020): 14-21, 17.

[13] Thomas Dane, “Artists Announced for Massimiliano Gioni’s Not-So-Encyclopedic Venice Biennale Exhibition,” 1 June - 24 November 2013 [accessed 07.05.2019] https://www.thomasdanegallery.com/news/22/.

[14] For recent overviews, see Brian Moeran and Jesper Strandgaard Pederse, eds., Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries: Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Liana, Girogi, Monica Sassatelli, and Gerard Delanty, eds., Festivals and the Cultural Public Sphere (London, New York: Routledge, 2011).

[15] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[16] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1989).

[17] Okwui Enwezor, Mega Exhibitions and The Antinomies of a Transnational Global Form (in German and English) (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2002).

[18] See Nikos Papastergiadis and Meredidth Martin, “Art Biennials and cities as platforms for global dialogue,” in Festivals and the Cultural Public Sphere, eds. Liana Girogi, Monica Sassatelli, and Gerard Delanty (London, New York: Routledge, 2011), 45-62.

[19] Jürgen Habermas, “For A Democratic Polarisation: How To Pull The Ground From Under Right-wing Populism,” Social Europe, November 17, 2016 [accessed 03.05.2018] https://www.socialeurope.eu/2016/11/democratic-polarisation-pull-ground-right-wing-populism.

[20] See also Christian Morgner, “Multiculturalism and the Global Art World: The Policies of Large Scale Art Exhibitions,” OMNES: The Journal of Multicultural Society 6(1) (2015): 62-98.

[21] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), xi.

[22] Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 177.

[23] See Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986).

[24] Charlotte Bydler, The Global ArtWorld Inc.: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2004), 152.

[25] Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, eds. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 14-41.

[26] “4th Gwangju Design Biennale,” e-Flux, November 2, 2010, accessed Oct. 1, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/34931/4th-gwangju-design-biennale/.

[27] Associated Press, “A record number of visitors attend Venice Biennale art show,” Business Insider, November 26, 2017, accessed Oct. 1, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/ap-a-record-number-of-visitors-attend-venice-biennale-art-show-2017-11?r=US&IR=T.

[28] Justine Nguyen, “The 2018, Adelaide Biennial Draws Record Crowds,” Limelight, June 5, 2018, accessed Oct. 1, 2019, https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/the-2018-adelaide-biennial-draws-record-crowds/.

[29] Morgan Hekking, “Rabat’s First Biennale Welcomes 51,000 Visitors in Three Weeks,” Morocco World News, October 18, 2019, accessed Dec. 1, 2019, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/10/284867/rabats-first-biennale-51000-visitors/.

[30] For an overview, see Maarit Kinnunen and Antti Haahti, “Visitor discourses on experiences: reasons for festival success and failure,” International Journal of Event and Festival Management 6(3) (2015): 251-268.

[31] Cesar Grana, “The private lives of public museums,” Trans-Action 4(5) (1967): 20-25; Mark O'Neill, “Museums, professionalism and democracy,” Cultural Trends 17(4) (2008): 289-307; Ceri Jones, “Enhancing our understanding of museum audiences: visitor studies in the twenty-first century,” Museum & Society 13(4) (2015): 539-544.

[32] Harold Osborne, “Museums and Their Functions,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 19(2) (1985): 41-51.

[33] Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (New York: Routledge, 1995). Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Seph Rodney, The Personalization of the Museum Visit: Art Museums, Discourse, and Visitors (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).

[34] Interview with Okwui Enwezor, Gwangju, 2008.

[35] Interview with José Manuel Noceda, Havana ,2011.

[36] Interview with Biege Örer, Istanbul, 2009.

[37] Interview with Gary Carrion-Murayari, New York City, 2010.

[38] Interview with Roger M. Buergel, Zurich, 2011.

[39] Interview with Abdoulaye Wade, Dakar, 2010.

[40] Interview with Ivo Mesquita, São Paulo, 2008.

[41] This does not mean that there will be no guided tours, audio guides, brochures, or catalogues, but that there will be more about individual artists.

[42] Nick Zangwill, “Art and Audience,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57(3) (1999): 315-332.

[43] Interview with Jorge Fernández, Havana, 2011.

[44] Interview with Yongwoo Lee, Gwangju, 2008.

[45] Interview with Barbara Vanderlinden, Brussels, 2010.

[46] Interview with Georg Schöllhammer, Kassel, 2007.

[47] For instance, in 2004, Yongwoo Lee (curator of the Gwangju Biennale), conducted an interesting sociological experiment. Bringing together members of the public and artists and composers, he teamed them up and got them discussing what a biennial should be and what works of art should be presented.

[48] If such an intervention is made, it would put the visitor on an artistic path since, in the art world, intervention (making a difference, doing something new) is typically associated with the artist.

