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Globalization, technology changing the art world

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN
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(CNN) -- Globalization and technology are forcing artists, curators and museum directors to rethink the world of American art.

New art collectors are emerging from different parts of the globe and have pulled the art world away from the traditional centers of gravity in Europe and the United States.

The lines between high art versus popular culture and who consumes them seem to be blurring, according to some observers.

The traditional definition of "high art" -- referring to painting, sculpture, classical music, or opera -- descended from the eras of kings and aristocrats and carried connotations of wealth and elitism.

After the end of World War II, the era during which the United States came to the forefront of world art, this Eurocentric, elitist definition began to evolve, according to Sylvie Fortain, editor of Art Papers, a non-profit magazine that focuses on contemporary art.

Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who appropriated imagery from popular culture like Campbell's soup cans and comic book strips in their work, blurred the lines between high and popular culture. (View a timeline of American art)

More recently, the emergence of the Internet and the rise of digital culture are removing what little distinction is left.

"It is impacting the whole field and the definition of what is high art," Fortain said. "There is not only this huge reconfiguration of the market but also how and where artists produce."

Transcending geography

Contemporary art is becoming an anarchic mix of media, techniques and ideas.

The curators of the 2006 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City featured videos, films, performances, paintings, sculptures, photography and drawings highlighting the cross-cultural underpinnings of current American art.

"The definition of what constitutes American is in dramatic flux. Artists are moving around the world with an ever greater fluidity," curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne wrote in the biennial's preface.

"This fluidity has created a complex network of communication and artistic exchange that refuses to be contained by geographical borders."

In a recent collaboration, writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is a guest curator at the Louvre through the end of November, helping conceive a series of lectures, readings and slam poetry based on paintings at the Paris museum.

The economic infrastructure of the art world is also changing as a result of technology and globalization. International collectors are helping fund an art boom, and the Internet is allowing artists to showcase their work to a broader audience. (Read more about the recent art boom)

"Now, you have this much broader global distribution. It's no longer just a European and American dialogue," Art Papers' Fortain said.

"Pressure is coming from throughout South America as well as throughout Asia, where monster museums are being built at an increasing rate with new collectors popping up all over the place."

Auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's earlier this month generated $1 billion in sales, with records being set for 19 artists. (Read more about the record-setting auctions)

Observers partly attributed the sales to a greater presence of collectors from around the world. A Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao was bought by a Hong Kong businessman for more than $17 million during an auction at Christie's.

"I think what has brought the world together is prices," John Baldessari, a longtime observer of the art scene, told The Los Angeles Times. "That's a cynical thing to say, but all of a sudden, the auction houses have gone into China and India and Dubai."

Museums confront new era

Curators and museum directors must now try to satisfy a more fragmented and complex art audience that has a vast array of media and entertainment choices at its fingertips and may not come from a traditional art-lovers background.

"You'll find people who will go to a Milwaukee Brewers game here and then come to the art museum," David Gordon, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, said.

In response, museums across the country are employing new strategies to capture more of the potential audience. They are holding special events for younger patrons and establishing more ties to their communities. (Read more about what some museums are doing to lure visitors)

Some museums are expanding, adding new buildings designed by famous architects to create a buzz.

Because of a recently added building designed by Italian architect Santiago Calatrava, the Milwaukee Art Museum is attracting a wider audience than similar museums around the country, Gordon said.

"The building has literally put the Milwaukee Art Museum on the world map, and this is what museums often hope to achieve when they ask signature architects to do them an addition," he said.

Mid-sized museums in cities like Denver, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia, have done the same, and the expansions have been followed by high-profile international collaborations.

The Milwaukee museum recently opened an exhibition of early 19th century furniture in collaboration with the Louvre and museums in Berlin, Germany, and Vienna, Austria.

"I think it is part of the globalization of art," Gordon said, though he emphasized that museums have been collaborating across borders for years.

"It has given museum directors everywhere the feeling of how youthful and interesting it would be to increase the amount of their international collaborations."


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Visitors listen to slam poet D' de Kabal at the Louvre in early November.

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