October 23, 2009

The Location of Culture

Dave Douglas has pointed to a report by New York's Center for Arts Education which is fighting for a good thing: It wants to improve arts education in New York's public schools. However, this report starts in a quite clumsy way:

In New York City, the cultural capital of the world, public school students do not enjoy equal access to an arts education. In fact, in schools with the lowest graduation rates—where the arts could have the greatest impact—students have the least opportunity to participate in arts learning.
What is the notion of culture and arts behind these opening words? In my opinion, there are quite a few disagreeable ideas behind these statements. The biggest flaw is the assumption that there could be something like a "cultural capital of the world", be it New York or any other place on earth, let's say, Ouagadougou, Alice Springs or Ürümqi. I beg for pardon for the following over-simplification, but I want to base my argument of on Homi Bhabha's groundbreaking work The Location of Culture. Culture is a process of negotiation between different centers. This negotiation can break up a hierarchic structure (e.g. center - periphery, colonizer - colonized, majority - minority or whatever dichotomy you might think of) and can give the weaker sides certain ways to react, interact, gain freedom to self-expression up to a certain extent. Therefore Bhabha sees the location of culture as a "third space", where socio-economic and political matters may have certain repercussions, but are not determinative of what is exactly negotiated in this third space called "culture". Now it is quite reasonable to think of the melting pot New York, where people from all the world bring their cultures to, as a meeting point for a lot of cultural and inter-cultural negotiations. But does that make it the world capital of culture? I think no. The negotiations necessary to form and create cultures have a floating nature. Culture can not only emulate different points of view, but also switch between them. Look for example at a great novel as William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Different voices look at the story from different geographical points and that causes the reader's idea about the center of power to shift several times: While the action takes place in the USA's deep south, this area seems to be the center of what the novel describes. The fact that the protagonist, Sutpen, has spent some years in Haiti, supports this point of view: Haiti is the colonial periphery that supports and informs the plantation world of the southern USA. Yet we know that the main narrator of the story is telling it to a young man from Canada, while they're both a college dorm in New England. From this point the South seems to be quite peripheral now: The old pre-Civil War South is something doomed to disappear when being viewn from the Northeast.
My example might look a bit far-fetched, however, what I want to show here is the shifting nature of center- and periphery-structures when we enter the world of art and culture. Therefore the idea of a firm and steady center or even capital of culture seems quite ridiculous to me.

There is a second, though minor point that is a bit disturbing in the quote above. They say that arts "could have the greatest impact" among students with difficulties of graduating. That implies that the arts are a kind of medicine for educational, social or other problems. I don't deny that art could have these functions and I myself find this argument quite helpful when it comes to convincing politicians to invest in the arts. Nevertheless, if we put such a statement into such a prominent position, it becomes a bit smelly. From the point of view of the arts themselves, we must defend their autonomy, with Adorno, if you like. While in the mode of production, art can serve as a catalyst for an individual's or a group's experiences with society and as a catalyst for the perceiver's stance towards his/her own social situation. However, art is not (or rather: not necessarily) worthless if it doesn't fulfill these catalyzing effects, mediating between society and individual. Again: Art IS useful, but it is in the first place a usefulness of connecting an individual human being with its humanness. If you want to heal people with certain defects, try psychology, education or medicine. If you want to repair certain social defects, try education, social work or politics first. Don't expect art to be the most effective medicine to cure these problems. Art is rather a pre-condition, a necessity for experiencing one's humanness.

I just had a related discussion with my wife. She is a great writer, but she doesn't get her works published in any official medium, she doesn't get her creations paying off economically. But that's not the point. It's not even the point, if she has an audience right now or not. She felt that her art is minor as long as she doesn't get paid for it. But such an idea means subdueing art under economy. Certainly we can't measure art with its financial value - though art certainly does have a financial value as well, but that's not within the system of art, but within the system of economy. Before I get even more rambling, I better stop here. My dear wife and all the other artists out there: Keep going and only check, if your art could help, heal or pay off after you created it. If you only create art with the purpose of helping, healing or paying off, it would be detrimental to your art.

1 comment:

ayu1234 said...

your words are powerful, qinaide. I will keep trying my best, although I am too often, not inspired enough, (other than being always sleepy.) Du bist sehr suess.:-)