[49] See Tia DeNora, “The Social Basis of Beethoven’s Style,” in Paying the Piper: Causes and Consequences of Art Patronage, ed. Judith Huggins Balfe (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 9-29; Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995); William Weber, “Did People Listen in the 18th Century?” Early Music 25(4) (1997): 678-691; Andrew McClellan, “A Brief History of the Art Museum Public,” in Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, ed. Andrew McClellan (Malden: Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2003), 1-50; Larry Shiner, “Continuity and Discontinuity in the Concept of Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics 49(2) (2009): 159-169.

[50] See Hannelore Glasser, Artists’ Contracts of the Early Renaissance (New York: Garland, 1977); John Rosselli, “From princely service to the open market: Singers of Italian opera and their patrons, 1600–1850,” Cambridge Opera Journal 1(1) (1989): 1-32; Klaus Pietschmann; Noel O'Regan, and Tess Knighton, “A Renaissance Composer Writes to His Patrons: Newly Discovered Letters from Cristóbal de Morales to Cosimo I de' Medici and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese,” Early Music 28(3) (2000): 383-400.

[51] Christian Morgner, “System Theory and Art: Micro-Diversity and Self-Organisation,” Cybernetics and Human Knowing 26(1) (2019): 47-71.

[52] Derogatory descriptions have explained this new audience as a mass that lacks the understanding of works of art.

[53] For instance, very few works by Raphael or Michelangelo were not commissioned (see Meyer Schapiro, “On the Relation of Patron and Artist: Comments on a Proposed Model for the Scientist,” American Journal of Sociology 70(3) (1964): 363-369.

[54] Interview with Ivo Mesquita, São Paulo, 2008.

[55] There is relatively little research on cultural “non-participation” (for an interesting recent example, see Riie Heikkilä, “The slippery slope of cultural non-participation: Orientations of participation among the potentially passive,” European Journal of Cultural Studies (2020).

[56] Kirk W. MacNulty, “UK Social Change Through a Wide-Angle Lens,” Futures, 17(4): 331-347.

[57] Richard A. Peterson, “Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore,” Poetics 21(4) (1992): 243—258.

[58] Alan Warde, David Wright, Modesto Gayo-Cal, “Understanding Cultural Omnivorousness: Or, the Myth of the Cultural Omnivore,” Cultural Sociology 1(2) (2007): 143–164.

[59] Paul DiMaggio, “Are art-museum visitors different from other people? The relationship between attendance and social and political attitudes in the United States,” Poetics 24 (2-4) (1996): 161-180.

[60] With that in mind, it might be useful to review the existing literature on self-actualization.

[61] See Wilbert E. Moore and Melvin M. Tumin, “Some Social Functions of Ignorance,” American Sociological Review 14(6) (1949): 787-795. This does not mean that people who attend art events, visit museums, listen to music, or read literature do not have other motives (e.g. social or entertainment purposes). However, the focus here is on the role of the art audience and the process of artistic meaning-making.

[62] See Mark Rimmer, “Beyond Omnivores and Univores: The Promise of a Concept of Musical Habitus,” Cultural Sociology 6(3) (2011): 299–318. There is no doubt that people will have different or even multiple reasons why they attend a biennial. There is the nature of the event as a spectacle that can serve as a motif, there is the role of entertainment, there might be education or professional motifs. However, in this contribution, the focus is on the arts-related motif.

[63] Paul DiMaggio and Michael Useem, “Social Class and Arts Consumption: The Origins and Consequences of Class Differences in Exposure to the Arts in America,” Theory and Society 5(2) (1978): 141-161; Elizabeth B. Silva, “Distinction through visual art,” Cultural Trends 15(2-3) (2006): 141-158; Tak Wing Chan and John H. Goldthorpe, “Social stratification and cultural consumption: The visual arts in England,” Poetics 35(2-3) (2007): 168-190; Aaron Reeves, “Neither Class nor Status: Arts Participation and the Social Strata,” Sociology 49(4) (2015), 624–642.

[64] Jordi López-Sintas and Tally Katz-Gerro, “From exclusive to inclusive elitists and further: Twenty years of omnivorousness and cultural diversity in arts participation in the USA,” Poetics 33(5-6) (2005): 299-319; Bruce A. Seaman, “Empirical Studies of Demand for the Performing Arts,” in Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, Volume 1, eds. Victor A. Ginsburg and David Throsby (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), 415-472.

[65] Pierre Bourdieu, “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception,” International Social Science Journal 20(4) (1968): 589-612.

[66] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[67] Ibid., 28.

[68] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Historical Genesis of a Pure Aesthetic,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (1987): 201-210, 203.

[69] Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 34.

[70] Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta (Milan: Bompiani, 1997), 50, translation by the author.

[71] Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[72] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement (London: MacMillan and Co. 1914), § 49; italics by the author.

[73] Aaron Smuts, “The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 66(3) (2008): 281-290.

[74] This seems somewhat distanced. It is difficult to imagine how a work of art can engage if one has to withdraw or avoid investing oneself.

[75] This notion of testing and self-expression is not confined to higher education, but may also be part of the education within broader family life.

[76] See Siobhan Lynam and Moira Cachia, “Students’ Perceptions of the Role of Assessments at Higher Education,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 43(2) (2018): 223-234.

Go back

Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini