BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 28 APR 11
Featured in
Issue 1

The Provincialism Solution

Does the art world still have a centre?

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 28 APR 11

frieze d/e is a bilingual magazine focusing on contemporary art in Austria, Germany and Switzerland: on whats going on not only in Vienna, Berlin or Zurich, but also in places like Salzburg, Dresden or Winterthur.

For some readers, this regional focus may evoke a dirty word: provincialism. Provincial places have a reputation for being intellectually backward, politically conservative and culturally unsophisticated. One tries to escape them as quickly as possible for the capital city or – better – for a metropolis, like New York, London or Paris.

Of course, Paris played a role in devaluating the provinces to its advantage. During the 17th century, the city emerged as a cultural equal to the Royal Court in Versailles. In his 1690 dictionary, Antoine Furetière noted that the Romans had identified the provinces as any conquered territory outside Italy. Furetières contemporaries took a more local – and more universal – approach: The provinces were distant from the Court, or the capital city (in short, anywhere outside Versailles and Paris).

Furetières definition is worth repeating, if only to demonstrate how a prejudice invented under the Ancien Régime has survived intact. A provincial man is not polite, does not know how to live and has seen nothing of the world. Freely quoting the essayist Jean de La Bruyère, Furetière notes that the Provinciaux are always ready to get angry, and to believe that one is making fun of them. Even provincial nobles are little tyrants. No wonder since there is mayhem in the provinces.

It took a few more centuries until provincialism entered the art vocabulary. In 1972, Terry Smith – an Australian new to New York, the city that replaced Paris as the centre of the art world – joined the Art & Language group. Smith had discussed provincialism in the Australian journal Quadrant with Provincialism in Art (1971). But his arrival in New York led to a more complex view and his Artforum article The Provincialism Problem (1974). Although Smith makes no references to the Roman and French traditions, his definition reflects these old structures of domination.

Provincialism appears primarily as an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values, he wrote. It is not simply the product of a colonialist history; nor is it merely a function of geographical location. Most New York artists, critics, collectors, dealers and gallery-goers are provincialist in their work, attitudes, and positions within the system. Members of art worlds outside New York – on every continent including North America – are likewise provincial, although in different ways. The projection of the New York art world as the metropolitan center for art by every other art world is symptomatic of the provincialism of each of them.

Times have changed since the 1970s and certainly since the 1690s. Paris and New York are not the centres anymore. If everyone used to be somehow provincialist, it doesnt make sense to use the term today since neither the art world nor its inhabitants stay put in one place long enough to become provincial. The perpetual motion of globalization – accelerated by cheap air travel and digital media – means that artists and art works from around the world can be found in one small part of the globe – like Austria, Germany and Switzerland. By focusing on these countries, frieze d/e would have been labelled provincial in the 1690s and 1970s. But in 2011, the new magazines focus reflects the realities of globalization.

What are these realities? There is so much going on in these countries that they merit their own magazine. While frieze will continue to cover this region, frieze d/e takes a closer look with independent content. A magazine also makes a public. The regional focus rejects old distinctions between international and national readers to address a mobile audience with global and local concerns. However mobile, readers like to follow what happens where they live since they know the work, space and people with whom they exchange opinions. Other readers – living in countries like Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands – will be able to follow their artists who have moved en masse to Berlin.

frieze d/e – the d/e stands for Deutsch and English – is not a bilateral exchange between the UK and Germany but reflects the bilingualism of people who live and work in this region. These languages influence each other and many other languages, which foreign artists have brought with them. Austria, Germany and Switzerland are not officially immigration countries, but they host a large community of foreign artists who may stay for a few months or a lifetime. While we expect the majority of our German readers to be native speakers, our English readers are likely to be non-native English speakers who outnumber native anglophones in this region.

Theres another reason – closer to language – to rethink provincialism. Writing in the same century as Furetière and La Bruyère, the German poet Georg Rudolf Weckherlin, associated the provinces with redemption and protection. Far from a provincial, Weckherlin was a polyglot diplomat who worked for the English crown and with the poet John Milton. Yet the old French prejudices can also be heard in German sources. Goethe – who chose Weimar over his native Frankfurt – complained of people who reproached him for making judgements like a man from the provinces (wie ein Provinzler).

While the French languages devaluation of the provinces once served absolutism and centralization in France, the German languages valuation reflects the decentralized approach of Austrias and Germanys federalism as well as Switzerlands cantons. Decentralization has been good for contemporary art, which thrives through a host of Kunsthalles, Kunstvereins, museums, galleries and collections spread equally throughout these countries.

Ironically, the rise of Berlin as a metropolis – and as a base for German-speakers and speakers of other languages – may be leading to a revival of provincialization in the old French sense of the term. Although based in Berlin, frieze d/e remains committed to the decentralized view that has long marked the German language – a global-local perspective avant la lettre that has allowed contemporary art to thrive in many homes away from home.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.