Making Art Global (Part 2): Magiciens de la Terre 1989

In 1989, an exhibition in Paris united the work of over a hundred artists. Since only half of them could be described as “Western,” the show radically challenged the Western art system from within. Magiciens de la Terre argued for the universality of the creative impulse and endeavored to offer a direct aesthetic experience of contemporary works of art made globally and presented on equal terms.

Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989  is a new publication by Afterall focussing on that important show.

The publication is a companion to Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989 and includes contributions by Pablo Lafuente and Jean-Marc Poinsot, previously unpublished essays by Jean-Hubert Martin and Gayatri Spivak, responses from Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Alfredo Jaar, and Barbara Kruger, and archival texts by Rasheed Araeen, Jean Fisher, and Thomas McEvilley.

The following text is an excerpt selected by Jean-Hubert Martin for C& from his curatorial statement for Magiciens de la Terre, written in 1986, and now exclusively published in 2013 in Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989. 1986 was the year when Martin secured the first of the two venues for the exhibition, the Grande Halle de La Villette. A revised version of this statement was issued in 1989 as part of the press material for the exhibition. This previously unpublished text is a translation from French (translator unknown):


The Death of Art – Long Live Art, 1986

Jean-Hubert Martin

The very idea of a ‘work of art’ is a particular invention of our culture. Many other societies have no such concept. And yet these other cultures also create visual, static objects which function as receptacles of spirit.

It is this spiritual potential that inheres both in magic and sacred objects as well as in our works of art that the ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition wants to explore. Too much art today is given over to intensive production which tends to obscure any spiritual value. The exhibition will bring together artists from all over the world, not just from developed, capitalist countries. The artists will be presented as individuals in their own right – coming from their own particular cultures, of course, but not as representatives of a state or a nation.


The Present State of Western Art

Hegelian philosophy postulated the death of art as a result of the weakening of religious belief. Yet the production of works of art has in no way diminished. Without wanting to go so far as to think of art as its own religion in itself, it nevertheless seems that this realm of activity, this discipline, has taken the place once occupied by the spiritual and the metaphysical – that which transcends the material and the rational.

It is no small paradox now to see artists create ‘open’ works (to use Umberto Eco’s expression), leaving the audience to invest them with meaning, and even to create works that are deliberately meaningless. Some works revert to ancient archetypes, as if to mimic so-called ‘primitive’ art in an apparent attempt to discover lost meaning. Clearly, deliberately meaningless works are seeking to defy language, to go beyond the simplistic game of interpretation and to achieve an absolute, that of form and colour. The financial value of many of these works in our society, in which money is an essential standard, demonstrates that it is reason itself that is being defied here. If those who have to do with these often apparently very materialistic practices do not see some magic behind them, how are we to explain the soaring prices, the rush to invest?



The State of Art Outside the Western World

The concept of relativism, ever-present in twentieth-century thought, has as yet no role in the field of the visual arts. The answer to this is well-known: our Western artists are well aware of the possibilities offered by so-called ‘primitive’ art and made ample use of them in the first half of the century. Since then the imposition of Western codes of behaviour upon the Third World has destroyed or at least contaminated everything; and in our eagerness to chastise ourselves we failed to go and see what was really happening.

We have hastily grafted the Hegelian notions of the disappearance of traditional religion and the consequent death of art onto non-Western cultures. On the other hand, our evolutionary conception of art is said to be incompatible with artistic practices based on tradition and the repetition of established models. This statement needs qualifying: besides the fact that invention and the pursuit of novelty is part of our tradition, it is time to move away from a view of the history of art as a series of ruptures. In the well-known case of Cézanne, for example, was his rupture with the past really as significant as it is made out to be? It is equally valid to see art history in terms of its permanence – not as a continued linear development but as a revival of lost traditions, of signs and symbols belonging to the history of humanity and not necessarily to the history of art.

The premises are different and so are the contexts, but, if we set aside the grand cultural narratives and looks rather at the working of the creative impulse in the artist as an individual, the gap seems less wide. It is here that we may find common denominators: the motivation that drives an individual to create, and the series of formal decisions with which he exercises his freedom. When the artist gives form to his idea, the difference between the respect for tradition and the urge to innovate becomes blurred. A Nepalese or Tibetan thangka painter puts his entire faith into his work. He may make some modifications to traditional models according to his own religious beliefs or interpretation of the articles of faith, and so development becomes possible, even if it is very slow. By contrast, a Western artist who goes on painting the same forms for twenty years is doing nothing but reproducing a model of his own devising.


Art historian Jean-Hubert Martin has served as director of the Kunsthalle Bern,  the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou, the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris, and the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf. He was also artistic director at Château d’Oiron and the Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan. His interest in non-Western cultures has led him to conceive exhibitions that break down barriers by bringing together heterogeneous works, thereby transforming the way we look at them (Magiciens de la terre, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989, Artempo, Museo Fortuny, Venice, 2007, and Theater Of The World, MONA, Hobart, 2012). He has curated or been involved in curating numerous biennales (Sydney, São Paulo, Lyon, Moscow, Venice) and large-scale exhibitions: Paris – Berlin (1978), Paris – Moscow (1979), One image may hide another (2009), Dalí (2012).



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The whole text is published in Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, London: Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and Van Abbemuseum, 2013, pp.216–22.




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