The 50th Venice Biennale opened during last summer’s murderous European heat wave, and the dignitaries in attendance were not happy. “Even by Venetian standards it really is too hot, approaching 100F in the shade,” wrote Howard Jacobson of the London Guardian, “only there is no shade, and twice that when you throw in the humidity. Half an hour after the exhibition formally opens we are all too exhausted to go on.” It’s been suggested that the critics might have been more generous toward this most recent edition of the world’s oldest and greatest art show had the weather been a little cooler. But simple crankiness doesn’t account for the venom with which some of them attacked the Biennale and its director, Francesco Bonami. Jacobson’s colleague at the Guardian, Adrian Searle, was among the gentlest when he dismissed Bonami’s catalog essay as “a desperate wrestling with words.” New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman accused Bonami of producing “by far the sloppiest, most uninspired, enervating and passionless biennale that I can recall.” Kim Levin of the Village Voice went off the charts. She not only called Bonami’s Biennale “an unmitigated disaster,” she said his curatorial approach reminded her of certain cultural policies of Adolf Hitler.

Bonami was still chafing at that last one several months later when I visited him at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he’s served as the Manilow senior curator since 1998. Florentine by birth, American by oath–and therefore the first U.S. citizen, much less Chicagoan, ever to direct the Biennale–he doesn’t come across as much of a Nazi. More like a philosophy professor with better-than-average color sense: a lean, grayed, unpretentious 48-year-old whose short hair and stubbly beard segue into each other to create the impression of a tonsorial infinity sign circling his head.

Bonami was an art magazine editor before he became a curator and an artist before that, though he wasn’t specifically trained for any of those positions. As he tells it, his current eminence is the lucky culmination of a series of encounters with the zeitgeist. “I studied stage design in Italy,” he told me, “then I moved to the United States and became a painter.” He painted for five years during the 1980s, when artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat were the focus of a speculative bubble to rival the Dutch tulip craze of the 1630s. But Bonami didn’t share their success. “I have a couple of shows,” he continued in his peculiar English, a combination of extraordinary erudition and rudimentary grammar. “But then it was not very successful, so I slide down into art criticism….And then slowly I slide into curatorship.”

That last slide occurred in the early 90s, just as curating was asserting itself as an independent, even glamorous professional discipline. Bonami slid to the top. Over the last ten years he’s worked on prestigious events everywhere from Santa Fe to Frankfurt, London to Yokohama.

And of course Venice. First mounted in 1895, during the great era of industrial galas that included Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, the Venice Biennale was ostensibly a celebration of the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy, but was really a way for a declining city to reclaim its place in the world. The strategy worked, more or less. Venice is still in decline–a theme-park version of the fierce old mercantile empire, sinking into the waters of the Adriatic. But for six months out of every odd-numbered year it’s the world center of contemporary art. Like the Cannes film festival, the Venice Biennale has the power to validate artists, enrich dealers, enhance national status, satiate international partygoers, and fascinate the press.

It also anoints curators. For those in the profession who make a specialty of contemporary art nothing beats directing the Venice Biennale. Among important international shows, only Germany’s Documenta approximates the cachet of this venerable event, and appointment to the directorship is typically seen as a career-culminating honor reserved for men (and so far they’ve all been men) who’ve achieved a certain venerability of their own. Bonami’s immediate predecessor, an august Swiss named Harald Szeemann, was well into his 60s when he got his chance. That Bonami should ascend to the job while still on the young side of middle age came as something of a shock–especially because he was chosen over Robert Hughes, the 65-year-old art critic and author who was very publicly championed by Italy’s minister of culture, Vittorio Sgarbi.

Still, it was neither l’affaire Hughes nor Bonami’s relative youth that enraged the critics. What got to them was Bonami’s attempt to upset the festival’s balance of power–in fact, to stand it on its head.

Which brings us back to Szeemann. An epochal figure in 20th-century contemporary art, he both pioneered and exemplifies the notion of curator as auteur. Starting in 1961, as director of the Kunsthalle in Bern, he mounted a long series of groundbreaking exhibitions that shattered old disciplinary barriers, introduced Europe to pivotal artists like Joseph Beuys, and greatly enhanced his own visibility. In 1969–while film critics were battling over the auteur theory, which exalts the director as the central artistic force in the making of movies–Szeemann created a new paradigm for the art world by taking himself public as it were. He began working on an independent basis, unaffiliated with any particular institution and therefore unencumbered in the expression of his individual genius.

Over the next three decades Szeemann remained well out on the cutting edge of visual art and curatorial practice alike, so by the time he was tapped to direct the 49th Biennale in 2001 (having already directed the 48th) he was a lion in winter, and the show was seen as his magisterial summing-up.

Clearly he saw it as that and a good deal more. Calling it “Plateau of Humankind” in homage to Edward Steichen’s famous photographic essay “The Family of Man,” Szeemann framed the event as a millennial assertion of global human connectedness–in his words, a “raised platform offering a view over mankind.” The 49th Biennale was panoramic, optimistic, monumental, conciliating–even romantic, in the same sense that Esperanto is romantic. It was Szeemann’s Mount Nebo, his view into the promised land of the next century–and he was its Moses.

