In December of 2005 in the city of Sao Paulo, at the annual conference of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), a German critic named Walter Grasskamp challenged the twentieth-century claim that the museum can be the institutional frame of a universal aesthetic language. He pointed instead to the globalisation of an essentially Western set of cultural codes, including the all-absorbing code of exoticism – a cannibalistic aesthetic whereby any sort of curiosity is admired because it is different. For Grasskamp, the art museum is comparable to the Wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet. According to him, it’s very small – what you see all across the world, at the basis of modern art museums, are the same 100 artists. The rest are just curiosities.

The philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato spoke at the same event. He posits the museum as support base and relay point for an engagement with the outside – particularly with the massive technical infrastructures of globalization. The artist Ursula Biemann represented one of those infrastructures: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, whose construction she documented in a video called Black Sea Files. And the psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik further suggested that artistic experiments can transform even the basic universalising structure of the Western ego, which negates the Other.

When I took the floor to say what follows, I was conscious of being among a small circle. We are obviously not part of the 100 major figures who have laid the foundations of the global museum institution; but maybe of a more modest Global 1000 who attempt to make the transnational art museum into a crossroads between art, the social sciences and political activism. We try to constitute critical laboratories, mobile theatres, virtual editing tables, and even experimental clinics for the exploration of possible alternatives. Because of the decay in the political, economic, and psychological conditions of human coexistence, our star has risen a little on the museum’s horizon. But we are constantly faced with the reality of the art system – which in Sao Paulo includes large numbers of millionaires whose money pays for it. Imagine me looking out at the faces of the millionaires as I describe some of the difficulties ahead for the Global 1000.

The first difficulty is that the art museum functions within a massive economy of tourism. Major cities compete for human and financial flows. The basic formula that urbanists have found for success is the “creative city,” which is home to the “creative class.” To become a magnet for tourism and finance, cities use cultural facilities and amenities to attract the most talented stockbrokers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and of course artists. These key people are estimated by the sociologist Richard Florida to make up a little less than 2% of the world’s population. That’s 100-150 million people who constitute what he calls the “super-creative class”: people making innovations in the economy of images and signs. Cities compete for these people.

This competition merely intensifies the age-old concern of economic elites for the accumulation of a superior kind of mental and sentimental agility that is stimulated by the Wunderkammer. Indeed, art has always been inseparable from upward mobility. Reflect on historian Immanuel Wallerstein’s idea that the very definition of the bourgeois is the desire to become an aristocrat: that is, to live off invested capital and thus acquire the leisure to partake in cultural life. A version of this historical dream is still an underlying motive for creative class people, even those who do graphic design or interior decorating. And this desire for culture is what provides the legitimacy, financial support and interest for the alternative practices of what I am jokingly calling the Global 1000.

Nonetheless, a contradiction invariably develops between the interests of the elites and a kind of art that is situated between aesthetics, the social sciences and politics. Let’s face it: this kind of art is not about upward mobility, and you can only hide that fact for so long. If we want to develop such practices further, then sources of support, legitimacy and interest must be found outside of the financial elites and outside the creative-class subjectivity they foster.

I’ll return to this in a moment. But first let’s consider the fact that global tourism is coming under siege – no doubt because of the huge inequalities it depends on. Richard Florida is now talking about “creative class war,” by which he means the revolt of the poor against the rich. It is significant that tourists have been directly attacked: in Luxor, Egypt; in Bali, Indonesia; in Sharm el-Sheikh, again in Egypt. It is also significant that in November of 2005, during the banlieue riots in France where I live, at least one prestigious theatre was attacked by some twenty youths. As a battering ram they used a Twingo, which used to be considered a chic creative-class car. One of the widely expressed fears during these riots in Paris was that levels of tourism would be negatively affected. However, they were not. Tourists are apparently getting used to this sort of thing.

I stress the point because I am concerned about the role that the so-called creative city can play in what might be called “the urbanisation of blindness.” The idea came to me in the southern coast of Spain, near the town of El Ejido, where I saw gleaming white tourist complexes being constructed right next to industrial greenhouses in which undocumented African labourers work under conditions of extreme exploitation. How is it that people can vacation in conditions of such severe inequality without being deeply troubled? What kinds of dark glasses do they put around their subjectivity so that they only see each other?

Everyone has noticed that since the late 1990s, activist-artists and social theorists have come to play an increasing but still minority role in contemporary art institutions. Now that race and class are on the table, I think we can also expect the resurgence in Continental Europe of the post-colonial practices and discourses that emerged in England after the so-calld race riots in Brixton in 1980. But whenever any of these political practices are developed to their fullest consequences, there will be a tendency for ideological conflict to develop, and for support to be withdrawn. In the face of this coming conflict, some collective preparation has to be done.

If people want to go on developing these kinds of risky, troubling, exploratory practices, the first thing needed is better criticism. We must spark a sophisticated debate about what the new practices actually are, how to define them, and how they transform the old definitions of art. Boris Groys has made some interesting moves towards renewing our understanding of the relations between the inside and the outside of the museum. Newness, in his theory, appears inside the museum; but it appears by bringing inside that which is outside. Groys thinks that we can only see the new in the outside after it has been brought inside. However, one can add a third direction to his two-way street, which is the abstract flow of ideas. Ultimately we should be dealing with the complex circulation between participation (experience of the outside, work with others, activism), representation (the visibility of the new realities in the museum) and analysis and evaluation (the work of social theory). Curiously, it is social theory that adds a truly utopian dimension to art, because it asks if it is possible to go beyond small, one-off experiments and imagine something that would change society. Social theory projects what is inside back outside, in expanded and generalized forms.

The kinds of processes that link political engagement, aesthetic experimentation and social theory should be deliberately defined as one of the legitimate objects or fields of art. We need a concerted effort to show that such processes are vital, not to economic growth and upward mobility, but to peaceful coexistence, social justice and the sustainability of our lives in the gigantic global cities. We also need to theorise the kinds of society in which these experiments would really fit, because only then would we obtain a criticism that is adequate to the experimentation. If such an effort is not made I’m afraid it will be impossible to defend the kind of art that is drifting further and further away from its modernist definitions, and also from its status as an exciting or titillating exoticism.

The final point has to do with the actual programme of the transnational art museum. The differentiation of social sites for lectures, screenings, performances, and even exhibitions is something that should be pursued. The museum must find ways to project its activity outside its walls and to involve people who are not necessarily among the creative-class consumers. Only in this way can a real taste be developed for the complex human texture of activities that traverse aesthetics, politics and social theory.

If this effort is not made, I’m afraid that the Global 1000 will remain in the position that has been sketched out by the theorists of so-called relational art. That is the position where a relatively narrow transnational network of participants take each other as objects of exotic fascination within a contemporary Wunderkammer, while remaining more-or-less blind to the increasing decay of the world outside. I can assure you that this self-satisfied position felt very uncomfortable in November of 2005, while the fires of the banlieue riots were blazing all over France. And I also wonder what the millionaires thought just six months after I spoke in Sao Paulo, when drug gangs operating directly out of the prisons ordered an attack on the elites, trashing a hundred police stations, burning 75 buses and paralyzing a city of 18 million people, airports included. Could there be good reasons for artists and theorists to imagine a different society?

Previously published on at Edited by the author.

Brian Holmes is a culture critic who works directly with artist and activist groups. He is based in Paris. Text archive at