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Art and the Cultural Transmission of Globalization

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter assesses how from early modernity to the present day, art has been a significant agent in the cultural transmission of globalization. It is a cultural legacy, however, that continues to be divided by a deep sense of ambivalence toward the question of how social imaginaries are delimited by the ubiquitous processes of global capital. The field of contemporary art is often entirely complicit with a culture of manufactured exclusivity and large profits, yet it also has its critical edge that has shown how the glossy allure of transnational capital obscures visions of other possible, less inequitable worlds. Other possible worlds have also appeared in art in a recent turn to the great, circulatory systems of the oceans as both the historical conduits of globalization and the channels through which we might envisage what kind of global imaginary will prevail in response to environmental crisis.

Keywords: art, social imaginary, modernity, global ecologies, cultural history, geopolitical

There is no precise historical juncture that can be identified as the point when globalization began to influence the visual arts. The term globalization itself only came into common usage by the late twentieth century, although its history as a process of sociopolitical transformation is, of course, centuries old (James and Steger 2014). Cultural responses to this process also have a long history with complex geopolitical origins that no doubt could be traced back along ancient migratory trade routes such as the Silk Road. In Europe, the cultural engagement in unfolding globalization was greatly extended by maritime circumnavigations of the world from the sixteenth century, when notions of a vast New World began to shape how people in young nation-states recalibrated the contours of their “imagined” communities (Anderson 1991). Hence, the imagery of the globe—of distant lands, exotic islands, or brave “new” worlds—combined with various imperialist tropes were commonplace in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art, literature, and letters. Not least in Anglophone culture, in which they often appeared in the works of major poets such as Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, or Milton (M. Frank, Goldberg, and Newman 2016; Lim 1998; Mentz 2015). Shakespeare wrote from England of the shimmering new global horizons of the seventeenth century:

  • O, wonder!
  • How many goodly creatures are there here!
  • How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
  • That has such people in ‘t!

The Tempest (1611)

From the outset, however, early modern concepts of the global were tempered by the context of emergent nationalism and a robust colonial discourse imbued with world-destroying implications for subaltern peoples and unforeseen ecological consequences (Crosby 2003; Grove 1997). And by the twentieth century in England, Aldous Huxley’s (p. 494) futuristic vision of the price of global modernity was much less sanguine than those of earlier writers:

  • “What you need,” the Savage went on, “is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”

Brave New World (1932)

Cultural concepts of the global were also shaped by the deep shift in Western economies beginning in early modernity and now remaining within what Peter Sloterdijk (2014) refers to as the “world interior of capital” It is important to acknowledge this function of art as a “soft” agent of the extensive channels of international capital, a role it continues to occupy today. Yet this has never been its sole function because, paradoxically, art also has the capacity, as Franz Kafka (1904/1977) noted, to act “like an axe, to break up the frozen sea inside us.” And it this transformative capacity of art that offers counternarratives to what has now been conceived as an advanced form of global socioeconomic Empire (Hardt and Negri 2000). As material culture, art is generally less capable of avoiding everyday contingencies than are poetry and philosophy, for example, yet since the reception of art is not based primarily on either language or literacy, this same materiality and the persuasive power of images can be powerful conduits for shaping transnational social imaginaries.

The concept of the social imaginary has gained considerable critical traction in the humanities (Appadurai 1996; Castoriadis 1987/1998; Connery 1996; James 2015; Taylor 2004), and the concept of a global imaginary is also gaining momentum (C. Frank 2010; Steger 2008). And while a unilateral social image of the global is clearly inconceivable in a highly contested geopolitical field of intensifying inequalities, the struggle to visualize a global imaginary has become a consistent theme of contemporary visual art. This aesthetic objective to visualize globalizing processes draws largely on a late twentieth-century cultural turn toward what George Modelski (2008: 11) called connectivism, in which globalization is viewed primarily as a condition of interdependence. This is particularly the case with themes of social justice and global ecological change in contemporary art, as discussed in greater detail later, but it also applies to the openness and connectivity of the global art markets that artists must negotiate. The connectivist approach to globalization, moreover, should be distinguished from an institutional approach that in the case of art applies to the persuasive power of cultural institutions, now commonly referred to as the culture industry, that effectively facilitate global art markets. Modelski observed,

Both connectivity and openness are the product of a set of organizational and institutional arrangements. They derive from the organizations that originate and manage these flows; the regimes that facilitate and govern them; the matrices of mutual trust that sustain them; and the systems of knowledge that guide them. (p. 12)

If relations between the interior and exterior worlds of global capital are deeply contested, the same applies to the field referred to in developed countries as “contemporary art,” produced by the “creative class” as an essential attribute of financially successful cities (Florida 2005). It is a field of cultural production disseminated by galleries and national (p. 495) biennales1 and then endorsed by museum collections, art dealers, and private collectors. Yet it is also a field of critical discourse and social critique. Hence, the term “contemporary art” represents a frequently conflicted domain of social consensus confirming the way the world recognizes its most recent cultural self-images and that has, moreover, included many attempts to incorporate art from the “outside” into the interior of late modern culture.

Sloterdijk (2014; 265) identifies the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London as a turning point when the world was “transfigured by luxury and cosmopolitanism” from the far reaches of empire. Yet European maritime expansion had ensured that London’s Crystal Palace was anything but “an agora or a trade fair beneath an open sky, but rather a hothouse that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside” (p. 12). In the field of contemporary art, there are comparable problems in how the global mainstream appropriates what it perceives as marginal. This is not just a recent problem; there are many well-known examples of cultural appropriation in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art, such as the use of Japanese or Polynesian art by the post-impressionists or the use of African tribal art by the cubists. Such examples were facilitated, on the one hand, by the rise in the market for Japanese prints and, on the other, by the establishment of the major European ethnographic museums from the 1870s (followed by the first Venice Biennale of 1895). Such examples are often regarded as colonizing gestures toward “primitivism” despite the fact that the artists themselves viewed the works they adapted as sophisticated and saw plagiarizing them as a form of admiration.

