PRINT September 1984

Hubris on the Lagoon

ambition . . . 1. An eager or strong desire to achieve something, such as fame or fortune; will to succeed. 2. The object or goal desired . . . from Latin ambitiō, a going around (for votes) . . .

The American Heritage Dictionary

A GROUP EXHIBITION THAT POSES itself as a concrete and conceptual expansion or refutation of the established order of things is clearly a field for ambition. If it is not a direct “going around for votes,” it certainly demonstrates the strong desire of its curator to achieve a certain social, political, cultural, and esthetic situation. When the exhibition is of the size and scope of the Venice Biennale, an opportunity is presented for ambition of the highest order, and for the play of its attributes: power, honor, success.

With such an institution as the Biennale two kinds of ambition are involved, that of the institution and that of the organizer; the two can be homologous or not. The ambition inherent to the structure of the institution is expressed through the articulation of all possible levels of artistic and cultural authority, nationally and internationally, individually and socially, politically and economically, so as to achieve the most complete panorama possible of our time and the times to come. The ambition of the institution is not only to give a summa historica but also to create a historical event: to do so, it must choose an outstanding critic to organize and curate. A Nobel Prize-winner or the winner of an Oscar need do nothing after being consecrated, but Biennale organizers are chosen in anticipation of later achievements that may or may not legitimate their election and the Biennale itself. In this sense the organizers incarnate the institution, and their ambition is both personal (they enjoy the prestige of being chosen and the power, honor, and success that devolves from their work) and more general—large amounts of money are at stake, and the sense of a comprehensive historical event is sought. The reconciliation of personal ambition with history is always problematic, and it is no accident that those historians whose contributions are most genuine hide themselves discreetly behind the mass of information that constitutes historical matter. (The marvelous “Le Arti a Vienna . . . ” is a case in point.)

The title of this Biennale dealt explicitly with history, and within that concept two structural figures were proposed: the mirror and the stage. Hermeneutical metaphors such as these are certainly historical—they have already preoccupied philosophers, artists, scholars, and charlatans for some two thousand years; the Biennale’s course, however, lay neither through the mirror nor across the stage. Both the concepts behind the shows and the way they were realized seemed to posit history not as the historian’s ordered construction but as a vacuum to be filled, and consequently what seemed to characterize this Biennale was not a lack of ambition but an excess of it. For once the talk was not of what was missing but of what was superfluous. The works of some artists were reduced to illustration and anecdote; they became feet arrayed for the fetishist. Works that resisted such reduction (and there were some) bulked too large to be contained by the tinny guiding concept. The antiromantic, seemingly neoclassical mood of the event produced not clearer profiles and shapes but a Cecil B. De Mille movie. The mirror as such gave way to what was reflected, ideological argument to rhetorical formula. The shows ranged from empty official representation to pedantry-saturated display; more concern was shown for institutions and their representatives—the state, curators, critics, managers, sponsors, foundations—and for ideologies than for the art, the event itself, the public, and the visual results. Thus the ambition of this Biennale was achieved in utterly reduced form: what was reflected in the mirror was institutional power, and the works here became an iconography of official monumentalism.

Some relief was to be found. An exhibition in the Austrian pavilion traced the genesis of the building and celebrated the 50th anniversary of its construction by Josef Hoffmann, in 1934; Lothar Baumgarten’s installation of South American Indian motifs in the floor of the West German pavilion introduced a worldly dimension (geographical, anthropological, cultural, political, as well as conceptual and esthetic) to the Biennale. Both were the achievements of an uncomplacent ambition truly concerned with the reflection of history. Hoffmann’s model of what a pavilion can be is rooted in the very definition of the Biennale, while Baumgarten made of art a practice open to the public and to the world beyond.

When ambition succeeds great things can ensue, but success demands a goal and a guiding concept. Ambition cannot be a goal in itself, and ambition without a concept suggests the search for a limited, purely personal satisfaction whose realization can only be an abuse. Hoffmann’s and Baumgarten’s works posed the center and the outer limits not only of this particular Biennale, but also of the Biennale in general; if the power lay necessarily in the hands of the institution, the honor fell to the architect and his major achievement in factual history, while the success went to the artist who had projected through history a specific dimension for the arts and culture.