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WHY NOT “GLOBAL ART WORLD”? Larissa Buchholz’s response to Paul Buckermann

One of the most common terms to discuss globalization in contemporary art has been the notion of a “global art world.” Here I discuss why I talk of a “global art field” and not a global art world in my recent book. TEXTE ZUR KUNST has thereby offered me a voice to respond also to some of the points raised in Paul Buckermann’s updated review.

A Transformational Perspective

As is well known, up until the 1980s, international contemporary art was a highly West-centric game. As the postwar canon of contemporary art took shape, artists from most parts of the world ironically found themselves marginalized by a field that regularly touted its own progressive, “international” character. However, immense global changes over the past three decades have led scholars to question whether this discriminatory, quasi-colonial situation has changed in any significant way. Some have hailed the advent of a more egalitarian “global art world” community that is eroding old hierarchies. Skeptics, however, who adhere to the cultural imperialism lens, have discredited this idea as illusory.

One of my primary goals in The Global Rules of Art has been to carve out an alternative, middle ground in this debate, one that avoids the dichotomies of reproduction or radical change and instead highlights contradictory transformations. [1] What has emerged over the past 30 years is a global art field that has incorporated previously more marginalized countries and regions into an expanded global framework with shared institutional circuits, discourses, and stakes. But this new configuration is not simply a flattened global “art world community.” Major power imbalances persist, and the field’s biggest centers remain largely in the West. Nevertheless, the global art field is a space where institutional inequalities are no longer as uneven as they were in the past, and where extended exchanges and competitive struggles have increasingly subverted the legitimacy of a West-centric “international” order. In this, the book counters the idea of cultural imperialism and its picture of globalization as an unstoppable, one-sided expansion into peripheral regions. When various agents from the “centers” and the “peripheries” became entangled in the same force field, they all transformed. What arose was a field for the contested and ongoing construction of a global paradigm for contemporary art, which aims to attend more readily to the histories, practices, and contributions of artists, mediators, and institutions from almost every continent.

In this perspective, ruangrupa’s invitation to direct “documenta fifteen” appears not so much as the “black swan” phenomenon that Buckermann’s review claims. Although the historical narrative of the book ends with 2017, the case indeed exemplifies the field’s continued “need for novelty in a particularly global way,” since I argue that contemporary art’s cross-border game became redefined in global terms, a development that continues to evolve.

But just as the idea of a global art field attends to changing contestations and struggles within a terrain that is still hierarchical, it also allows us to break up the idea of a unitary “global art world” by attending to the field’s internal heterogeneity around “art” and “money.” As the book’s historical account details, different forces, patterns, and temporalities characterized globalization within, on the one hand, an artistic subfield, spearheaded by biennials, curators, critics, art theorists, and avant-garde galleries and, on the other hand, a market-driven subfield, marked by the rise of mega-galleries, the global expansion of art fairs and auction houses, along with the growth of a financial “art industry.” And these differences also fed back into the way the field’s globally leading artists changed and diversified over the past three decades. In short, the book’s global art field framework seeks to open up an overly unitary global art world perspective and to avoid some dichotomic pitfalls in prior debates. Yet the end of the book emphasizes that to map the globalizing field’s heterogeneity, it will be necessary to go further. That is also why I have repeatedly written that it is “most fundamentally” structured around the poles of art and money, of a cosmopolitan laboratory and global wealth. The book does not exclude the relevance of other globalizing circuits of art production and activism, which Buckermann alludes to, and which additional research can bring to light.

