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Monopoly and Masquerade – and Other Intercultural Entertainments

Monopoly and Masquerade – and Other Intercultural Entertainments

I am not convinced, as yet, that interculturalism can be anything more than a western utopian fantasy, if by interculturalism is meant some kind of mutual recognition and non-hierarchical collaboration among peoples of the world when political and material conditions remain, for the foreseeable future, fraught with appalling inequalities. It is in the everyday practice of culture that attitudes are most clearly revealed, and I should like here to address a few points regarding ‘multiculturalism’ as it has so far been practised recently in the western art system.

Multiculturalism takes different forms and meanings in different contexts. If, for the occasional non-western cultural producer, it can mean entry into the more economically advantaged western system, we nonetheless need to look more closely at the intentions of the West itself. Here, multiculturalism looks like a reification of difference – exoticism being its extreme expression – based on western assumptions that ‘authentic’ traditions are only those that pre-date contact with the West. Together with this is the assumption that others’ symbolic systems can be, and are, fully transparent to western understanding. Multiculturalism seems also at times synonymous with cultural relativism, a neo-liberalist and uncritical inclusion of all forms of cultural production, which ultimately disables oppositionality. We become confronted with a cacophony of different positions thrown into a stew-pot lacking any criteria by which to adjudicate aesthetic values or meanings other than cultural difference itself. Given that the informational and economic flow is unidirectional (from the Rest to the West), multiculturalism tends to be oversimplified to the point of trivialisation (or commodification). Speaking of Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata, the Indian cultural theorist Rustom Bharucha cautions that ‘interculturalists are more concerned with strengthening their own visions rather than representing other cultures in their own contexts.’1 All this parallels the situation of ethics where, in the absence of any telos, we are faced with either ethical relativism, or competing ethical positions, which leaves a weak and exposed field open to exploitation by more aggressive unethical forces.

The fields of aesthetics and philosophy have, until recently, been slow to involve themselves in postcolonial discourses, such that the most significant commentaries on intercultural relations have come from the more multidisciplinary area of cultural studies, in which, however, art becomes one of many socio-anthropological objects. That cultural studies itself may be an extension of the disciplinary strategies of Enlightenment panopticism is a question that remains begging here. However, one general point to be extrapolated from these studies is that cultural difference and identity are constructs brought into being by real or imagined pressures exerted on a community by what is perceived as ‘different’ or ‘foreign’ and therefore threatening to the coherence of its self-definition, and reinforced internally by the anxiety that the premises upon which it bases its affiliations may have no transcendental rational for their existence. The greater the insecurity, the more pugnacious become a group’s expression of defence and justifications for exclusionary ethnic practices. The metaphors constantly employed in this scenario are spatial: to do with territoriality, boundaries and their transgressions. ‘The otherness of the Other and the security of the social space (also therefore the security of its own identity) are intimately related and support each other.’2

If we accept that cultural identity is not a transcendental or natural given but a construct, or artifice, constituted by the selective inclusion and exclusion of a host of possible signifiers, then what we are dealing with on one level is a question of the use of language and its limits, where these are not to be found outside but in the experience of language itself. In this sense, intercultural may best be thought as an ambivalent or as yet unsignifying space, which marks the asymmetry or lack of commensurability between differing cultural terms. This is not necessarily a ‘negative’ space, but something like a synapse or inter-textual space across which the potential for cultural transformation might take place.

This is a space always yet to be negotiated, because – on a psycho-social level – the dominant Eurocentric practice of intersubjective relations is still locked into the binary opposition and symmetry of A to not-A, where A is fantasised as some stable measure against which not-A – the different – is either named as the negative of the selfsame, or the absolute other, in which case it is hardly ‘recognised’ at all. Both these options lead to reification or dehumanising of peoples as ‘others’. Insofar as the ‘multiculturalism’ of western hegemonic culture still seeks to absorb and neutralise the ambiguous or the unknown, it persists in the binary strategy of naming – i.e. measuring its distance from the Other (identifying, classifying, historicising, territorialising or otherwise fixing it according to its own criteria of selfhood), thereby failing to grasp difference, since, to represent difference is to dissolve it, and hence to foreclose the possibility of any mutual relation. It seems imperative to seek other, non-value-laden ways of conceptualising subjectivity, where the other (which is, in the long run, anyone who is not ‘I’, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.) is acknowledged as a fully cognitive subject in its own right, not as a mirror or as some thing there for the reassurance of the self – which was, I believe, the task Emmanuel Levinas set himself. For Levinas, the relation between self and other could not be symmetrical since his relinquishing of the ego-self and ‘being for the other’ was not contingent on the expectation of any reciprocity.

