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The Only Way Out Is Back In: Notes on the Center-Margin Dyad

Originally published February 25, 2016 on The Exhibitionist blog

Curatorial Intensive alum Eszter Szakács reflects on Terry Smith’s “Provincialism Problem” from the vantage point of Central and Eastern European art. This post is part of an ongoing collaboration between Independent Curators International and The Exhibitionist to feature writing by participants of ICI’s Curatorial Intensives.

Szabolcs KissPál. Amorous Geography (still), 2012. Courtesy the Artist.

In 1974 the Australian art historian Terry Smith published a pivotal essay, “The Provincialism Problem,” as a feature article in Artforum.1 In it, Smith, who by that point had spent several years in New York, painted a somewhat dire picture of the modus operandi of the (New York) art world and the metropolitan-provincial dyad that held sway at the time. Thinking back to Smith’s influential article as a point of departure allows us to revisit some central though open questions that have reemerged in connection with our contemporary art world, forty years on: What is the relation between centers and margins, the global and the local? To what extent is geopolitics (still) a viable interpretive framework for contemporary art and curatorial practices?

Smith defined provincialism as “an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values” that resides in people and places outside New York, and is reinforced by most agents of the art world in New York. According to this model, transmission moves only in one direction: norms to be followed and values to be assimilated originate in the metropolis and radiate in concentric circles toward the provinces. These standards reach the outskirts at a considerable delay and arrive devoid of their original context.

This hierarchical understanding of relationships between regional and international art, its practices and histories, still resonates in today’s globalized art world—an art world that also, paradoxically, capitalizes on cultural difference. I would argue that the art world’s “provincialism problem” has not disappeared, but has rather transformed. The metropolitan-provincial dichotomy is no longer as polarized as Smith portrayed it in 1974, and the interrelations of different regions are much more complex than any one-way model of power politics. From today’s perspective, what seems to be missing from Smith’s argument is precisely the potential benefit of a marginal position: the possibility of critique, deconstruction, and finding another way (out).

In his seminal writings on the history of Central and Eastern European art, the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski analyzed center-margin relations from a broader critical perspective. In his books In the Shadow of Yalta and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, he demonstrates that modern art of the margin (he prefers this term to periphery) emerged, undeniably, using models coming out from the “center.” Nevertheless, the outcome was more than just influence and imitation. Seeing this marginal position as an “analytic advantage,” he argues that the objective of writing the (missing) history of Eastern European art practices should not be to integrate them into the universal canon of Western art history, but rather to question this universalizing and homogenizing paradigm. That is, instead of what Piotrowski refers to as a “vertical art historic narration” that is based on the interpretation of the center-margin relation as a hierarchical and polarizing form of one-way communication—the model Smith also identified—he calls for a different paradigm: that of a “horizontal” or “comparative” art history. He argues that by drawing on localities and creating a “critical art geography,” one can move beyond concentrating on form and style to attend to the analysis of the particular meaning of artworks in specific contexts—meanings that would otherwise be lost in the universalizing perspective of Western art history.

Ultimately, Piotrowski’s work underscores the need for a more egalitarian point of view for understanding art in different regions of the world. He proposes that this “global perspective” can be best accomplished through the comparison of art practices in similarly marginalized regions that share comparable historical and political changes, such as Eastern Europe, South America, and South Africa. Working with this idea of non-centrality, Piotrowski then puts forward the concept of “provincializing the West.” When we do this, the West can also be seen as the Other, and can therefore be thought of as one of many regions in the art world. As perhaps a way forward, in one of his last interviews Piotrowski expanded on how to analyze the significance of “Western influence.” Taking as an example the context of art in India in the 1920s, he noted: “The question now is not one of influence, but how European modern art has been used in order to create Indian art. And this sort of art, paradoxically, has been used to decolonize India.”2

What is still missing from the general discourse around correlations of the local and the global, however, is the perspective of the “center,” which at times has difficulties of its own with regard to its central position. One of the many reasons that the ICI’s Curatorial Intensive in New York was especially formative for me was that it allowed me to realize that the center also has issues. While the margin works to understand its art history on its own terms, the center grapples with the question of how to represent art from various regions in a democratic and truly transcultural way without relying on generalizations and reifications. That is, the center likewise reflects on its own status, particularly in the field and history of curatorial practice, as underlined by Kate Fowle’s frequently asked question: What does it mean to be international today?

These questions about how international or global discourses are used and understood within the practices of specific geographical and geopolitical regions are central to my current research and role as curator-editor of the Curatorial Dictionary project at the contemporary art organization tranzit.hu in Budapest, Hungary (itself part of the East-Central European network tranzit.org). The dictionary project will attempt to simultaneously outline contemporary art-curatorial practices and concepts in Eastern Europe and position itself in a broader international arena. While the project continues to evolve, I believe that there is also a need to move beyond the vertical and horizontal perspective, into a more dialogic approach that helps in understanding and navigating the local-global dyad. In my opinion, the relationship between the center and the margin is a dynamic, interdependent, and complex one. The margin cannot close on itself. It has to be in dialogue with the center—not to find legitimization, but to be critical, to see and expose the blind spots that exist everywhere.

1.  Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Artforum 13, no. 1 (September 1974): 54–59.
2.  Richard Kosinsky, Jan Elantkowski, and Barbara Dudás, “A Way to Follow: Interview with Piotr Piotrowski,” Artmargins, January 29, 2015, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/758-a-way-to-follow-interview-with-piotr-piotrowski.

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