From being the Olympics of the art world, the Venice Biennale has now become a ‘Game of Thrones’, where powerful countries, institutions, backers, curators and artists are seriously challenged by hitherto marginalised others whose strategies, activism and events grow in influence and relevance. But the struggle is hard, even the established art critics have to compete for entry to the three opening ‘professional days’ with ‘VIPS’ who can buy their way in. It is a symptom of that misalignment of art, money and value which was addressed in the 2015 Biennale by Okwui Enwezor, the first African born Curator of the Biennale. While Enwezor acknowledged that ‘art has no obligation, it can choose to stay silent’ in the face of growing inequality across the globe, he saw that the ‘exhibition has limited leeway for withdrawal’: it is a public space for creating meaning. His Biennale exhibition All the World’s Futures was a full-on engagement with the political moment and was criticised for it. In terms of reflecting what the Biennale President, Paolo Baratta, calls ‘the Age of Anxiety’, the exhibition was an unqualified success.
In 2017 anxiety has deepened for many to fear and loathing which in the US and Europe has found expression in political upheaval and the resurgence of populism with disquieting impacts. Even in the privileged and protected space of the Venice Biennale, which in 2015 had half a million visitors, we might expect an unequivocal critical reflection on this psychological trauma. But for the 2017 Biennale, the Biennale Curator, The Pompidou’s Chief Curator, Christine Macel sought cheerfully to return art to art with the clarion call Viva Arte Viva: a humanistic celebration of the power of art as ‘an act of resistance, liberation and generosity’. This noble universalist ambition is reflected in the global and generational reach of the hundred and twenty artists selected, of which a hundred and three are first time exhibitors in the Biennale. That this ambition failed is a result of the disconnect between Macel’s presentation and that of the urgency of much of the art in the National Pavilions and collateral events across the city of Venice. While Enwezor could be accused of joyless, opportunistic heavy-handed didacticism, Macel is curiously ingenuous to claim a discrete space for art: ‘a realm for dreams and utopias’ at a time when artists are more socially engaged than ever. At the opening night of this year’s Biennale, the New York art and activist agency, Creative Time held a conversation ‘Art in Precarious Times’, which aimed to reflect on the implications of ‘the global shift right for creative practices and collective futures’. The panel included Ann Marie Peña, curator and founder of Hands Off Our Revolution, the global art coalition founded in November 2016 to resist the rise of populism and its negative impacts, especially in Europe and the US. The coalition’s project to ‘bring into public view statements, questions and reflections on the state we are in’ runs counter to Macel’s unapologetic turn inwards, to the spiritual and material needs and state of the artist. While none would doubt the centrality of the artist to the Biennale, it may not be the moment at a time of instability for the lives of millions, to dwell on the privileged creative ‘space of productive idleness’, as she writes in her introduction to the Biennale short guide. Or to showcase, for example, the conceit of the sleeping artist in the work of the Zagreb conceptualist artist Mladen Stilinović (1947-2016). However relevant the existential non-gesture is to an art of resistance, it rings hollow in current conditions with the growing displacement and poverty of peoples, even in the rich urban centres of the west.