Notes on globalisation, art and cultural difference
in Zones of silence, edited by the
Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam, 2001 .
There is a general concern that globalisation will impose homogenised
cosmopolitan cultural patterns built on Eurocentric foundations, which
inevitably flatten, reify, and manipulate cultural differences. This
fear has serious grounds. There is no doubt that the transnational
expansion of our age requires languages, institutions, and international
functions in order to make communication possible on a global scale.
Globalisation is only possible in a world that has bee previously
reorganised by colonialism, with Western culture acting as a macrosystem
that articulates the contemporary world. The original European culture
turned into a metaculture in permanent construction and deconstruction
according to the struggles an negotiations of the various hegemonic
and subordinate strata of both what we still call the Western and
non-Western world although these polarities have become blurred.
Beyond all of this, what is feared is a planetary radicalisation toward
a homogenised international culture, launched from the United States.
This tendency would end up by eliminating local traditions as reservoirs
of identity. Standing out is the powerful diffusion of North American
pop culture whose inventiveness dynamism, and powerful networks of
circulation and marketing have spread its influence throughout the
world. Already at the en of the thirties, Clement
Greenberg was saying that Kitsch was th first universal culture(1).The
consolidation of English as the language of international communication
on a global scale causes great concern, even expressed recently by
a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. It speaks volumes that
Esperanto, that Utopian invention has been relegated to a sort of
hobby, its universalistic project realised in the language of power,
business, and publicity. Today even dogs are trained in English, and
it is said that they understand this language better than any other.
It is not simply a matter of language, communication, and mass culture.
These processes are aiso woven into 'high' culture. When the fine
arts are discussed in very general terms, people tend to use the terms
'international artistic language' or 'contemporary artistic language'
as abstract constructions that refer to a type
of art English in which today's 'international' discourses are spoken(2).
Both terms are highly problematic. In fact, the term 'international
language' can only be coined in the fine arts with respect to the
mainstream and the kind of cultural product it distributes, erasing
from them all pretense of universality and of exclusive representation
of the contemporary. Frequently, being 'international' or 'contemporary'
in art is nothing but the echo of being exhibited in elite spaces
on the small island of Manhattan. In that limited context, certain
mainstream canons could be denominated as 'international'. Given their
legitimising aura, they are imitated or appropriated by the peripheries.
By the thirties, a sort of language of modernism had been forged,
the result of a paradoxical assemblage of the various ruptures produced
by the historical vanguards. A stock of resources had been established,
drawing from various tendencies that artists were using, combining
or transforming at will. The explosion of pop, new performance, minimalism,
conceptualism, and other orientations that were later called postmodern
produced another rupture. But by the nineties, a sort of 'postmodern
international language' had been instituted, prevailing over the so-called
international scene even while its coinage as a dominant code denies
de facto the pluralist perspective of postmodernity.
The extreme case is the figure of the international installation artist,
a global nomad who roams from one international exhibit to another,
his/her suitcase packed with the elements for a future work of art
or the tools to produce it in situ. This figure, an allegory of the
processes of globalisation, represents a key rupture with the figure
of the artist-craftsman linked to a studio in which the work of art
is produced. Now the artists export themselves. Their work is closer
to that of the manager or engineer who is travelling constantly to
attend to specific projects and businesses. The studio, that ancestral,
vulcanian site linked with the artist, becomes more a laboratory for
projects and design than for production. Thus the physical link of
demiurge-studio-work of art that associated each of the three elements
within a specific space and, furthermore, with a locus and its geniuses,
is broken. This type of artwork and methodology has a genetic relationship
to the international postminimalist-postconceptualist language. With
it, a kind of circulation based on biennials, thematic shows, and
other forms of collective global exhibits is facilitated and markedly
The exclusivist and teleological legitimisation of the 'international
language'of art acts as a mechanism of exclusion towards other languages
and discourses. In many art institutions - as among many art specialists
and collectors - prejudices based on a sort of axiological monism
prevail. In a sort of catch-22, this circle tends to regard - with
suspicions of illegitimacy - art from the peripheries that endeavors
to speak the 'international language'. When it speaks properly it
is usually accused of being derivative, when it spesks with an accent
it is disqualified for its lack of propriety toward the canon.