Then along comes this kid Bonami, who appears to consider Szeemann less a Moses than a Prospero dealing in illusions. Standing in the spot where just two years before Szeemann had conjured a pageant of humanity, Bonami saw a landscape of splinters. “The dream was that the arts could represent a universal language,” he wrote in his catalog essay for the 50th Biennale. “But…this common language was shattered by conflict in a world still divided into nations searching for identity and domain.” Far from establishing a new cultural harmony, globalization had so far yielded only a world full of white/black/brown/yellow/red noise. To mount a Biennale that failed to acknowledge this state of things was, in Bonami’s opinion, to deny a central fact of geocultural life. “I think that there’s no coherence,” he told me. “We talk so much about diversity, we talk so much about a fragmented culture, and I think the only way to show it is to show a fragmented culture.”

So Bonami consciously set about producing a fragmented Biennale.

His first move was to reject the auteurist conception of the curator, with its implications of order, unity, and dominion. “While the grand curatorships of the 20th century reflected an almost Christian attitude toward the exhibition, as if attempting the moral and cultural conquest of the world, today the curator’s attitude must be more pagan,” he declared. “Today’s exhibitions, like Greek tragedy, must address the clash of irreconcilable elements.” There would be no Moses, no Prospero, and certainly no Szeemann in the 50th Biennale. In a world without an organizing principle, a principal organizer was no longer possible.

The Venice Biennale is a vast affair–a biennale of biennales, with separate units dedicated to architecture, cinema, dance, music, and theater, as well as the visual arts. But even within this vastness, the visual arts have always been paramount, constituting a vastness all their own. Their domain includes the Giardini, a big park full of pavilions where last year 33 nations sponsored their own art exhibitions; the Museo Correr, a palatial facility off the Piazza San Marco; and the dozens of installations and shows that freckle the city, representing individual artists, arts organizations, and second-tier nations. As director, Bonami could exercise some degree of authority over all these venues, but the exhibition area that was most his–the place where he could declare his vision most freely, completely, publicly, and controversially–was a long snaking compound called the Arsenale.

It was in the Arsenale that Bonami took his stand against coherence. Essentially carrying out a coup against himself, he divided the compound into eight segments and parceled them out among 11 curators, who were free to mount their own shows addressing “issues that best define their respective curatorial practices and contexts.” Cairo-born curator Gilane Tawadros mapped out the cultural seismology of postcolonial Africa with an exhibit titled “Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes”; in the next space over, Slovenian curator Igor Zabel’s “Individual Systems” explored the aesthetics of idiosyncrasy as practiced by a group of mainly eastern-European artists. A few steps away Hou Hanru confronted the current world culture of continual change in a frenetic, Asia-centered show called “Z.O.U./Zone of Urgency.”

And so on, down what turned out to be a very long and crazy corridor. Bonami himself created a show for the Arsenale, “Clandestine,” but in the end his most provocative contribution was his diffidence. The other curators, he told me, “had total autonomy. I mean, I really didn’t say one word.” Several members of what might be called the Arsenale 11 confirm this. One of them, Rirkrit Tiravanija, commented by e-mail: “We as curators were given free hand in deciding our own concepts for the sections we were curating. At no time were we hampered or questioned in our decisions….So I think Francesco gave a lot of his position to us, the curators, and I think in that he should be given acknowledgement for doing what many others will never do, and that is to give up your power to truly work in a collaborative structure.”

Bonami wasn’t content merely to free the Arsenale 11. By breaking the Biennale into pieces–so that each piece became a separate conceptual island, and the whole a sort of archipelago, like Venice itself–he hoped to free the viewer as well. He reasoned that without a grand vision to lead them along and organize the experience for them, the more than 260,000 people who attended would be forced to organize the experience for themselves. To see it firsthand and make it their own–rather than, say, Szeemann’s. “The time may well have come for the eye to return to its original nature,” Bonami wrote in the catalog, “not only as an organ for looking at the world, but as a window through which the world can reach us. This Biennale could be that window through which the world can come.” He named this form of cultural populism “The Dictatorship of the Viewer,” and the phrase became his subtitle for the event.

And that’s where the critics went mad. “Am I the only one who hits a snag at the notion of the, uh, dictatorship of the viewer?” asked the Village Voice’s Levin. “Isn’t that what happens at art fairs? Isn’t that what Hitler proposed when he outlawed art criticism? Quite apart from that little conflict between the dream of individual freedom and the idea of dictatorship, the Abdication of the Director would have been far more precise.”

Some of Bonami’s curatorial peers were also less than enthusiastic. Lisa Dennison, deputy director and chief curator of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was quoted by Carol Vogel of the New York Times as saying, “Forget the notion of the dictatorship of the viewer: it was really dictatorship of the curators forcing viewers to take an active role. Having different portions of the Arsenale organized by different curators was confusing and hyperstimulating.” (Dennison told me that Vogel “completely misrepresented” her remarks, framing them as opinions when in fact they were offered as a guide to the issues raised by Bonami’s approach. “I actually liked the Biennale,” she said. Still, she acknowledged that the Arsenale shows generated too much “visual noise,” adding, “I really did feel it was the dictatorship of the curator.”)