Engaging global sources

The book culminates more than a decade’s worth of research. Its arguments rest on sources that range from the end of the 19th century to the second decade of the 21st, which I gathered with the aid of more than 50 Northwestern University research assistants from five continents. We worked through data from around 39,000 cultural and commercial art institutions to chart the rise of cross-continental infrastructures for contemporary art. [2] Each selected piece of information was checked by me and at least one student to ensure validity. I complemented these data with nearly 100 interviews with artists, curators, critics, gallerists, dealers, auction house agents, and collectors around the world, as well as with 15 months of multi-sited fieldwork on four continents. I additionally researched numerous secondary studies on different types of art institutions, national and regional art scenes, art markets, and broader area studies, as well as multiple articles from art magazines, the world press, and trade reports. We also collected more than 800 hundred passages from Artforum across a period of 30 years. Moreover, we tracked 1,600 shifting positions in the top segment of contemporary artists and charted the transcontinental trajectories of nearly 200 hundred globally leading artists. This part involved the analysis of 7,160 career positions, more than 70,000 exhibition records, and 10,000 auction lots, as well as research on additional global career characteristics, including artistic media, different educational pathways, and diverse geographic patterns of global circulation and artistic migration.

Although the book is one of the most comprehensive monographs about globalization in contemporary art and artistic careers on a global scale to date, Buckermann wonders if the study’s sources might sometimes be too selective, which could limit its conclusions. He also claims the “search for ideal types dominates the argumentation.” However, it’s difficult for “ideal types” to dominate the book’s argumentation, since they only appear on 38 pages of a 416-page book. He is correct in his statement that some data were selective, but what is not mentioned is how these selections align with the explicit goals the book states at the beginning. For example, the book aims to chart the world’s most recognized artists in order to understand whether there have been shifts in global canons in contemporary art after decades of West-centric exclusion and discrimination. The data on the positions and careers of the top tier of globally leading artists were thus necessary choices in relation to the specific focus of the study, and so are the specific conclusions that result from this data. Likewise, a section on discourse dynamics at Artforum does not claim to “identify the changing semantics in the field” (which would be too selective indeed). It instead aims to illustrate how hegemonic global discourse in a major Western center underwent multiple shifts in response to different phases of the field’s globalization process. With this intended focus, the data was again selective for an explicit reason, and so were the specific conclusions derived from this data.

What is “particular” about the/a global art field?

Another of Buckermann’s statements concerns whether the book would “sufficiently exemplify theoretical challenges and adaptations for understanding the particularities of a global art field,” and whether it advances Bourdieu’s field theory to a global level. That was surprising to read, as I have written in the book’s preface about the theoretical challenges I faced. The study also makes several theoretical changes to account for contemporary art in a global context in particular ways. These changes might have been overlooked by someone who is an expert on Luhmann’s systems theory. As I stress in the book, a fully realized account of the globalizing art field requires more than a scaling up of Bourdieu’s field theory!

For example, the divisions between art and money that I theorize go beyond Bourdieu’s framework. This is due to how they manifest in new global institutions and infrastructures in unique ways. Bourdieu has no such theory. Further, my framework accounts for a polarity between contemporary discursive, rather than formalist, logics of artistic production and evaluation (i.e., “relative discursive autonomy”), and I contrast it with a globalized financial logic – something else that Bourdieu’s field model lacks. In fact, a key reason for the art/money polarization in a global context is the radicalization of art investment and speculation games, and the book provides a framework to explain how they have come to operate on multiple continents. [3] When it comes to works of art, I theorize how different types of aesthetic “universality” accelerate global flows among critical-curatorial and commercial circles (cosmopolitan and branded universality). In light of these and other points, the book is not the modernist Bourdieu with a fresh coat of paint. It is a new study that theorizes how the perennial tensions between art and money have become articulated in novel ways in cross-border infrastructures, relations, and logics, for which Bourdieu’s original field theory is far too narrow.