In the current discussion, however, rather than engaging in an ethnographic account of the diversity of “outsider” art, my focus is on art that can be described as late modern, which is to say, as art originating in a system of largely Western aesthetic values that, by default, are clearly located within the field of global capital. The fact that such art is no longer exclusively Western has become clearer during the past two decades by the global focus on contemporary Asian art and, more recently, on art from the global war zone of the Middle East. As, for example, the huge growth in the Western market for Chinese art attests, recent Asian art is as enmeshed in the world interior of capital as the European or American art that is more closely aligned with Western traditions. Notwithstanding claims for a new cultural internationalism, however, as Lotte Philipsen (2010; 80–83) has noted, the formal media of non-Western contemporary art has a conceptual framework that is essentially a product of Western processes of modernity. This is not to say that this global art of the contemporary condition does not have its own pluralities, dissensions, or forms of immanent critique but, rather, that it is delimited by its place inside a Western paradigm and exclusive cultural regime where the pressures of the art market mitigate against the agency of art as a form of social critique.

This global art market originated in seventeenth-century Holland, as distinct from other coeval colonial states such as Catholic Spain, Portugal, or France, where art patronage came mainly from the church and court, and England, where acquiring artworks was still largely a privilege of the court and aristocracy. Whereas in the Netherlands by the age of colonial expansion, there was a thriving middle-class art market for which Dutch artists produced large numbers of paintings (Montiaz 1989).2 These works often referenced the effects of early globalization, to which I turn briefly before discussing art in the transdisciplinary field, where it has become a significant agent in the transmission of cultural globalization.

(p. 496) New Worlds

An early form of global capitalism first emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when European nation-states competed for imperial supremacy of the oceans. Although long before the era of mass consumption, Dutch art of this period effectively redefined the “cultural biography” of objects as luxury commodities (Kopytoff 1986), yet it also had the capacity to reveal their less stable meanings as objects of desire.

There is, for example, a detectable, if inchoate sense of tension in the imagery of maps and geographers’ globes featured in many seventeenth-century still life or genre pictures. These works were produced at a time when the Western imagination was still shaped by theocentric ontologies and was turning only gradually toward the new economic logic of modernity. In Dutch paintings of this time, the cartographic aim to record with precision the outlines of new lands was at first moderated by attempts to anchor new territories in more familiar traditions by framing them with personifications of the natural elements, biblical narratives, or mythological figures. As the art historian Svetlana Alpers (1983: 122) has observed, however, Dutch map makers were known as “world describers,” a term that she also aptly ascribes to Dutch painters with their heightened skill in carefully depicting the material details of everyday life. Although this “mapping impulse” of Dutch art, as Alpers calls it, certainly shaped new forms of secular landscape painting, it also inclined artists toward achieving greater ethnographic accuracy, where in maps of Africa or South America, for example, continental coastlines were flanked by careful representations of indigenous peoples (although this certainly did not extend to African slaves shipped to sugar plantations in Dutch Brazil).

The art of the new Dutch Republic also referred to geographers’ globes, often rendered as objects as easily grasped as any of the other luxury items on a desk or table. Yet such worlds were also defined by the vast new horizons offered by early telescopes and by the new microscopes that revealed previously unknown dimensions of the physical world. This new lens technology complemented traditional juxtapositions of scale between near and far, small and large, that, as Alpers (1983) acknowledges, had long occupied the artists of Northern Europe. Lenses were also adapted by Dutch and Flemish artists to achieve greater refinement in painted details such as reflections in glass or metal. Hence, as this golden age of Dutch art brought greater visual acuity and focus to a European imaginary reshaped by global colonialism, it also drew on technological advances that offered new lines of enquiry into other kinds of worlds.

Of course, the maps and globes featured in Dutch art were also tools of global mercantile expansion. Companies such as the Dutch VOC (United East India Company, 1602), West India Company (1621), or the British East India Company (1600) were the first of many later multinational companies, including HSBC and BP in London and the Dutch-based ING and Shell. In the seventeenth century, early multinational corporations were new gateways for the trade of luxury goods shipped from afar to Europe. This was a naval trade greatly enabled by technological advances such as the magnetic compass, paper, and gunpowder, which were all invented by the Chinese (Brook 2008: 19). The Low Countries in particular were important channels for the trade in material culture (Rittersma 2010), not least (p. 497) in cosmopolitan cities such as Antwerp or in the bustling city of Amsterdam, where in Braudel’s (1984) account,

Everything was crammed together, concentrated: the ships in the harbor, wedged as tight as herrings in a case, the lighters plying up and down the canals, the merchants who thronged to the Bourse, and the goods that piled up in warehouses only to pour out of them. (p. 236)

Antwerp, Amsterdam, and other Dutch cities such as Delft were also centers for the production and trade of paintings with mainly secular subjects, such as still life, landscapes, genre pictures, and portraits. Dutch bourgeois preferences for paintings typically showed “little of colonial working life, concentrating rather on colonial benefits to trade, art and science” (Westermann, 1996: 114) while conveying a palpable sense of confidence in national prosperity. The popular genre of still life especially provided a quiet retreat of sorts from the busy pace and noise of the city while also conveying allusions to global horizons: where imported consumer goods such as exotic fruits and foreign flowers were placed beside Pacific Ocean nautilus shells fashioned as wine goblets, or next to pipes for American tobacco and Chinese export porcelain.