Postmodernism’s reputed decentring of the once self-possessed humanist subject is also a double-edged sword when it comes to attitudes towards ‘other’ subjectivities. On the one hand, to propose that the Eurocentric self is no longer the measure of all humanity seems to accept difference; on the other hand, as the Caribbean cultural theorist Stuart Hall has drily remarked, just at the point when postcolonial ‘others’ begin to gain recognition as subjects in their own right, subjectivity is said to be ‘decentred’. That is, the game rules have shifted: white subjectivity has now appropriated the disenfranchised condition of the colonised black subject, and the perpetrator comes to identify himself mythically as the victim (the Dances with Wolves syndrome). This is not, however, to endorse the extent to which the ‘other’ itself colludes in self-victimisation.

I want here, however, to leave these problematic questions, to return to attitudes as they are revealed in practice and focus on spatiality – or rather territoriality – and ‘multiculturalism’ in the art system. From the late ‘80s we witnessed an increased tendency in the northern metropolitan museums to exhibit cultural productions that they would previously dismissed as ‘poor copies’ of western art, or as curiosities suited to the ethnographic museum. For instance, in Britain, much self-congratulatory noise was made of the fact that the blockbuster of pre-modern (aka ‘traditional’) African art (where art is still a contested term) was staged in that old bastion of classical casts, bones and Eurocentric values, the Royal Academy, rather than the Museum of Mankind.3 But before we leap to conclude that this represented a sea-change in attitudes towards African art, we might pause to consider whether it rather indicates that the museums might be undergoing a crisis in identity – that the institutional interest in cultural pluralism may have more behind it than an apparent relinquishing of long-cherished definitions of universal aesthetic values, or a rather belated but benign acceptance of ‘cultural difference’, especially when considering that this interest coincided with an upsurge of European tribalism, xenophobic nationalist or regionalist rhetoric.

These multicultural curatorial adventures give the institution an aura of fashionable internationalism, and ‘others’’ art a semblance of value. But the fact that the exhibitions have almost without exception been packaged and received according to Eurocentric assumptions of an essentialist ethnicity or cultural authenticity, nevertheless maintains their separation and distance, spatially and temporally, from the West’s own art concerns, thereby ensuring that its coherence remains intact. In other words, they legitimise marginality, thereby sustaining the old colonial relations.4

The tendency of curators to trawl the Third World looking for examples of cultural authenticity uncontaminated by the influence of colonial politics or western aesthetics (a trend set by Magiciens de la Terre, 1989), has, for example, had an distorting effect on the African art market, where the collecting boom in naïve or folkloric African art has meant the elision of African artists educated in international modernism. It is tempting to attribute this preference for the folkloric to the fact that African modernism challenges the on-going fantasy of Africa as existing in some kind of intellectual childhood needing paternal guidance from the West. As Everlyn Nicodemus, artist from Tanzania, has pointed out, by the early 20th century, cultural exchange between Africa and Europe – not to mention a long history of exchange with the Middle East and India – was reciprocal.5 African artists were experimenting with western figuration and easel painting at the same time that Picasso was doodling with African sculptural forms. But this reciprocity produced a paradox: what was considered avant-garde from the point of view of European modernism was regarded as un-modern from an African perspective, and vice-versa. To recognise this paradox is to begin to acknowledge an independent African subjectivity. The situation emphasises the fact, however, that we need to think not of modernism as the invention or prerogative of the West, but of many modernisms, each with its own local cultural inflection, all of which, the West included, are in some way the consequence of the colonial enterprise.

In general, the trend in British multicultural curatorial projects has been to give visibility to that art which obviously displays its signs of ethnicity according to prescribed notions of what this is – that is, selective inclusion depending on the extent to which the work can be assigned as representative of what is in reality a heterogeneous body of people and experiences – and to dismiss art that refuses to conform to this game. In other words, they play with the frisson of exotic spectacle. In the absence of any evidence of a move towards intercultural exchange, (aside from Achille Bonito Oliva’s curatorial intentions for the Venice Biennale of 1993 which were, as I understand it, sabotaged by nationalist interests), we are left with the suspicion that we have entered another chapter in neo-colonialist appropriation, in which, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, ‘when the white man feels himself in need of spiritual sustenance he goes in search of the black man.’