Moreover, whereas Bourdieu examined the genesis of the art field as a process of relative autonomous differentiation from other types of fields, my book substantiates a different model to explain how a global art field arises mainly in the vertical differentiation from “lower” national or regional field levels (see introduction, part 1). [4] What materializes is a complex field configuration in which global, regional, and national levels coexist relatively independently, although their dynamics also intersect and influence each other. For example, chapter 7, which is a case study of Yue Minjun, a Chinese global market star, shows how his rise to worldwide success was facilitated by promotion strategies and sales at global centers. And yet his success ultimately depended on how his work was taken up and amplified at both regional and national market levels, which fueled global-level sales in an interesting type of feedback loop. A multi-scalar field theory not only extends Bourdieu’s field model, it also helps us to move beyond any zero-sum conception of different scales in cross-border cultural production. This counters arguments suggesting that the rise of regional circuits in contemporary art would offset the bearing of global centers.

The book theorizes other ways in which geography matters for a global art field, which Bourdieu’s model did not consider. Field theory at a global level extends to a theoretization of inequalities among geographic macro entities (i.e., regions, countries, cities). The unequal distribution of what I call field-specific forms of “macro capital” delineates a field’s cultural and commercial geographies of power. [5] Perhaps more intricate are the unique ways in which geographic classifications become intertwined with the evaluation of artists. In a global context it is no longer tenable to uphold the exclusionary construct of a linear (Western) art history, which underpinned Bourdieu’s theory of artistic “distinction” and innovation. My study reveals shifts away from a dominant paradigm of evaluating innovative art with time-bound categories to spatial categories. I propose a framework of four modalities in which geo-cultural classifications imbue art with meaning and value, at times in quite complex ways, which can be explored for other cases and fields. In short, my book doesn’t replicate or just “globalize” Bourdieu’s field theory. It charts new theoretical directions at macro, meso and micro levels, supported by a rigorous comparison of original, diverse, and multivalent data.

Crossing Boundaries or Paradigms

Finally, Buckermann goes on to state that the book doesn’t touch on what he personally considers as one of the “most intriguing challenges of a sociology of the arts in a global realm,” namely how “‘realms of cultural production as relatively self-contained universes’ (p. 11) [6] are still possible even if they are situated in an increasingly differentiated and entangled world of multiple modernities and countless rationales, all aiming at colonizing other social spheres epistemologically or by military force.” Indeed, I do not speak of the global art field as a “relatively self-contained universe.” Yet I believe that the book shows quite clearly that globalization in contemporary art cannot be reduced to the “colonizing” of “countless rationales” from other social spheres or “military force.” My approach was to uncover how diverse agents and institutions spurred global transformations within the art field, without, however, losing sight of how such internal dynamics were also affected by various external historical forces – albeit in indirect, refracted ways. Bourdieu adapted Louis Althusser’s notion of “relative autonomy” to account for such refracted entanglements. This lens has also proved useful for understanding aspects of contemporary art’s global history.

Of course, other sociological studies can address how “‘normal’ people” navigate between different social spheres (or economies of worth à la Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot), which Buckermann recommends as a promising direction for a sociology of the arts. While this topic is outside the focus of this global book, it aligns with his latest research on national museum professionals in Germany and Austria.


[1]For the distinction between globalist, skeptical, and transformational positions in the early globalization debate, see David Held and Andrew McGrew, “The Great Globalization Debate: An Introduction,” The Global Transformation Reader, ed. David Held and Andrew McGrew (London: Polity 2003), 67–86.
[2]I.e., biennials, museums, noncommercial exhibition spaces, art fairs, alpha and beta auction houses, or global online platforms.
[3]See also chapter 7 for a model of a global speculation hype, which differs from Bourdieu’s theory of market valuation as the conversion of symbolic capital.
[4]See also Larissa Buchholz, “What Is a Global Field? Theorizing Fields beyond the Nation-State,” in “Fielding Transnationalism,” special issue, Sociological Review Monograph Series 64, no. 2 (March 2016): 31–60.
[5]See also Larissa Buchholz, “Rethinking the Center-Periphery Model: Dimensions and Temporalities of Macro-Structure in a Global Cultural Field,” Poetics 71 (2018): 18–32.
[6]The citation in the quote is from a passage in The Global Rules of Art that discusses Bourdieu’s national theory of art fields.