Frequently works of art are not looked at: they are asked topresent
their passports, which tend not to be in order, for those works are
responding to processes of hybridisation, appropriation, resignification,
neologism, and invention as a response to today's world. This art
is asked to present an originality related to traditional cultures,
which is to say, oriented toward the past, or to show an abstract,
pure originality toward the present. In both cases, such art is required
to state its context rather than to participate in a general artistic
practice which on occasion couid only refer to art itself.
The appropriation of modernism by the peripheries turns out to be
interesting within this order of things. This appropriation signified
an active construction of modernism itself, diversifying its language,
meaning and aims. But we do not usually tend to consider a global
modernism that reacts to different contextual situations. Thus, José
Clemente Orozco is always discussed within Mexican muralism, never
as one of the great artists of expressionism. In this substraction
of interpretation the positions of the central powers, which confine
difference into the ghetto, coincide strangely with nationalism, which
encloses difference behind a wall.
In this sense, the term authenticity has been employed, through a
narrative of purity of origins, to dispualify postcolonial culture,
accusing it of westernisation. This usage becomes even more problematic
in an age in which complex re-adaptations of identities are taking
place. Globalisation, the postmodern opening, and the pressure of
multiculturalism have moved us toward a greater plurality. But in
general, and above all in elite circles, globalisation has responded
less to a new consciousness than to a tolerance based on paternalism,
quotas, and political correctness.
On the other hand, the new attraction toward otherness has allowed
for a greater circulation and legitimation of art from theperipheries,
above all as channeled through specific circuits. But too frequently,
value has been placed on art that explicitly manifest difference or
that better satisfies the expectations of otherness held by postmodern
neoexoticism. This attitude has stimulated the self-olherising of
the peripheries in which some artists - consciously or unconsciously
- have tended toward a paradoxical self-exoticism.
The case of 'international language' in art reveals a hegemonic construct
of globalism more than a true globalisation, understood as a generalised
participation. Today we have both mainstream circuits and hegemonic
alternative ones, with their mainstream and anti-mainstream establishments,
the latter being also exclusivc although broader than their counterparts.
Both legitimate in each own field, and actively interacting. Dominant
major and minor circuits of museums, galleries and publications (what
we might call the 'universalisers') construct the 'worid art scene',
even unintentionally. This system claims to legitimise specific practices
without conceiving of the international or contemporary culture as
a plural game board of multiple and relative interactions.
The rhetoric regarding globalisation has abounded in the illusory
triumph of a transterritorial worid, decentralised, omniparticipatory,
engaged in multicultural dialogues, with currents flowing in all directions.
In reality, globalisation is not as global as it appears. Or, to paraphrase
Orwell, it is far more global for same than for others. Even the Internet,
paradigm of a new era in free universal and individual communication,
connects a small percentage of the world's population. The mythification
of the processes of globalisation and the spread out of communications
lead us to imagine a planet interconnected by a network that extends
in all directions. The speed of the avenues of optic fibers and satellitesmakes
us forget the congested avenues of the megalopolis and the flight
corridors, or the critical lack of avenues and highways in a large
part of the world. Cyberspace may be a virtual paradise, a designer
drug for escaping the global cybermess.
It should be obvious that globalisation does not consist of an effective
interconnection of the whole planet by means of a woven grid of communication
and exchange. Rather, it is a radial system extending from diverse
centres of power of varying sizes into multiple and highly diversified
economic zones. Such a structure implies the existence of large zones
of silence, barely connected to one another or only indirectly, via
the neometropolises. In the years I was travelling through Africa
I found in practice that frequently the best way to get from one country
to another bordering country was via Europe. This axial structure
of globalisation and regions of silence constitute the economic, political,
and cultural networks of the planet, motivating intense migratory
movements in search of connection.