Even Bonami’s boss, the MCA’s ebullient “Pritzker director,” Robert Fitzpatrick, had reservations. While he endorsed the logic of the dictatorship of the viewer–and extolled Bonami’s achievement in being appointed director of the Biennale, saying, “I thought it was an extraordinary honor not only for Francesco but for the MCA”–he conceded that the event seemed “crowded.” At times, he said, “the execution was not as good as the idea.”

The notion of a dictatorship of the viewer certainly raises questions. Coy allusions to Karl Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat notwithstanding, Bonami’s concept can be seen as an unwitting invitation to cultural consumerism. Walking through the Arsenale last summer, I found it hard to escape the thought that I was in a kind of profoundly aestheticized mall where visitors passed from the Tawadros salon to the Zabel store to the Hanru boutique, “buying” or rejecting artworks and curatorial concepts as if they were so many jars of eye cream. I doubt that Bonami would be fazed by the comparison: an exhibit he curated at another Biennale site featured a fantastical video produced by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to promote the Louis Vuitton brand. When I told Bonami that the video seemed like a capitulation to commercialism, he replied, “I think that [with] Murakami the interesting thing is when you see a bag of Vuitton [it] is not a bag of Vuitton but a bag of Murakami.”

I worry anyway. You don’t need to be a snob to recognize that consumerism can do ugly things to a culture–you just need basic cable. By ceding the right to design the viewers’ experience for them, Bonami has also ceded the opportunity to educate them. This may seem refreshingly unpedantic in the short run, but it’s not hard to imagine that this exaltation of the viewer may devolve over time into an exaltation of ignorance, leading to Biennales with all the gravity of an episode of Extreme Dating.

But the abstract possibility of future abuses doesn’t explain what Bonami himself conceded was “a vehement antipathy” toward this Biennale on the part of many experienced observers. What does explain it? Levin’s comment about Hitler’s attack on art criticism is telling because it implicitly acknowledges that the dictatorship of the viewer means the overthrow of the critic. An auteur like Szeemann makes criticism possible by boiling the vastness of the Venice Biennale down to a single unifying narrative–the “Plateau of Humankind,” for instance–that can be digested, interpreted, assessed, and regurgitated back to the public. By decentralizing the Biennale, Bonami not only failed to supply a unifying narrative but encouraged each visitor to come up with one of his own. That is, he knocked the critics out of their traditional spot in the pecking order of the exhibition. No wonder they were pissed.

Some of Bonami’s colleagues have offered their own analyses of the controversy. Hou Hanru attributed it to a failure of imagination. “We are living in a time when the ‘unusual’ does not appear interesting to many people,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Most of them have lost the taste for challenge. It’s sad.” Similarly, Rirkrit Tiravanija likened earlier Biennales to zoos where cultural exotics were “tamed into a caged situation” and viewed from “a safe distance.” He went on, “I think this Biennale has now put these conditions into question. You now in this exhibition have to deal with the unknown, and that unknown is not something that can be understood from the old viewing position. The view is now a tangled web of intersections and dead ends, [and] passivity will not get you through….There is no candied satisfaction.” Others, like Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le, suggested that the negative response can be traced to Western nostalgia for the good old days of international hegemony. “World Culture has always been fragmented,” he wrote. “Unfortunately it takes this long for the U.S. and Europe art world to realize this and start thinking in this way….Living in a chaotic city like Saigon, it makes sense to me.”

Every Biennale artist and curator I contacted agreed that, regardless of critical reaction, Bonami’s strategy was, as Israeli artist Etty Abergel put it, “generous and enabling.” She added, “I think that Mr Bonami deserves a big compliment for what he did in this Biennale [for] artists, curators, and the freedom of creation.”

I e-mailed Szeemann, asking him to comment on Bonami’s Biennale. He wrote back, “From the beginning Francesco said he doesn’t want to compete with my ‘visionary’ curatorship. Well, I have this gift, others not. I cannot blame somebody if he acts differently than me….But fundamentally there is a generation gap–I’m 70 and love to dream in great dimensions, others prefer the internet. My critique of this year’s Biennale is the loss of love.”

Bonami’s first response was to point out that the 50th Venice Biennale did better business than the 49th, reaping “30 percent more revenues from ticket sales.” Then he added, “Szeemann’s comments are both unfair and sad. The difference is that he was omnipresent, overwhelming, overshadowing even the art. I was present but allowed autonomy. I feel it’s quite important and innovative difference in curatorial practice. I dream in a broader way than Szeemann. In my dream there are always many people, not just myself….It is unfortunate that at 70 years old you feel like you need to assert yourself over and over. This experience in Venice has been revealing. I experience what Tao philosophy calls ‘mushin’–art beyond art, power beyond ego. If I will get to 70 this will have been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Again in Taoism they say, ‘Know fame and glory, yet remain humble as a valley.’ I think this is very important. I am very surprised that a man who claims himself as a visionary and has known fame and glory still needs to behave like a menacing mountain.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.