The Global Art Compass – New Directions in 21st Century Art

A compass, by definition, is an instrument showing directions. Is it possible to have a tool like this for seeing directions in arts in our complex world? Even the author, Alistair Hicks, admits that there are moments, when he realizes the total insanity of attempting a global survey of art. Another excellent art professional mentioned in the book - Edward Said says: “Just to think about the visual arts generally sends me into a panic.” Isn’t the art world like the work featured on the cover, Oraib Toukan’s The New(er) Middle East (2007), a bit of an insoluble puzzle?

Alistair Hicks takes up the challenge and suggests four perspectives on contemporary art, with four different stories from East (Asia), West (The Americas), North (Europe) and South (Africa and The Middle East). The author lets the artists speak by bringing to our attention plentiful of works of art, which he links interestingly. The essays featuring the heavy hitters and lesser-known artists are engaging. Looking for art pieces that may help to redefine our conventional way of thinking in the rapidly changing world, Hicks often goes off the beaten track. The survey concerning some regions appears more difficult as in the chapter about the South, which is supported by knowledge of Okwui Enwezor concerning local artists.

We're advised by the author: “We should not let any single curator, critic or dealer monopolize our view of what is happening. This book aims to let its readers steer their own way with the aid of the flickering light from the stars in the art world, the artists themselves.” Ironically the book is a one-man view, it’s the author who uses his compass to create his survey of art around the world and there are many personal confessions involved, starting with Berliner love affair with Nefertiti and continuing through the book (is it essential to know about all those dinners or relationships?). On the other hand the aim of the book: “to encourage people to activate their own innate bearings to the exciting developments in the art worlds”, is in a way fulfilled. The author shows how to seek out artists who add something significant to our knowledge of the world. Even if it means something else for each of us, Hicks touches upon crucial issues when highlighting common threads and mapping the contemporary art world, among others: effects of colonialism, migrations or nomadic way of living, challenges of constantly changing world and the Internet, disconnection from the roots or decentralization. These are paramount issues to face and art can be indeed very helpful in sorting them out. The book shows numerous directions artists are heading now, while trying to locate themselves in the contemporary world, which is a big laboratory, sometimes exciting but often bringing tough conclusions. As the author aptly remarks: “Not only, as Ernst Gombrich says, is there no such a thing as art, just artists, but each time these artists make a new work of art, they need to reinvent themselves. To benefit fully from all this activity we need to constantly adjust the compass within us, to examine the pulls of different poles in order to keep ourselves open and continuously reinvent ourselves.” Time to navigate through deep (and confusing) waters of contemporary art. Your compass ready? 

On a more technical note – as usual Thames & Hudson perfect selection of paper and format (both work great with the hard cover) makes reading a pure pleasure. The text doesn't leave the reader to their imagination but is richly illustrated, many of mentioned works are featured. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alistair Hicks is Senior Curator of the Deutsche Bank art collection. His previous books include New British Art in the Saatchi Collection, The School of London: The Resurgence of Contemporary Painting and Art Works: British and German Contemporary Art, 1960-2000. 


The Global Art Compass – New Directions in 21st Century Art, Alistair Hicks, Thames & Hudson