There has been little progress in South-South linking, other than
economic recessions. Globalisation has certainly improved communications
to an extraordinary extent, it has dynamised and pluralised cultural
circulation, and it has provided a more pluralist consciousness. Yet
it has done so by following the very channels delineated by the economy,
thus reproducing in good measure the structures of power. When I hear
a certain postmodern optimism regarding decentralisation and the rupture
of hegemonies, I always recall a story by Augusto Monterroso, the
author of the shortes stories ever written. Its title is The Dinosaur
and it consists of a single line: 'When I awoke the dinosaur wes still
The lack of horizontal interaction is a colonial legacy barely modified.
This situation urges the peripheries to undertake stronger efforts
to establish and develop horizontal circuits that act as cultural
life spaces. Such circuits will contribute to pluralising culture,
internationalising it in the real sense, legitimising it in their
own terms, constructing new epistemes, unfolding alternative actions.
On the other hand, pluralism can be a prison without walls. Borges
once told the story about the best labyrinth: the desert's incommensurable
openness, from where it is difficult to escape. Abstract or controlled
pluralism, as we see in some 'global' shows, can weave a labyrinth
of indetermination confining the possibilities toward real, active
We are living in a post-utopian epoch of reformism that seeks change
within what exists, instead of changer la vie. But many transformations
are taking place in silence. Part of them came out of a Lampedusan
strategy from power establishments, aimed to change so that everything
remains the same. Power today does not strive to confront diversity,
but to control it. However, mutations also correspond to the international
activity of new social and cultural subjects, postcolonial processes,
massive urbanisation in Africa, Asia and Latin American, with its
cultural and social implications, extensive migrations all over the
world, with their cultural displacements and heterogenisation, and
other processes from 'the bottom up'.
Many are the conflicting ways of difference and decentering in this
presumably global world, which is ruled by the fundamentalism of the
market and competition. Today, culture constitutes a camp of post-Cold
War tensions, in which the conflicts and negatiations of power are
interlaced. They engage over assimilation, tokenism, the rearticulation
of hegemonies, the affirmation of difference, the critique of power,
and appropriation and resemanticising from all sides among other tensions.
In a polemical book, Samuel Hunting ton has stated
that the orientations defined by ideology are making way for those
defined by culture(3). Even
if this statement is very problematic because, among many other things,
the 'dinosaur' o ideology is still there, it highlights how culture
has become a crucial element in the international interplay.
This general situation is producing a rearticulation in the realm
of culture and identities that cannot be discussed efficiently based
on the paradigms that had once prevailed. When at the end of the seventies
the Japanese scholar Suichi Kato lamented that
he could not find 'the Japanese soul' in a powerfully westernised
Japan(4), he was unable
to understand that this 'Japanese soul' was running things in its
own fashion. It was manifested in a different form of constructing
westernisation, according to the structure and institutions of the
country's society and culture. If those components were transformed
in the process, they also determined it, producing a Japanese-style
westernisation, inconceivable in the West. Today, the 'Japanese soul'
lies not only in the kimono and tea, but also in Sony, Toshiba, and
To affirm cultural identity in tradition, understood in a sense of
'purity', is a colonial heritage. It led to disastrous cults to 'authenticity',
'roots', and 'origins', above all in the postcolonial era when the
new countries attempted to affirm their identities and interests against
the metropolises and their imposed westernisations. Now there is an
ever-growing tendency to see identity in action, in terms of the present
and the future, according to how each subject makes contemporaneity.
Wole Soyinka once said that a tiger does not proclaims its tigertude:
Paradoxically, the global world is becoming the world of difference.
Globalisation aims for conversion and domination also implies more
generalised access. If its imposition seeks to convert the 'Other',
its availability facilitates its use for the 'Other's' own, different,
ends, transforming the metaculture from within. If the latter retains
its hegemonic character, the subordinate sectors are taking advantage
of the metaculture's international broadcasting capability to transcend
local frameworks. Used from the other side, it has allowed the dissemination
of varying perspectives and has undergone adjustments in line with
Furthermore, every process of homogenisation on a large-scale - even
when it succeeds in smoothing out differences - generates other, new
ones within itself, like Latin shattering into romance languages.