And yet, there is another twist in this multicultural tale that is far more troubling because it is less transparent. In Britain, at the same time as we have seen an increase in liberalist multicultural exhibitions of art from the non-western world, we have seen two other trends: firstly, an initiative towards, then a withdrawal of, institutional funding for galleries and magazines supporting black artists born or at least educated in Britain, and little sign of their acceptance by the more prestigious public institutions. I want to emphasise that sponsorship of multiculturalism by the Arts Council or British Council has not grown from their initiatives, but has been the direct result of pressure from black artists and cultural workers insisting that as British subjects they had a right to participate in British cultural life. The second recent trend is the promotion by such conservative bureaucracies as the British Council of exhibitions for what the press likes to call the Young British Artists (YBAs), flagged by nationalistic rhetoric. This seems surprising at first, given the iconoclasm generally attributed to much of this work, until one realises that this is the kind of posturing familiar from the British satirical tradition, and therefore itself simply academic, perhaps even self-exoticising. These national promotions typically do not include black artists so do not, in fact, reflect the multi-ethnic fabric of British society and culture. However, one might ask, what kind of threat is posed to the institution of art by the black artist? To approach this question we need to consider how art and aesthetics are implicated in, or complicit with, national agendas.

Given these multiple cultural contradictions, we might speculate that what is at issue here is an internal crisis that has been steadily building, in Britain at least since the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is played out in the arena of cultural production precisely because this is the territory of representation, and we are dealing with contested realities and identities. Thus, what appears on the surface to be a global democratisation of the art system may be an elaborate masquerade to disguise the ongoing exclusive manoeuvres of hegemonic culture, in order to pacify or silence those voices coming from counter-hegemonic positions inside its national borders. In other words, the current institutional interest in staging high profile exhibitions of non-western art might be interpreted as a symptom of an internal socio-political crisis, which pivots around unresolved questions of race and ethnicity.

In part, the contradictions I have outlined above may be understood if we accept that we are in a time of global transitions, in which many of the values of the old social orders cannot be sustained. According to postmodern discourse, this is characterised, on the one hand, by the loss of faith in Eurocentric master-narratives – technological progress, democracy, universality and avant-gardism, to name a few, and on the other, by a crisis in identities. For Zygmunt Bauman, the rise in European tribalism and xenophobia has a lot to do with the failure of modernity’s universalising project, once encapsulated in the sovereignty of the nation-state and its legislation of society under – albeit limited class privilege – consensual principles. Where this illusion of universality breaks down there is a retreat into the relative safety of local concerns and identities. The metropolis, for instance, becomes a collectivity of sub-cultures. With respect to the crisis in identities, Kobena Mercer points out that ‘traditional sources of membership and belonging inscribed in relations of class, party and nation-state have been called into question.’6 Race is a pivotal factor here. That is, the crisis in identities is, in part, attributable to the effect of post-war independence and self-determination struggles by former colonies, together with anti-racist activism by the descendants of former slaves and colonial subjects now resident within the old imperial centres. Furthermore, for Mercer, at this point, the racial metaphor, still embalmed in the white/black dichotomy, becomes rearticulated from biology (i.e. from the now discredited notion of distinct races, ordered according to a genetic hierarchy) to politics, paving the way for the mutual identification of a multiplicity of counter-hegemonic struggles that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, cut across traditional racial, gender, class and political affiliations.

Within this scenario of restructuring identities, the mass media has played a significant but ambivalent role. It was clearly instrumental in the public dissemination of, and identification with, black American and colonial anti-imperialist struggles; but probably for this very reason has been increasingly mobilised by the state in its attempts to homogenise culture and manipulate public opinion, especially with the emergence of a New Right rhetoric. (This was amply demonstrated by the shameful strategies of disinformation and censorship imposed on the media by Thatcher’s government, which distorted the British public’s understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland.) With the New Right of the ‘80s, the racial metaphor shifted once again from politics to the territory of representation, to cultural difference, which now threatened the integrity of the British national identity, retrogressively reconstructed on Victorian models, thereby suppressing revised histories and analyses of class, gender and racial struggles.

By the 1980s it was clear that there was another player in the game to challenge the sovereignty of the nation-state: transnational corporatism. Most European states no longer have an economic power based in either local or colonial resources, but in the extent to which they can manipulate the commodity markets, international finance, or the information/communications networks. These, however, have increasingly become the domain of transnational corporatism (including the World Bank and the IMF), whose rise in political and economic power has contributed to the decline of the nation-state and its principles of democracy. The nation-state is a territorial entity originally conceived as having ethical obligations to its citizenry, whilst the corporation is independent of both national borders and ethical responsibility. On the contrary, it overrides borders and local differences with the aim of constructing a globalised consumer who speaks a common language and possesses common desires. Since cultural difference is also a marketable commodity, the racial metaphor once again becomes implicated in the threat posed to the coherence of the nation-state, this time through marketing of ‘alternative lifestyles’.

Both transnational corporatism and the communications networks operate through technologies that deterritorialise and detemporalise information, a structure that dispenses with the body, popular memory and finally truth. Since from our point of view as receivers we have no way of judging the truth of messages generated from a distance, and, from the perspective of the site of transmission, truth is the efficiency of the system, and not answerable to judgements made on ethical or aesthetic grounds.

