The Venice Biennale and the Art of Turning Backward

There is a sour tendency in cultural politics today — a growing gap between speaking about the world and acting in it.

In the domain of rhetoric, everyone has grown gifted at pulling back the curtain. An elegant museum gallery is actually a record of imperial violence; a symphony orchestra is a site of elitism and exploitation: these critiques we can now deliver without trying. But when it comes to making anything new, we are gripped by near-total inertia. We are losing faith with so many institutions of culture and society — the museum, the market, and, especially this week, the university — but cannot imagine an exit from them. We throw bricks with abandon, we lay them with difficulty, if at all. We engage in perpetual protest, but seem unable to channel it into anything concrete.

So we spin around. We circle. And, maybe, we start going backward.

I’ve just spent a week tramping across Venice, a city of more than 250 churches, and where did I encounter the most doctrinaire catechism? It was in the galleries of the 2024 Venice Biennale, still the world’s principal appointment to discover new art, whose current edition is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst something like a tragedy.

It’s often preachy, but that’s not its biggest problem. The real problem is how it tokenizes, essentializes, minimizes and pigeonholes talented artists — and there are many here, among more than 300 participants — who have had their work sanded down to slogans and lessons so clear they could fit in a curator’s screenshot. This is a Biennale that speaks the language of assurance, but is actually soaked in anxiety, and too often resorts, as the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka deplored in a poem, to “cast the sanctimonious stone / And leave frail beauty shredded in the square / Of public shame.”

An installation by Precious Okoyomon, integrating living plants with sensors and speakers, in an outdoor space of the Nigerian pavilion.Credit…Matteo de Mayda for The New York Times

This year’s Biennale opened last week under an ominous star. The Venetian megashow consists of a central exhibition, spanning two locations, as well as around 90 independent pavilions organized by individual nations. One of these nations is Israel, and in the weeks before the vernissage an activist group calling itself the “Art Not Genocide Alliance” had petitioned the show’s organizers to exclude Israel from participating. The Biennale refused; a smaller appeal against the pavilion of Iran also went nowhere. (As for Russia, it remains nation non grata for the second Biennale in a row.) With disagreements over the war in Gaza spilling into cultural institutions across the continent — they’d already sunk Documenta, the German exhibition that is Venice’s only rival for attendance and prestige — the promise of a major controversy seemed to hang over the Giardini della Biennale.

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