A New Samarkand: Regionalism in the Age of Globalization

December 2, 2013 · Print This Article

Bazaar in Samarkand, an illustration from Jules Verne’s novel “Claudius Bombarnac”

I should say now that I have never been to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and that my views of it have been shaped almost entirely by its mythical role in Clive Barker’s novel Galilee. A quick bit of slacker research, though, reveals the essential nature of that city to match Barker’s description pretty well. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a city of wonders, the ultimate crossroads, a center of commerce as well as of art and culture. People came from thousands of miles to experience the wonders of the city itself, but more so, to meet and trade with one another.

It sounds like the perfect sales pitch for globalization. What city wouldn’t want to model itself after old Samarkand? Open to all, a place where one can find anything, from anywhere, yet possessing its own unique character, its glories and wonders its own, Samarkand strikes in our imagination the perfect cross between melting pot and salad bowl.

Did Samarkand itself ever live up to this ideal? This is probably unknowable. The tendency to romanticize history is undeniable, and certainly our own cosmopolitan cities fall short of this utopia. Diversity is assimilated into a global monoculture which is then exported, and we end up feeding our client states the predigested remains of their own children. (Metaphorically speaking. For now.)

This cynical, CrimeThink version is also incomplete, of course. I’ve eaten Chinese food in Berlin and Ethiopian food in Baltimore. The first time I had a Big Mac was in Tokyo. I haven’t researched Taco Bell penetration in Mexico, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, but I do remember walking past a bar in San Miguel de Allende and hearing a pretty badass cover of a Metallica song, the lyrics sung in Spanish. (I don’t remember what song but this was 1996, so most of the shitty ones hadn’t been released yet.). It is impossible not to think of William Gibson in these moments, and it has a surreal magic about it.

On the other hand, there is perhaps a danger in the ubiquity of the other. Is it a disincentive to travel, when so much of our destination has been brought to us on a plate? Does, in fact, this single-serving multiculturalism blend the rest of the world into the homogenously labeled “World Music” aisle of an obsolescent record store? (And reflect, if one goes into a music store in Beijing, does American pop go in the “World Music” aisle? Most likely not, and the reason is the problem. We have exoticized the others, even to themselves.)

Why travel, then, if anyone, anywhere, can buy a didgeridoo, a foo lion, and a Panang curry? “To see the place itself!” some argue, or “To meet the people!” And this is good, so long as it is remembered. So have fun in Miami, but remember, it’s just another art fair, unless you see the Everglades while you’re there.

Art fairs are a sort of microcosm of the Samarkand ideal in its imperfect manifestation, actually. I’ve written about them before as have many others, but never before in the shadow of the tents of the bazaars of Samarkand. Imagine! An art fair that stirred the senses with the sights and sounds and smells of the exotic! What Tony Fitzpatrick described in his play, of the grand market in Istanbul, a thousand guys chasing him down, shouting, “Pashminas!” And one guy shouting, “Tube socks!”

But we don’t get that, at least not at any art fair I’ve been to. (And to be fair, I need to make it to some international ones.) So far, what I’ve seen at American art fairs is pretty much the same roster of blue chip galleries selling to blue chip collectors, damn the locals, who cower in the shadows of the big boys. Exceptions, sure. I’ve seen great, unexpected work at art fairs. And some Chicago dealers have sold to out of town collectors at Art Chicago and at Expo. Local collectors do buy work (I have been on both ends of this transaction as an artist and as a small-time collector), but far too many of them are like the tourists visiting a Moroccan antiquities dealer I saw on Anthony Bourdain recently. “We call them penguins,” he said, waddling comically. “Their hands can’t reach their pockets.”

Homogeneity is the death of art. If a piece is expected, it’s pointless. Someone, I can’t now recall who, said, “If two artists are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.” There is something to this. The old world of the Twentieth Century, the “Age of -isms,” decade-long proclamations of new world orders, each to be replaced by the next like the procession of coups in a string of Third World dictatorships, really ended with Pop Art. By the 1990s, Art History textbooks pointed to the future with a vague reference to pluralism and a prayer that wherever we were headed, Kenny Scharf wasn’t the one leading the way.

Pluralism, though, can become a homogeneity all its own. The art world embraces diversity not like Tamerlane (once the ruler of Samarkand) but like the Borg. “Your biological and technological uniqueness will be added to our own.” Less the great bazaar, and more a strip mall that had both a Taco Bell and a Panda Express. It is an arms race in which we each struggle to strip mine our culture and experience faster than our competition, and we find that global monoculture is a cloud with a lining not of silver but of Strontium 90.

So everybody knows the the fight is fixed, but what are you going too do about it? Revolution loses its luster once you’ve seen the sweatshops where they make the Guy Fawkes masks. And the obvious counterpoint to globalization, regionalism, has its own obvious failings. Living here in Flagstaff, Arizona, I see proof enough of that every day. Native crafts, particularly jewelry and ceramics, are strong here, but will always have to sit at the kids table of “fine craft,” that is when they aren’t called “outsider art.” Among the non-Natives, imitations of these styles run strong (as, it must be said, do very good and original creations in these traditional craft media). Photography? Sure, as long as it’s of a mountain. And God help you if you can’t sell a painting of a raven in this town.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hairy Who, the Monster Roster, and the Chicago Imagists. Chicago, I know, is sick to some extent of their legacy, if only because they dominated the local scene so heavily for so long. But these three related movements did something unique in their time, diverging both from the Modernist, Greenbergian Ab Ex that was the status quo at the beginning, as well as from the slick, clean Pop Art going on in New York. Chicago had, for a time, its own thing, as rare and exotic as a screeching monkey, an ivory carving, or a previously unheard of spice. This kind of regional movement with the teeth to hold its own on the global stage could emerge again, anywhere, in any city, any town, and if it did, might provide the kind of true diversity that could make possible a Silk Road of the art world, a bazaar of the unexpected, a new Samarkand.

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