The more the real power of nation-states declines, the more it entrenches its boundaries and expropriates cultural production, seeking credibility in its symbolic value: culture serves the image of the state, its myths of historical legitimacy and immortality; and, by extension, the notion of an ‘authentic’, coherent identity based in nostalgia for a sentimentalised past, constructions of collective memory and aspirations, and assumptions about ethnic characteristics. Among the vehicles through which it attempts this are the institutions that produce, promote and evaluate art, and it is here that the more academic forms of art are seen to collude in state mythology (Bonito Oliva called this the art of the university as against the art of the universal.)

The aesthetic preferences of hegemonic culture inevitably favour whatever reflects its desired image of itself (a credibility both national and international), and this is what is acquired by the museum collections as national patrimony. Under the rule of the upper classes, this was primarily the gravitas of traditional practices like painting and sculpture which could claim a genealogy traceable to a depoliticised classical past, or even a seemingly ahistorical, transcendental formalism – an ideological tabula rasa susceptible to opportunistic appropriation. We might therefore ask how far the privilege given by institutions to academic art that can be appropriated to the national identity are attempts to legitimise the state’s territorial claim. Or, how far current institutional interest in the work of exotic ethnicities, especially those based on natural, non-technological materials, is an ambivalent response, on the one hand, to the demand for self-identity against the threat of difference, and, on the other, to the fear of a loss of bodily space-time and a millennial nostalgia for a pre-industrial territorial ‘belonging’: to a lost arcadia against the deterritorialising, detemporalising and dehumanising effects of post-industrial life.

Clearly, whatever does not confirm the ideal national identity is not representable in itself. The art system as an organ of class, gender and ethnic privilege has always been complicit in a systematic exclusion of the non-representable citizen. This, in part, is why British state-funded institutions have been slow to include in their collections the work of women and artists classified as ‘ethnic’ who, as ipso facto second-class citizens, possess no entitlement to a voice. As Mercer comments, the term ‘ethnic minority’, used liberally by arts funding institutions during the 1980s, carries with it the connotation of the minor, or child: ‘a subject which doesn’t have the right to speak and is therefore spoken for by the state and its ‘representatives’.’7

However, in European countries comprising multiple ‘imagined communities’, each demanding a representative voice, the idea of a coherent national identity is not sustainable. We may all share the same system of signs, but we select and combine them differently to produce diverse interpretations of reality. As a consequence, what constitutes contemporary subjectivity is a diversity of often competing identifications and realities, differences and aspirations, which has the counter-hegemonic potential to challenge the excluding territorial cultural boundaries of the nation-state, and the deterritorialising commodification of difference by the globalising markets of transnational corporatism. However, what has precisely been in danger of disappearing, as Mercer sees it, is ‘the desire for dialogue about the common ground that used to articulate shared interests across the New Left and the new social actors.’8

In analysing the relations between Africa and Europe, the Nigerian philosopher Denis Ekpo argues that, under imperialism, the African was educated in Europe’s Christian humanist tradition, a language of ethics and democracy that Europe itself has since largely abandoned.9 Hence whenever Africa complains or demands reparation for European injustice and exploitation from the West in humanist terms, it is simply dismissed as irrelevant. Ekpo goes on to point out that it was Nietzsche who said that being was the will to power, and since the ‘being’ he was talking about was European, then the will to power is a fundamental characteristic of Europe’s being, and as such beyond its own judgements of good or evil. Following Nietzsche, Foucault demonstrated that humanist moral ideals were also implicated as masks or instruments in Europe’s ‘techniques of domination’. If this is the case, and as ethical responsibility presupposes agency, then we are left bereft of a language through which to act or to challenge this state of affairs; in this scenario, intercultural practice remains hostage to neo-colonial monopolistic games.


1 Rustom Bharucha, Theatre and the World. Performance and the Politics of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p 5.

2 Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics. Oxford UK and Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell, 1993, p 237.

3 The exhibition Africa: Art of a Continent, at the Royal Academy of Art, London, 4 Oct 1995 to 21 Jan 1996.

4 Concerning Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, an exhibition of 20th century Australia Aboriginal art held at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, in 1993, Djon Mundine, a member of the Bandjalung people and one of the curators, spent weeks trying unsuccessfully to persuade the Tate Gallery to buy a work. His argument was that, since the Aboriginal peoples were subjects of the British Crown, they had a right to be represented in the national collection.

5 Everlyn Nicodemus, in Seven Stories from Africa, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995.

6 Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, p 287.

7 Ibid, p 295.

8 Ibid, p 290.

9 Denis Ekpo, ‘How Africa misunderstood the west: the failure of anti‐west radicalism and postmodernity’, Third Text, no 35, Summer 1996, pp 3-13.

Published in Issues in Contemporary Cultural and Aesthetics, no 6, Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, 1997, pp 77-83.