In Dutch art of the secular baroque, such imperial luxury goods are typically depicted with skillful verisimilitude, responding to the sumptuous effects of color and light arrayed across domestic objects in ways that suggest a celebration of new forms of consumption. Yet these pictures also suggest an inchoate sense of tension in the way flowers, fruit, or glassware were so often combined with the canonical imagery of still life as memento mori, where skulls, hourglasses, or flickering candle flames signified the vanity of human endeavors. Such references imbued these pictures with a certain ambiguity about the accumulation of worldly wealth that, if not derived from an ambivalence about globalization as such, suggests an unease with the emergence of capital as its driving force that, as discussed later, remains a persistent theme in contemporary art. The historian Simon Schama wrote of dual value systems underpinning seventeenth-century Dutch culture, in which the one “embraced money; power; authority; the gratification of appetite” while the other “invoked austerity; piety; frugality; parsimony; sobriety; the vanity of worldly success; the exclusive community of sacred congregation; the abhorrent” (Schama 1979: 113)—a tension he later went on to describe as an “embarrassment of riches” (Schama 1987).

Schama’s account is certainly plausible, especially in light of Weber’s (1905/1965) famous essay on the role of Calvinist salvation anxiety in the spirit of capitalism. Yet, on the other hand, an iconography that juxtaposes new forms of wealth and excess with mortality and decay may also plausibly indicate the nascent signs of a more secular and immanent form of critique. In the context of a new republic recently released from the heavy yoke of Spanish occupation, the experience of a colonization was not foreign to the Dutch people. This obviously did little to prevent the Dutch from profiting from the slave trade as much as other European states. But along with the kind of Calvinist restraint that recoiled from the Spanish baroque, the experience of colonialism may have contributed to an emergent aesthetic that allowed for abundance but drew a line against triumphalism.

The abundant imagery of flowers, fruit, and wine in Dutch still life pictures evoked reflections on mortality through images of dead animals such as birds, rabbits, or fish that were to be prepared as food. Dead animals are also a recurring feature of contemporary art, where they are reconstructed through taxidermy and often appear in a strange new (p. 498) poetic alluding to questions of the industrialized production of animals or global species extinctions. The contemporary Dutch taxidermist company Darwin, Sinke & Tongeren, on the other hand, sells stuffed animals in exhibitions with titles such as New Masters in homage to the seventeenth-century Dutch still life. In 2015, the company exhibited examples of its taxidermy in London, where the British artist Damien Hirst bought every item for his private collection. Hirst’s artworks from the early 1990s of animals preserved in glass tanks of formaldehyde are well known as modern memento mori, although his more recent meditations on death have focused in greater detail on objects saturated by global capital, the subject of the following section.

Global Liquidity

Hirst refers to the currency of diamonds rather than money as such, although their monetary status is clear enough in his paintings and display cabinets with synthetic diamonds.3 In his major work For the Love of God (2007), references to big money are more explicit because Hirst had a London jeweler construct a platinum replica of an eighteenth-century human skull, embellishing it with the original teeth and 8,600 flawless diamonds at 1,106.18 carats valued somewhere around £10–14 million. On his website,4 Hirst gave some clues to his thinking about this work:

It becomes necessary to question whether they are “just a bit of glass,” with accumulated metaphorical significance? Or [whether they] are genuine objects of supreme beauty connected with life.5

The cutthroat nature of the diamond industry, and the capitalist society which supports it, is central to the work’s concept. . . . The stones “bring out the best and the worst in people . . . people kill for diamonds, they kill each other.”6

These questions seem reasonable enough, but the work was also designed to maximize publicity and, in effect, comments more eloquently on the global art market than on extractive mining or blood diamonds. Hirst marketed the skull for £50 million, and it remains controversial whether or not the artist later sold it for this sum to an anonymous consortium. What it did achieve, however, was a tryst with the media in partnership with an image of a wealthy celebrity artist, vigilant in the protection and promotion of his own brand while also managing a fashionably sardonic refutation of the romantic myth of the heroically impoverished artist.

By contrast, the artists of the Danish art collective Superflex have for some years made elaborate artworks aimed as direct hits on the global system of corporate capitalism. For example, their 2009 video, The Financial Crisis, took advantage of the stock market crash of 2008 and subsequent volatility in global markets to call attention to how global liquidity is manipulated in ways that leave most people with little sense of control. Superflex had an actor perform as a traditional hypnotist seeking to control viewers into believing they were the “invisible hand” of the market. Viewers were then addressed as if—in a hypnotized state—they had assumed the personality of one of the global financial elite and hence would suddenly be able to wake from the nightmare of their financial insecurity to become fully alert to how capital actually works. Like their work Flooded McDonald’s (2009), in which (p. 499) global sea level rise appears to swamp the global fast-food franchise, The Financial Crisis puts satirical humor to good effect so that political critique is close enough to the rhetorical surface of the work to become part of the joke. Later, in an exhibition held in Mexico City, The Corrupt Show and Speculative Machine (2014), Superflex offered the idea of copying corruption as a useful tool for political sedition. Held on the grounds of a Jumex Mexican fruit juice plant to which the factory workers were invited, the exhibition featured banners of “bankrupt banks” displaying the corporate logos of the failed companies the workers once trusted. Viewers were also invited to participate in a work called Copy Light/Factory, encouraging them to appropriate intellectual property, trademarks, global brand ownership, and patents by scanning or photocopying. In ridiculing the corporatization of everyday life, Superflex also provided all the components of popular domestic lamp products so that people could make their own lamps from contemporary design copyrights. In a similar spirit, the group has also opened free shops as artworks. Indistinguishable from ordinary shops, there are no references to art, Superflex, the sponsors, or the word “free” so that buyers only realize there is no cost involved when they receive a printed bill for zero. Superflex’s elaborate strategies include publications on political critique and seminars during which the public is invited to question how global corporations impact on people’s everyday lives. Superflex’s work is clearly a dedicated attempt to provoke counter-narratives to those sanctioned by multinational companies, and it often succeeds because it combines these questions with shrewd satire and innovative ways of engaging its audiences through artworks.

