The Geopolitics of Art as a Querelle – Martí Peran
These notes summarise the speech given at a meeting inspired by the notion of Singuniversal as outlined by Thierry de Duve in a conference in Mumbai in 20061. Using this peculiar concept, the author suggested neo-colonialist drifts underlying the numerous peripheral biennials should be corrected, and he called for specific aesthetic attention to be cast on local productions prior to their being validated as a cultural commodity according to Western parameters. This premise still stands: instruments are urgently needed to preserve the capacity of art to listen to and produce difference rather than behaving as a subordinate instrument for imposing hegemonic arguments.
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The controversy known as Querelle, which opened up the course of aesthetics in the 17th century to its Erudite and Modern ones,2 may in fact be summed up as a dispute over two very different ways of conceiving Tradition. On the one hand, the Anciens announced they favoured interpreting it as a principle of authority to such an indisputable extent that there was no room left for anything but its true, mechanical reproduction; on the other, the Modernes were inclined to defend the argument that the only way to guarantee continuity of this same Tradition required regarding it as a starting point, which compelled them to permanently update its essence. In any case, neither side intended to break with Tradition but ensure its effectiveness, either by way of a strategy of reproducing or adapting. This very dilemma is precisely the one which to some extent is being reproduced today managing the Western canon of art in the context of the new geopolitics of knowledge.
Indeed, in recent decades we have witnessed a proliferation of movements through which the system of art allegedly gives up its Eurocentric bias and attempts to open up to different local habits. The attention cast towards artists from the edge and exporting the biennial model to remote spots, besides highlighting the global distribution of cultural power, have been deployed with a halo of kindness and generosity towards difference which, however, must be analysed with caution. This text aims to show that all the attention cast on other contexts should actually be interpreted as an operation of approach similar to the logic of delocalised cultural capitalism and a new international way of dividing work. From this perspective, the system of art would simply develop the necessary protocols to guarantee its hegemony in the global perimeter, and thus the debate lies, just like a new Querelle, between simply organising instruments to export the Western canon and promote its reproduction or, much more sibylline, adapting this same canon local experiences to enable its expansion. In the text below the processes used by each of these strategies [see table] will be defined but it should be mentioned that, as occurred with the victory of the Modernes over the Anciens, today they impose the most complex expansionist dynamics to favour adapting the Western canon locally. For years exporting the Western canon to peripheral lands has been the most generalised way to guarantee the model’s hegemony. In sum, this means applying the techniques of the most ordinary, conventional colonialism to the system of art: occupying and directly controlling the territory. Seen from this angle the first exports of the Biennial model to Istanbul and Havana in the 1980s and Johannesburg, Taipei, Sharhaj or Dakar unstoppably following in their wake up to the End of the World may be thus interpreted3.
Of course, in each of these projections of the Western model certain degrees of relevance are provided for the local artists in the form of biennials, but always with contributions that perfectly fit the global dominating trends. The apotheosis of this type of concessions clearly arose in the Canonical Venice Biennale in 2003 when several “peripheral” curators were invited to orchestrate a plural viewer’s dictatorship4 which only served to show the reversibility of all the oeuvres within a highly homogenous narrative.
But the strategies of exporting the canon don’t stop at suddenly promoting predictable biennials wherever there’s a market anxious to join the global circuit. There is another more effective way to speed up this export which might be interpreted as “internal colonialism”5. This involves guaranteeing control of the territory through participation of local agents who are adequately trained in the Western model. Thus, it is necessary for the mechanisms to be adequately articulated for efficient team formation in the metropolis which, once taught, may begin to export the canon to their own countries. This process can be clearly seen with numerous examples: the artists and, above all, the young directors of Art from Cairo are trained in London, those from Istanbul in Berlin or Frankfurt, those from Mexico in Los Angeles or New York and those from Santiago de Chile in Houston or, if no other is available, Madrid or Barcelona. Through different collaboration programmes two expectations are resolved at once: they are taught the model which must immediately be exported over local production and, in a domestic vein, this covers the psychological, literary and economic need to link the central area where the narrative is built with lands which must provide it with difference and exoticism: a perfect operation, without questioning the relevance and centrality of the place where the theories arise.