This stands out in the heterogeneity that immigrants are producing
in the megalopolises. Like it or not, today we all participate in
extremely intense mediations of cultural differences overlapping the
construction of new urban culture, neologisms, and 'border culture'
as much in places where physical borders exist as where they do not,
or where the border is nothing but a street. To the imbalance of certain
African 'traditions' though inevitably new and dynamic forms will
emerge in their place. Nevertheless, that does not mean that these
traditions must or ought to develop along the
same lines by which the West has defined its own progress'(5).
These developments correspond to other facets of the postcolonial
affirmation of the differences and consequent cultural pluralisation
to which I have referred. It is necessary to emphasise, however that
this is not a matter of the actualisation and dynamisation of remnants
of the precolonial past. The 'new and dynamic forms' of these traditions
are postcolonial traditions, they are born and exist in milieus that
have aiready been westernised, for which reason they will be by necessity
hybrid, syncretic, or neologic even when they aspire to a reconstitution
of a traditional past or seek in doing so to reaffirm difference.
Such forms will have to articulate themselves, though it is by negation
in the extreme case, in the tense globalisation-difference framework
that embraces us all.
A truly global diffusion and evaluation of culture is only possible
through a multidirectional web of interactions. We are urged to embrace
more initiative to organise South-South and South-North circuits able
to pluralise what we understand by 'international art', 'international
art language' and 'international art scene', or even what is called
'contemporary'. Equally important is the construction of international
and contemporary art and culture in a true international way: in differences
and from differences. That is, enacting difference rather than representing
it, thus actively fashioning the 'international language' in multiple
ways. It is necessary to cut the global pie not only with a variety
of knives, but also with a variety of hands, and then share it accordingly.
This is neither revolution nor political correctness: it is a need
for all if we do not want an endogamous culture.
The key point is who exerts the cultural decision(6),
and on whose benefit is it taken.
Gerardo Mosquera is a freelance curator and
art critic based in Havana; Adjunct Curator at the New Museum of
Contemporary Art, New York City, advisor at the Rijksakademie van
Beeldenden Kunsten, Amsterdam, and a member of the advisory board
of several art journals and institutions. He was a founder of the
Havana Biennials, and has curated many exhibitions, including It's
Not What You See. Perverting Minimalism (Madrid, 2000); Important
& Exportant (2nd. Johannesburg Biennale,1997), and Ante America
(Bogota, Caracas, New York, San Francisco, San Diego...,1992-1994).
Author of numerous texts on contemporary art and art theory, Mosquera
recently participated in fresh cream (London, 2000), edited Beyond
the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (London,
1995), and is currently co-editing Over Here. International Perspectives
on Art and Culture (working title) for the New Museum/MIT Press
Documentary Sources on Contemporary Art.
Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde
and Kitsch', (1939) in his Art and Culture (Boston, 1961), p. 12.
Gerardo Mosquera, '¿Lenguaje
internacional?', Lápiz (Madrid, No.121, April 1966), pp.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash
of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, 1996).
Cited by Mikel Dufrenne: Main
Trends in Aesthetics and the Sciences of Art (New York and London,
1979), pp. 44-42.
Candice Breitz: 'Why African
Avant-Garde Artists Have Never Existed', Atlántica (Las Palmas
de Gran Canaria, No. 11, Fall 1995), p. 60.
Guillermo Bonfil Batalla: 'Lo
propio y lo ajano: Una aproximación al problema del control
cultural', in Adolfo Colombres (editor): La cultura popular, 1987,
Mexico City, pp. 79-86, and 'La teoria del control cultural en el
estudio de procesos étnicos', Anuario Antropológico,
University of Brasilia, No. 86, 1988, pp. 13-53. See also Ticio
Escobar: 'Issues in Popular Art', in Gerardo Mosquera (editor),
Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America,
1995, London, INIVA and MIT Press, pp. 91-113.