In her work RMB City from 2009, digital artist Cao Fei invited the public to visit her virtual city in the online world of Second Life. Named after the abbreviation for the Renminbi, the currency of the People’s Republic of China, the City Planning for RMB City can be viewed at This playful reflection on life in a Chinese global megacity is followed in other sequences based on the activities of a number of digital avatars living in the city. At first glance, the world of RMB City appears to be an attractive site of hybrid Eastern and Western mythologies—complete with a big floating panda bear and giant sinking statues of Chairman Mao. But RMB City also acknowledges history, as one of the avatars, Uncle Mars, explains to the baby “Little China Sun” (Live in RMB City,

The buildings of this city are merely incarnations of your parents. In another time and space, they reverberate with the hollow shells of despair.

This is a real-world memory inside RMB City, where heroic Chinese modernity meets hard labor and the deepening gulf between wealth and poverty. Moreover, even in the futuristic, super-flat contours of Second Life, where dirt or pain are rarely seen, Cao Fei includes tanks, container ships, belching smokestacks, and the unmistakable signs of pollution gushing from giant drains. Yet her gentle satire on global capital is ambivalent: RMB City is polluted and there are metaphoric shadows that can be glimpsed in the flatness of this digital world, yet it also offers a buoyantly optimistic vision of the potential of technology and the future of China in the world.

Other approaches to money in contemporary art also appear to have a satirical edge, yet this too is frequently ambiguous, as in the case of the German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, who works in art-multiples based on the playful reconfiguration of traditional taxonomies (p. 500) of apparently arbitrary images drawn from everyday life. In 2010, Feldmann was awarded the prestigious $100,000 Hugo Boss art prize that includes an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York City. Following this, in 2011, Feldman devised The Art and Money Project, an installation at the Guggenheim where 100,000 real $1 bills were fixed to the walls. Feldmann’s gesture could be read as a statement that the collapsing of distinctions between art and money simply represents a basic category error, yet it could also be understood as a recognition that institutions such as the Guggenheim play a powerful role in determining which artworks become global investments. And it is perhaps for this reason that Cao Fei has carefully constructed a “Guggenheim of the Virtual World” in her RMB City. Understandably, Feldmann took his money home after the exhibition, unlike the British artist Jimmy Cauty and his friend Bill Drummond, who, after becoming wealthy in the 1980s following their years in the successfully edgy band KLF, decided to send a message to the culture industry with an utterly insouciant project: K Foundation Burn a Million Quid. This project was undertaken with real money in August 1994, when it was also filmed.

Artists who do not share such celebrity status are often dissatisfied with the money galleries apportion to them on the sale of their works, and they occasionally make these concerns explicit, as for example in the 2009 work Distribution of Wealth by the Seattle-based arts collective SuttonBeresculler. These artists took a pile of 100 $1 bills and cut them neatly into proportioned pieces to expose the small remuneration received by artists from dealers and galleries. Blake Fall-Conroy’s Minimum Wage Machine (2008–2010), on the other hand, was concerned with more general inequality in the social distribution of wealth. For this project, the artist made a hand-operated vending machine that released one penny for approximately 5 seconds of turning, or $7.67 an hour—a sum representing the minimum wage received by 1.8 million Americans in 2010, while at the same time a further 2.5 million people were paid less than the minimum wage.7

The theme of money persists in more recent art, as in Vienna in 2015, where an entire series of exhibitions was based on art about money. Photographs of vaults filled with gold bars were joined by virtual art platforms on which the group Cointemporary sold art online for Bitcoin currency, and a work by Tom Molloy, Swarm (2006), comprised a swarm-like mass of dollar bills folded as paper planes that appeared to have pierced the gallery walls. The walls of the world’s galleries, this work seems to suggest, are as malleable to the flow of capital as the international market that rapidly adapts to most art-based social critiques through the processes of exclusivity and commodification. Hence, one of the most contemptuous anti-establishment gestures in modern art, the common urinal Marcel Duchamp transformed as a dada Fountain in 1917, by 2002 sorely disappointed auctioneers at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg when it fetched a mere £1,185,000.

Displaced Worlds

As much of the world’s history of art patronage indicates, however, there is no cultural law demonstrating how big money compromises aesthetic value, yet on the other hand, when art is valued for the density of its saturation by market value alone, its affective meanings become warped. Apart from their effect on art, inflated art market values also obviously reveal massive differences between the cultural agency of a privileged few and that in the (p. 501) world of the poor, where even the prospect of functioning urinals or clean water is unlikely. Nonetheless, new cultural geographies of inequality have become another major theme of contemporary art, where such artworks are negotiated in the constantly shifting spaces between their means of production and the exclusive sites of their reception in contemporary galleries or the even more rarified domains of corporate philanthropy. These are the main outlets for artists adapting to the aesthetics challenges of representing shifting geopolitical boundaries (Belting, Birken, and Buddensieg 2011; Harris 2011; Philipsen 2010) or migratory cultures (Bal and Hernandez-Navarro 2011; Barriendos Rodriguez 2011) as they attempt to offer viable alternatives to the stream of mass media images in which the anguished face of one refugee seems to meld seamlessly with so many others. Although art in public spaces appears to offer alternative avenues to the usual outlets for artists, access and funding for art to urban sites also require negotiation with civic bodies and developers. And because urban artworks are often publicly contentious, a common solution is often the kind of aesthetic compromises that litter cities with dreary large-scale objects, directing the business of the cutting edge either to ephemeral public artworks or right back into the domain of the gallery.

In 2009, the French Algerian artist Kader Attia brought the shantytowns and markets of North Africa into the public event of the Biennale of Sydney with a work called Kasbah. Attia recycled materials similar to those recycled as roofs by people in urban slums throughout the world: corrugated iron, old doors, scrap metal, along with the ubiquitous satellite dish. This was not a work inviting an easy stroll through an exotic kasbah because the makeshift roofs completely covered the floor so that visitors were required to walk on top of them. It is difficult to gauge what visitors made of the overworked symbolism implied by trampling over the roofs of the poor, but at least the point appeared to be to make the physical negotiation of the work noisy and difficult and to alert people to watch their step.

