The idea that Europe is the center of the world, in culture as in politics, is an idea whose time has gone. But how global is today's art really? A new exhibition in Berlin explores that very question.
The devil doesn't seem quite sure of himself: he tests his way as he advances, struggling to keep his balance like a tightrope-walker who fears that he'll fall to the ground at any moment.
In his performance "La beauté du diable" (The beauty of the devil"), Koffi Koko, world-famous dancer and choreographer from Benin, seems at times magical, at times human.
"If you'd seen western instruments on the stage instead of drums," he asks afterwards when we meet him for an interview, "and if my name weren't Koffi Koko but Franz Wolfgang, would you have thought that that was an African piece?"
Koko sees himself as a global artist. He combines traditional African codes with elements of European thought. And that combination has brought him worldwide success.
"I want to be understood and accepted by others," he says. "I take one step towards the other, and he takes one step towards me. That way one finds a language which I call universal, and which binds all people to each other and leads people to open themselves up and share something."
A couple of decades ago, that sharing was much more difficult. The Western world felt it was complete in itself, and claimed cultural domination of the world. A major programmatic exhibition in Cologne in 1981 went by the name of "Westkunst" ("WestArt"). It thought it was defining what was modern and valid for the whole world - but now looks strangely provincial and hopelessly out of date.
Nowadays it's also hard to imagine that a major exhibition in New York in 1984 could have gone under the notorious name of "Primitivism", and set off "modern art" against "tribal art."
The art historian Hans Belting explains the attitude back then in this way: "'We' had the moderns, and 'the others' didn't have the moderns. Today we all have the so-called moderns behind us. To that extent we are now in a new situation."
So it's high time for a new look at where we are. The Berlin Academy of Arts and the Goethe Institute have decided to take on that task with a package made up of dance performances, symposiums and an exhibition under the title of "Nothing to declare?"
The exhibition proposes that 1989 was a turning point, just as the political uprisings were bringing an end to the division of Europe into East and West.
Since then, curators of exhibitions have been proposing something new to confront what they called ironically "NATO art" - which was firmly cemented in the West. Beijing dared to put on a first Chinese avant-garde show; London discovered Afro-Asian artists; and the Centre Pompidou in Paris showed the works of 50 European and non-European artists in the exhibition "Magicians of the Earth."
As curator Jean-Hubert Martin said, the show made it clear that so far, "100 percent of the exhibitions had ignored 80 percent of the world."
'Global art' instead of 'world art'
Since then, the art map has changed fundamentally. One symptom is the sudden surge in the number of Biennales: there are now over 100 across the world, nearly 20 times more than there were 20 years ago.
They've emerged in regions which the West scarcely noticed back then - the first Biennale in Africa was in Dakar in 1992. The fact that globalization had reached the art world was typified by the new term "global art," which specifically referred to contemporary art. Once, one spoke about "world art."
"That was a colonialist term," says Belting. "It meant: we have art; the others have 'world art.' It's all in the process of changing now ."
Art and colonialism
But the revision has only just begun. Art history is irrevocably linked to colonialism, and colonialism - especially in Germany - scarcely plays any role in public perception. The Academy of Arts, which is right next to the Brandenburg Gate, brings this history a bit closer: it's only a stone's throw away from Wilhelmstrasse, where the European powers divided up Africa between them at the so-called Congo Conference in 1884/5.
That conference had mortal consequences for culture as well as for other aspects of life. The politics of exploitation by the colonial masters made some human beings into "negros" - but in the places where that happened there are still often no institutions which promote critical reflection about art.
All the same, according to Salah Hassan of the US Cornell University, African art has entered more and more into European consciousness: "I think that's down to a greater openness in Europe, but it's also down to the fact that art in Africa is so strong."
New online frontiers
So is it an art which radiates into all regions of the world? Sometimes something like that happens very suddenly, as in Cairo in the course of the revolution. In Berlin, the artist Bahia Shebab told of her graffiti work titled "1,000 times NO" which criticized the government and often quickly disappeared off the streets.
"Only photos that went online, being shared by the world, survived," she says. "The end product was truly a global product; it could go anywhere. It was not limited to the walls of Cairo any more, but it's going all around the world with these images."
Art instead of technology
That was without doubt a special case: this message of freedom out of Egypt must have been easy to understand throughout the world. But not all art can be shared so unambiguously and with so much punch as the Egyptian "NO." Are there no limits to understanding, for example, when art refers to traditions and to signs that are not so easy to decode? Aren't "others" simply faced by a riddle when they are confronted with Japanese music or Indian dance?
"That's very European," says Koffi Koko and smiles wisely. "Dance has a power which you can't explain. You mustn't even try to explain it!"
He at least is convinced that the age of regional art is over: "One day, people won't talk about 'contemporary American art,' or 'contemporary African, European or Asian art.' People will only talk about 'contemporary art.' There isn't a technique of contemporary art - there's rather the meaning that you want to give it."