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Robin Adèle Greeley reviews Néstor García Canclini’s Art beyond Itself

Néstor García Canclini. Art beyond Itself: Anthropology for a Society Without a Story Line, trans. David Frye. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014. 240 pp. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paperback. 
Reviewed by Robin Adèle Greeley
Transgression has long been a watchword for avant-­‐garde artistic practices. Since the days of Marcel Duchamp, artists have found a critical power in simultaneously claiming a hard-­‐won autonomy and, paradoxically, striving to break down its self-­‐imposed borders.  But what happens when the meaning of boundaries changes? When the tactics of aesthetic disobedience used to escape the autonomous artwork’s hermetic self-­‐referentiality increasingly produce only “second-­‐rate transgressions that change nothing” (p. xvii)? When art becomes part of a planetary integration that is experienced asymmetrically and unequally?  
Art beyond Itself, a major new work from Néstor García Canclini beautifully translated by David Frye, probes art’s struggles to redefine itself in a globalized world where previously discrete categories of aesthetic and social experience are ever more blurred. With this book García Canclini, one of Latin America’s foremost intellectuals, expands his already considerable presence for English-­‐speaking audiences to provide a powerful new analytical approach to contemporary art. 
Art, García Canclini asserts, has moved from transgressing the borders of its own autonomy to a “postautonomy” that defies our current analytical tools. Artistic practice, once object-­‐based, is increasingly founded on contexts; artworks are being “inserted in the media, urban spaces, digital networks, and forms of social participation where aesthetic differences seem to dissolve” (p. xviii). This “de-­‐defining” of art throws into question longstanding analytical concepts such as Bourdieu’s “art field” that still depend on some idea of national cultures and distinct spheres of aesthetic production, or (at the other end of the scale) postmodern nomadism with its false illusion of a world without borders. 
Our trouble in providing a cogent story line for contemporary art, García Canclini insists, is of a piece with our vacillations about how to confront a post 9/11, post-­‐2008 world where conventional categories no longer “explain” contemporary experience, where economics and politics have become “an unconvincing display,” and where coherent narratives founder on the “barely explicable ruins of what globalization has destroyed” (pp. xii; xxii). Yet it is precisely in contemporary art’s ability to capture this state of incoherence that García Canclini situates its capacity to address our present condition. 
Analyzing a wide variety of artists, artworks, theorists, institutions and cultural practices —from Antoni Muntadas, Gabriel Orozco, and Teresa Margolles, to UNESCO’s World Heritage list and Documenta, to Bourdieu, Rancière and Borges— García Canclini argues that what defines contemporary art’s persuasive power is its “imminence”: its ability to “[insinuate] what cannot be said,” to “[say] things without pronouncing them fully,” maintaining them inventively unsettled (pp. 66; 26). Art’s imminence is “the place where we catch sight of things that are just at the point of occurring”; it produces a “zone of uncertainty […] suited not so much for direct [political] action as for suggesting the power of what hangs in suspense” (pp. xiii; 171). Art’s ability critically to embody that constitutive indeterminacy is what allows it to confront the bewildering splintering of modernity’s grand story into a multitude of competing or unconnected narratives.
García Canclini doesn’t merely take art’s imminence as an object of study, however; he integrates it fruitfully into his own cross-­‐disciplinary methodology. Against sociology’s tendency to analyze structures and see their “failures as structural flaws or traps,” García Canclini deploys the artist’s “strategy of gaps” (estrategia de intersticios in Spanish) which “moves objects and messages away from their accustomed places” to keep them productively unresolved (pp. 7; 9). In tune with his long history of thinking at the intersections of disciplines, of occupying positions of radical methodological migration, friction and hybridity, García Canclini mobilizes this investment in interstices in the book’s powerful last chapter to address the vexed question of art’s political efficacy. Using Rancière to evaluate art’s ability to “de-­‐fatalize” the “mechanisms by which reality is transformed into image,” he nonetheless argues that Rancière’s model of dissensus remains insufficient (p. 167). If, for Rancière, art’s politics resides not in giving marginalized social groups a means of representation, but in introducing between the work and the spectator the paradox of the unanticipated, then García Canclini rethinks this in light of art’s current postautonomous condition.1
1 The term “paradox of the unanticipated” comes from Nelly Richard’s assessment of Rancière and García Canclini in her book, Crítica y política (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Palinodia, 2013), 149.