In an earlier work, Ghost (2007), Attia filled a room with the hollow shapes of enrobed Muslim women made entirely out of tinfoil, kneeling uniformly in prayer. This work was purchased by the influential British collector George Saatchi, who included it the Saatchi Gallery exhibition Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, and it is described on the Saatchi website as follows:

Attia’s figures become alien and futuristic, synthesising the abject and divine. Bowing in shimmering meditation, their ritual is equally seductive and hollow, questioning modern ideologies—from religion to nationalism and consumerism—in relation to individual identity, social perception, devotion and exclusion.8

Whatever Attia’s own perception may be of women at prayer, the romanticization of the other in such art-speak obfuscation seems to filter out the lived experience of a largely hidden world rather than bringing us closer to understanding it. It also exposes the risk that the incorporation of cultural difference into the established art system might ultimately lead to a homogeneity that is “equally seductive and hollow.”

Other works are less at risk of mystification, such as those by the Indian artists of RAQS Media Collective, who created a series of hollow and partial figures in white fiberglass, Coronation Park, for the 2015 Venice Biennale. This work was a direct reference to a neglected park of that name in Delhi, where there are still a range of grandiose marble statues of monarchs, viceroys, and colonial officials from the days of the British Raj. For some years, RAQS has been engaged in a robust investigation of concepts of time and how history (p. 502) can be read in the present, and Coronation Park brings that intellectual focus to bear on the ultimate hollowness at the center of imperial power. The transitory nature of colonial authority is made clear enough in these figural sculptures to be generally accessible, not only because they are grounded in history but also because there were circular discs on the plinths with imaginary epitaphs that brought the History of Great Men into the realm of common personal emotions. Hence, beneath one rather pompous-looking figure, RAQS wrote, “The crowd would laugh at him. And his whole life was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” On the plinth of another was written, “It was at this moment, as he stood there with the weapon in his hands, that he first grasped the hollowness, the futility,” and by a figure that seemed to embody the gradual entropy in the pursuit of power, RAQS wrote, “In the end he could not stand it any longer and went away.”

The focus on how emotional life intersects with history also influences the work of the expatriate Iranian artist Sherin Neshat. Neshat’s work questions normative codes of behavior for women, particularly (although not exclusively) in Islamic regimes. Her photographs, videos, and films have a compelling poetic quality drawing on her experience of how gender boundaries are prescribed in both Islamic and Western countries and also how these boundaries shape profoundly the limits of what is possible for people to feel for one another or for their place in the world. The Guggenheim online account of Neshat’s approach provides basic information about her background in a way that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about the artworks.

Brief biographical outlines are usually all that remain of lives lived in prosperous countries, whereas the lives of countless others in poorer places remain unrecorded, and women especially become part of the anonymous mass conceived as global “population.” Sometimes this is because in some cultures the lives of ordinary women are not viewed as eventful, but it is probably more often because vast numbers of people are regarded as living somewhere “outside” social and historical narratives, especially those who for one cause or another find themselves in exile.

Like Neshat, the Palestinian Mona Hatoum has also lived in both Western and Islamic countries. In an early video work from 1988, Measures of Difference, Hatoum recited letters she received from her home in Beirut and translated from Arabic to English. These intimate letters were from her mother, written to a daughter exiled by war. The soundtrack of the letters is accompanied by a series of discrete photos of Hatoum’s mother in the privacy of the shower and then superimposed with the Arabic script of the letters. And, as if in a private reverie while washing, the mother also confides her reflections on patriarchy. Hence, Measures of Difference responds directly to the wars of the Middle East while confronting some of the rigid gender hierarchies that add to the suffering of women in the region. The key feature of this work, however, is that it binds these major social issues into a much smaller and personally reflective story, so it is as if the artwork itself is Hatoum’s reply to her mother across almost insurmountable boundaries. The old feminist dictum that the personal is political takes on new meaning in this work, which has the counterintuitive effect of making it both public and extending to many in others in the world with comparable cause to reflect on both misogyny and the personal consequences of war. Hatoum does not present such things as global abstractions but, rather, as artworks derived from specific circumstances and an approach to agency analogous to what Bruno Latour (2005) described as “what actors achieve by scaling, spacing, and contextualizing each other” (p. 174).

(p. 503) Hatoum’s ability to visualize the affective qualities of personal life transformed by conflicting global interests in the Middle East was put to good effect in 2005 when her artwork Mobile Home was exhibited in London. This was an installation in which the ordinary stuff of domestic life—used furniture, household objects, children’s toys, and worn suitcases—was shunted along very gradually on wires between two defining metal bollards of the type used in urban crowd control. Arrayed as they were between the bollards, the objects were oddly familiar—perhaps of glimpses of life in refugee camps seen on television screens, yet also easily recognized as items of daily routines of people anywhere in the world. There were also odd laundry items pegged to lines hanging above the objects that were also on the move, highlighting the sheer frustration that involuntary migrants face in maintaining even the most basic requirements of family life. Hatoum’s tactic of using familiar objects to reach across cultural boundaries was also evident in her work of 2011, Suspended, in which a room was filled with children’s swings, each inscribed with a street map of one of the world’s capital cities. In this case, however, it was the viewers who were mobile and whose passage through the room created enough movement for the cities on the swings to shift in relation to each other—in anticipation, perhaps, of ever-increasing numbers of involuntary migrations throughout the world.

