Tourism Without Avant-Garde

Maurizio Bortolotti

Worldwide tourism is a reverse face of mass culture production that is so important today. Tourism as industry of leisure time is of primary importance and exercises a quite strong influence on culture today. The fading of any idea of avant-garde in highbrow culture, and the fast growth of low culture as mass culture has created today a collapsing situation. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to recognize a watershed between the two cultures, because they're collapsing one in the other producing new ways also for contemporary art.

A new collapsed dimension in which former avant-garde and popular culture are blended is the present day condition within which contemporary art has to face up.

The fact that people as well as 'stuff' and products of all kind are moving all around the world add also a new perspective to this scene. Travelling becomes a part of the production of the artwork, or better said, the background against which it is produced. Mass tourism, like mass culture, becomes one of significant elements in the productive process of art.

This year, on the occasion of a series of international shows, such as Venice Biennale, Documenta in Kassel, and Skulptur Projecte in Muenster, the idea of tourism which has always been backstage to the cultural process of production of contemporary art today becomes, maybe for the first time, really evident. The experience of a "Grand Tour", that people of the art world may have visiting these three different venues is a clear attempt to institutionalize a process already in place since the last ten or fifteen years. Obviously, this project has been triggered by economical reasons, but in our capital society this is the main force, that is at the base of most art enterprises. And this doesn't mean that the project has its culture side. In reality, it represents very well this idea of implosion of high and low culture in just one dimension.

Grand Tour 2007 is, in the idea of the organizers, "an allusion to the tradition of the classical European educational tours undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, with a preference for destinations in Italy providing basic information and services for all visitors, for the art tourist as much as for the art professional." And this is a really important aspect because the formula of the Grand Tour becomes a brand for supplying services to cultural travellers promoted by economical reasons, as happens for any mass culture enterprise for producing for example records or a commercial film. The aim of this organization is to offer a shape to adventure, like a cultural trip to visit Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projecte in Muenster, Documenta in Kassel and the Basel Art Fair.

Also in this case there's a collapsing condition, which may produce a new situation. The former trip from the north to the south of Europe by the intellectuals of the avant-garde, visiting places of cultural interest in the first half of the twentieth century, in the footprints of the Grand Tour, has been supplanted by this "grand tour" which takes effect in a mass cultural tourism perspective.

But the trip is at the same time for visiting venues of production for contemporary art, so both views contaminate each other.

Tourism today is a new form of leisure time for entertainment and it is a mass phenomenon. Contemporary art assumes some of its role, deeply transforming the relationship with artworks.

Indeed, one of the main problems for art today is the fact that there's no a general system of values that can offer a frame for understanding it, as had the avant-garde, with its mentality - or, if you like, ideology. There are just general rules for determining the functioning of the art system inside a capitalistic world. No general system of values means that art can assume time after time, specific systems of rules not connected to any general one, like a rhizome.

People are travelling for tourist reasons, and artists are travelling, equally, in the same way. So, tourism can become a temporary system of rules or a frame for contemporary art.

Indeed, tourism is a way for creating connections and exchanging experiences between different parts of the world, and this is of interest to art. There is implies a strange connection between leisure time, geography and economy, offering a new relation with the world.

Sometimes shows and art projects, like tourist attractions, are subject to quick consumption and focus on very well known aspects of past art debates, like the main monuments of the visited countries, which are symbols of their identity. I mean, artists today very often look back to the past art in the '60 or '70, quoting it in a more or less explicit way.

This year 'Grand Tour' offers an interesting example about tourist approaches to art within Documenta 12. Indeed, the curator Roger M. Buergel takes a strong geographical position in concept of its project. An anachronistic look at art and his Documenta can represent a kind of trip through the world, as an attempt to represent local cultures in terms of identity, conditions, and expectations of life. All this has been put together in a highly personal view and with the visionary attitude of a modern wunderkammer.

In this exhibition the curator wears the dress of a well-educated tourist, collecting souvenirs from around the world, to cultivate a very odd collection, which formally becomes the Documenta. From the art collection of the Prussian ambassador at Constantinople in the end of XVIII Century to the work of Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, born in the Arctic Circle region, the selection of works grew together from a Grand Tour, offering to visitors its point of view as flaneur, to be intrinsically part of our present-time experience of the world, in this anachronistic presentation.

This is just one example amongst many, but I think that tourism offers us a way to deal with contemporary art finding itself at a crucial crossing point with a new global way of life in which leisure time plays an important role. The twilight of the avant-garde is directly connected with the strong changes occurring in the last decades all around the world.

Local capitalism has lost his importance and global processes, are evidences of a new logic of economy, via migration, and Internet communication, which transform our experience of reality. Mass tourism is part of this general change and can be assumed as a frame for focusing the relationship between contemporary art and present life. The interesting fact in tourism today is that it represents a particular and dynamic social space where low culture aesthetic of leisure time, interconnections between different geo-political identities around the world and a flaneur attitude to the work of art are conflated together. So, travelling, as an exploration of changed international conditions, presents an attitude or sensitivity also for producing art, maybe more distracted than that of the avant-garde in the past, but meeting a very complex dimension which is quite new and unexpected, full of positive energies and able to open unexplored perspectives to artists.