The use of everyday objects as common ground between artist and viewer was also an important element in an artwork by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta. Gupta’s monumental sculpture Line of Control (2008) was a response to the potentially explosive border dispute between India and Pakistan over territory in Kashmir. The five states recognized under the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons do not include countries such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, although it is widely known that they also have the capacity to use nuclear weapons. Gupta’s acknowledgment of the lethal potential of regional disputes between such nuclear powers is instantly recognizable in his reconfiguration of the shape of the mushroom clouds known to people everywhere following the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Gupta’s cloud is also recognizably regional because it is made of hundreds of the kind of steel pots, pans, and bowls that are used daily by millions of people throughout the subcontinent, regardless of geopolitical boundaries, religion, or cultural differences. In India, these mass-produced objects are instantly familiar as signs of the kind of shared experiences to which national boundaries are entirely irrelevant—just as local differences would become insignificant in comparison to the scale of nondiscriminatory destruction that would result from a nuclear war. Gupta’s work was first exhibited in the Tate Triennial in London and later sold by Euro-American art dealers and publishers Hauser and Wirth to the Indian collector Kiran Nadar. It is currently on public display in the foyer of Nadar’s museum of art in New Delhi.

Art materials used by the Kurdish artist Hiwa K also refer to conflict in the Middle East as the result of global incursions into the region. His powerful work Bell, presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, included videos of foundry workers casting a large metal bell in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq using metal from military hardware abandoned in Kurdistan. The bell is modeled on the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a national icon of American independence, which the artist placed in a wooden frame in front of the videos. Although Hiwa K’s allusion to the American gift of independence to Iraq was clearly ironic, he also acknowledged a range of other vested interests because the metal of the bell was taken from weaponry sold by companies from more than 40 countries to supply different armed forces in the region. Hiwa K’s work is a well-crafted example of (p. 504) cultural resilience in a region devastated by years of war. It also evinces a sense of determined cultural resistance in the artist’s reference to the history of art in Iraq, with sculpted reliefs on the bell’s surface depicting the ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in the Baghdad Mosul Museum that were stolen or destroyed by ISIS.

Other artwork aimed at ISIS comes from the recently formed Edge of Arabia art and art education collective, founded by Abdulnasser Gharem, an artist from Riyadh (and until 2014, also a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army). Gharem’s works often feature stealth bombers or tanks embellished with the intricate decorative imagery of Islamic architecture, along with scaled-down sculptural models of global icons such as the Capitol Dome in Washington, DC, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Gharem has openly advocated the arts as a viable alternative for disaffected youth drawn to ISIS, public remarks to which the conservative Saudi regime has not objected. Gharem is also known as the highest selling living Gulf artist who has donated proceeds of sales to Edge of Arabia. The practice of art in Saudi Arabia, however, is clearly not without risk, as was demonstrated recently by the case of the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh. Fayadh, the son of refugees and a member of Edge of Arabia, was condemned to be beheaded in 2015 for the religious crime of apostasy, with his poems used as evidence. After an international outcry from arts organizations and human rights groups, and following legal appeal, his sentence was commuted to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. Fayadh is currently in prison, although as a mark of the global status of artists’ rights, the director of advocacy for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Elisabeth O’Casey, recently read one of his poems to the UN Human Right’s Council,9 a committee that includes Saudi delegates:

  • Prophets have retired
  • so do not wait, for a prophet to be resurrected for you.
  • And for you,
  • for you the observers bring their daily reports
  • and earn their high wages.
  • How much money is necessary
  • for a life of dignity.

Issues of human justice in a global context of shifting geopolitical boundaries and involuntary migration are important themes in contemporary art, as Mona Hatoum’s 2013 work, Hot Spot, also suggests. Constructed in stainless steel, this is a cage-like construction of the globe in which land masses and continents are outlined in red neon that projects an artificial glow of light across the gallery. This large globe is accompanied by a Peters Projection map of the world on an adjacent wall. As with the maps and globes of early modern Dutch art, there is a sense of tension in Hatoum’s work between the realist’s aim to accurately describe the world and the aim to represent the affective qualities of a world of conflicting human interests. Hatoum’s glowing red globe also suggests a world now endangered by climate change, another key theme of contemporary art and the focus of the concluding section.

Global Ecologies

Although artists have always responded to the non-human world, it is really only during the past two or three decades that environmental critique has become a theme of contemporary (p. 505) art. This is a wide international field, emerging with the proliferation of environmental activism from the 1970s and since becoming a global network in which green activists, non-governmental organizations, and artists often work together across international boundaries. One of the earliest icons of this globalizing green movement was the iconic photograph of the earth taken from space in 1972 by the astronauts of Apollo 17, known as the Blue Marble. It was associated not only with the idea of global ecology but also with the notion of a “blue planet” in which the oceans comprise 71% of the world’s surface. Yet most environmental art of the late twentieth century focused on more terrestrial ecologies, and the “oceanic turn” in the arts and humanities came after the turn of the century.10 The global circulatory system of the world’s oceans provides a powerful image of ecological interdependence analogous to Lynn Margulis’ (1998) model of complex Earth systems understood as a “symbiotic planet.” Yet the oceans are also conduits of military expansion and provide a fluid medium for the perpetual international trade in raw materials and consumer goods, most of which continue to be shipped across the world.

In 1608, Hugo Grotius (1608/1916) published his defense of the rights of the VOC or Dutch East India Company based on the concept of the freedom of the seas as the natural conduit of free trade:

The OCEAN, that expanse of water which antiquity describes as the immense, the infinite, bounded only by the heavens, parents of all things . . . the ocean which . . . can neither be seized, nor enclosed; nay, which rather possesses the earth than is possessed. (p. 37)

Yet as Braudel (1981: 402) observed, the “asymmetry” in global power relations and “the triumph of the West” began when European nations gained world supremacy of the oceans that Grotius represented as immense bodies “beyond” possession. Braudel asked why it was the Europeans rather than capable Chinese or Arab navigators who claimed the globe, and he concluded that along with certain global wind patterns and the sturdy construction of Western vessels, the Western hegemony of the seas was enabled by the driving momentum of merchant capitalism combined with new practical discoveries (p. 415). Whatever the definitive causes, however, by the seventeenth century, the intercontinental routes defined by the “trade winds” were dominated by Europe. And as Sloterdijk (2014) suggests, this required a significant readjustment of the European imaginary away from old Ptolemaic beliefs to the recognition that “what they called the earth was revealed as a waterworld” (p. 40). Steve Mentz (2015) has taken this imaginative shift into the realm of global ecologies in his account of the unforeseen environmental consequences of the early modern “age of shipwrecks.” Drawing on Sloterdijk’s focus on the “waterworld” of modernity, Mentz disputes the notion that the Anthropocene as an era of global environmental decay was initiated by the rise of industrialization in the late eighteenth century (p. xv). As I have also argued elsewhere (Williams 2016), Mentz proposes that it was the processes of “wet globalization” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rather than the Industrial Revolution as such that destabilized traditional ways of understanding the natural world and precipitated an age of ecological crisis.

This crisis has become a major theme of contemporary environmental art, in which the world’s oceans are increasingly being viewed as a metaphor for what Modelski (2008) calls connectivist concepts of global. As Hester Blum (201) has aptly observed, however, the ocean is not simply a metaphor. Like other ecological systems, it has an extra-discursive (p. 506) ontological status that also happens to be largely incompatible with everyday human “terrestrial” requirements. As such, global oceans consistently resist human efforts to define and control them, yet as Philip Steinberg (2001) notes, the ocean is also clearly a socially constructed space:

As various ocean uses and the contradictions among them intensify, and as each of these constructions conflicts with the spaces of representation being constructed by everyday actors outside the imperatives of capitalism’s dominant (and contradictory) spatial practices, it seems likely that the ocean will become a site for imagining and creating social institutions and relations, for land as well for sea. (p. 209)

In relation to our current concerns about art and the processes of globalization, this raises the question of how contemporary artists have responded to our social relations with the oceans, especially as a way of understanding the processes of globalization.

One outstanding exception to how environmental artists in the twentieth century tended to elide the blueness of the planet was Allan Sekula’s major long-term art project on the oceans (1989–1995), which, if not primarily ecocritical, did investigate the crucial agency of the world’s oceans in processes of globalization. Sekula’s Fish Story culminated in a 1995 book of the same title that combined photographs he had exhibited and a text in which he described his work as an interpretation of “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world” (Sekula 1995: 202).

Sekula’s (1995) text effectively traced the history of seafaring in the modern age as a process of globalization from the period of Dutch maritime expansion (p. 45), while the critical realist edge of his photography depicted images of industrial ports all over the world and the ordinary workers who maintained them. Sekula’s photos dramatized how, during the late twentieth century, the world’s seaports and the lives of those who lived in them were transformed by the impact of late capitalism:

If the stock-market is the site in which the abstract character of money rules, the harbor is the site in which material goods appear in bulk, in the very flux of exchange. . . . But the more regularized, literally containerized, the movement of goods in harbors, that is, the more rationalized and automated, the more the harbor comes to resemble the stockmarket. (p. 12)

As containerization became seamlessly standardized by the late 1960s, loading and unloading times were regulated just as tasks that were once performed be merchant seamen and dock workers became mechanized. Sekula suggested that because the ocean was such a primary force in globalization, such workers were in a privileged position to witness the politics of global trade. And he argued that this also enabled them to catch occasional glimpses of the contradictions and secrets of global relations in such instances of his account of the Danish sailors who discovered a broken crate, revealing how Israel was secretly shipping American weapons to Iran in the 1980s (p. 32).

As Elizabeth Deloughrey (2010) has remarked of the Atlantic Ocean, as an agent of modernity, the ocean has often been understood in terms of its capacity to absorb waste: the wasted lives of slaves, militarization and radioactive waste, and the industrialized waste of heavy metals. Although there are visible forms of pollution, such as the great islands of plastic in the five main oceanic gyres,11 much of the sea often still looks like a shining, pristine expanse of water. Effectively, the most insidious forms of oceanic pollution remain (p. 507) invisible to the human eye so that ocean acidification, mercury poisoning, and pollution by microplastics (Andrady 2011), along with the almost imperceptible effects of ocean warming, are slowly but surely afflicting every ocean on Earth. These invisible processes of oceanic pollution are analogous to what Rob Nixon (2013) aptly described as the “slow violence” of widespread environmental erosion. This slow assault on the world’s oceans, furthermore, represents a risk not only to human food supplies but also to a diverse range of ocean creatures threatened with extinction (Herr and Gallard 2009; Kolbert 2014).

The slow violence of ocean pollution is entirely at odds with a powerful Western cultural tradition in which the sea has long appealed to the romantic imagination as an emblem of the power and mystery of nature (Isham 2004). This wild, unsullied image of the ocean that has arguably had a significant impact on the Western imagination of global space is now effectively fouled and endangered by human excess. It is a powerful material contradiction that is entirely incompatible with the imagery of global oceans at the level of affects that has formed the basis of recent environmental art responding to escalating threats to global ecologies, some of which is situated in the ocean itself.

The British artist Jason deCaires Taylor has installed an artwork called Inertia off the coast of Cancún in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of five meters in the Caribbean Sea. Lodged firmly on the seafloor, the cast-concrete sculpture depicts a man in a pair of shorts slouching on a sofa with a plate of fast food, watching television. The figure appears to be lethargic and so absorbed in the screen that he appears entirely indifferent to the life in the tropical waters around him. Located on the seabed in 2011, the work itself has since accrued different types of marine algae beneficial to the marine environment as they produce carbon carbonates and form the basis of coral formations. Most of de Caires Taylor’s artworks are located underwater in similar marine environments as silent commentaries on anthropogenic changes to the oceans in sea-level rise and pollution. And just to the south of this site, on the shores of the largest biosphere resort in Mexico, at Sian Ka’an, the artist Alejandro Duran collects plastic objects washed up on the shore. Duran has identified plastic waste from more than 50 countries on six continents that he collects and sorts into various colors and shapes before photographing it. The artificiality of the plastic colors forms a sharp contrast to the reserve, and the artist arranges the objects as it they have been washed up by the tide as waves of human waste.

Most of the world’s oxygen is produced by the oceans and is vital to both human and oceanic life. Oxygen is something we readily identify as a human necessity, and as such, it is something the Australian artist Janet Laurence refers to regularly in her artworks through the tubes and apparatuses of hospital resuscitation units. Laurence combines these with fragile specimens such as coral, shells, or fish skeletons presented in a range of glass jars and cases. By exhibiting her work Deep Breathing/Resuscitation of the Reef in 2015 in Paris during the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, she sought a way of bringing global attention to the vulnerability of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In her work Coral Collapse (2015–2016), Laurence aimed to imaginatively resuscitate the Great Barrier Reef itself with the same thin plastic pipes taken from hospital resuscitation equipment and glass jars—translucent materials that she later photographed underwater. In these works, equipment from hospital units is brought to bear metaphorically on reefs made vulnerable by ocean warming and coral bleaching, and if the connections between the art materials and the reef are at first oblique, the general fragility of the imagery is an effective means of (p. 508) encouraging the viewer to make the imaginative leap in joining human illness with the visually seductive images of an underwater world that is slowly dying.

One of the least visible results of how the world’s oceans absorb CO2 is the drop in calcium carbonates that plankton such as the microscopic creatures known as foraminifera need to build their exoskeletons. This is a serious problem with the potential to erode entire food chains, but there is a massive gulf between the human world and the habitats of invisible marine creatures that is difficult to breach imaginatively. The Scottish artist Anne Bevan, however, has attempted to render this process visible through her fragile sculptural reconstructions of microscopic foraminifera. Bevan is best known for her poetic installations that explore the metaphoric qualities of seawater, such as in Moon Pool (2002), for example, in which the poetry of the ocean was brought into a forest. In her work Source (2001), Bevan tested the quality of seawater transported from Venice in glass bottles that were compared with the northern waters of Scotland before combining them both in Orkney Harbor—a confluence drawing attention to the environmental vulnerability of water and its global circulation. In Nova (2007), Bevan explored a deeper dimension of global ecologies by contracting the spatial distinctions between microscopic and astronomical scale by escalating the scale of marine plankton and illuminating them in ways that suggested strange new worlds. In 2012, Bevan joined a scientist and writer in making Particle (Things Unseen), which revealed the minute, complex forms of the foraminifera and exposed their vulnerability to climate change and ocean acidification. Artists are in an advantageous position to reveal the poetics of these unseen worlds in which biological conditions as fundamental as ocean chemistry are being changed by the global processes of modernity.

Contemporary artists may have a number of possible new worlds in mind as they take on the challenges of how the most effective forms of global agency often seem to reside in the electronic flow of capital and its connection with military satellite surveillance of the world. In this sense, the prospect of a dystopian global future seems as possible as a more utopian world in which international collaboration succeeds in addressing global problems such as climate change. Occasionally, the two prospects appear in the same artwork, as in Brave New World (1999) by Theo Eshetu, an artist of English and African descent. This work comprises a large globe constructed in a vast mirrored space onto which video images were projected. In order to see this work, viewers had to lean through an open window into the mirrored room. As viewers leaned into the space, their reflections were repeated across hundreds of mirrored surfaces so that they appeared to surround the globe, giving the impression that the world is imagined as something inside each viewer. On the globe itself, there are constantly changing videos with evocative images drawn from a diverse range of cultures, from the sacred scenes of a mass in an Ethiopian church to secular icons such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, sword dancers in Bali, and brash Western television advertisements. The viewer is located in a position of global surveillance where everything can be seen as a vibrant media spectacle. On the other hand, because the globe is contained by the mirrored reflections of viewers, it becomes difficult for them to avoid the inference that their own local perception of global diversity becomes part of the work itself. Hence, as in other themes in contemporary art articulating global processes, Brave New World points to an uncertain future in which the agency of the global citizen essentially becomes the implied core of the project. Effectively, such artists invite us as viewers to reconceive the world as it is presented through such new global imaginaries.


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                                                                                                        (1.) From the first Venice Biennale of 1895, there are currently more than 50 such major art events, including the world’s “hottest” in the Californian desert and the “coolest” in Antarctica, both scheduled to open in 2017. In addition, the Biennial Foundation was initially registered in 2009 with the Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands.

                                                                                                        (2.) The renowned English diarist John Evelyn went to Rotterdam in 1641, where he was “amazed” at the huge number of artworks for sale. Evelyn noted that even local farmers had houses “full of them.” Evelyn bought some, along with maps and atlases he later purchased in Amsterdam (Evelyn 1930: 21–27).

                                                                                                        (3.) Cubic zirconia or synthetic diamonds are worth approximately $20 per carat compared to natural diamonds, which are valued at approximately $1,500 per carat, but this increases with stones of greater weight.

                                                                                                        (5.) Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), 162.

                                                                                                        (6.) Damien Hirst, cited in “Epiphany: A Conversation with Damien Hirst,” in Hans Ulrich Obrist, End of an Era (London/New York: Other Criteria/Gagosian Gallery, 2012), no pagination.

                                                                                                        (7.) US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,” (accessed May 7, 2016).

                                                                                                        (9.) The “UN Human Rights Council, 32nd Session (13th June–1st July 2016): General Debate on Item 4—Human Rights Situations of Concern: Elizabeth O’Casey,” is reported on the IHEU website at (accessed July 3, 2016).

                                                                                                        (10.) This despite influential publications such as Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951) or the increased focus on marine mammals in popular culture.

                                                                                                        (11.) In 2015, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio produced a video of global plastic pollution in the five major oceanic gyres: (accessed January 15, 2016).