According to an overgenerous view of the geopolitics of knowledge, aged, exhausted Western culture’s only perspective of survival lies in the stubbornness of other cultures imitating and prolonging it. This diagnostic contains remnants of success and truth, but is probably too naive. This alleged voluntary imitation avoids the basic role that may be played by local agents trained in the metropolis, as instruments towards a local internalising of the Western canon until a sort of self-imposition is guaranteed. Western culture, according to these dynamics, may no longer be interpreted as something injured and becoming extinct but as an almighty model able to govern a global territory by the sibylline use of protocols of self-government.
While these processes of exporting the Western art canon to other countries work through a direct control over the destination, adapting the same canon to local experience exerts control from a distance, with less noisy and less palpable signs at first glance, but much more effective compared with the mechanisms of production and management of knowledge. Indeed, as we shall see right now, adapting the canon is achieved through two procedures directly linked to local experiences: its management as a raw material for a production process directed from its hegemonic centre, and the link of imagination which runs through these experiences with the global information networks through which a narrative homogenization is accelerated. Let us now see this, albeit briefly.
According to Homi Bhabha’s analysis made some time ago, the colonial discourse is legitimised by attributing a number of stereotypical and anti-ethical roles to the production of knowledge of the colonisers and colonised which guarantee the hierarchical supremacy of the former over the latter6. This is perfectly clear, for example, in the clash between the idea of women in the west and the same gender according to “third world” conventions, which becomes more complex in the field of contemporary art. In this sector it seems that everything is more devious and confusing since, in fact, from the viewpoint of the Western canon local narratives are attended as if they conveyed some genuine information on difference which, from the outset does not seem to presuppose any hierarchical relationship but the complete opposite; however, this fascination with difference (so often identified as a fascination for sub-ordinance and informal practices of subsistence) are, in the end, simply satisfying the need for new raw material to be published according to the codes of the dominating narrative. In other words, the local difference facilitates the resources while the hegemonic canon is still in charge of controlling the process of publishing the end product. This system should be analysed especially calmly nowadays, when the everyday stage for ways of life in Western culture has halted at the model of banal wellbeing and blindly accumulating material unable to feed the imagination, an appeal to far away countries too often guarantees encountering a crude raw material ready to be cooked7 in our boring, empty chambers.
The instructions, descriptions, diagrams and drawings add up to form a manual, meant both at professionals, public institutions, and private citizens who are faced with the problem of how to deal with the remnants of colonial architecture. The manual will determine to what extent the evacuated structures are flexible to accommodate new uses and will demonstrate the various ways that they can be adapted or transformed.
There’s no need to provide many examples to prove this adaptation of the canon presented in the way of a hierarchical link between the local narrative’s position as raw material and the position of the canon itself as being responsible for the ultimate production process. The same short-sightedness involved in insisting on reducing it to identify the difference with its sub-ordinance is enough to see this. While the stress on approaching the edge continues to be clouded, focusing on the squalid, more than constituting an act of justice, what grows stronger is the anti-ethical relationship which places the Western perspective in a privileged position compared to any other and this privilege ends up legitimising it as being the dominating perspective in charge of shaping all narratives. The importance of the ways of speech cannot be underestimated and, from this viewpoint, even when art is committed to raising awareness of different things or unfair different things, ultimately only gathers these situations according to their linguistic registers, their aesthetic protocols and the ideological cases on which they are established.
This privilege of the metropolis (now watered down to the euphemism of “the Western perspective”) in control of the production process turns the art industry into just another example of the delocalised economy. The end territory is the place where resources lie (attractive subjects), labour (teams of artists and curators eager to join the circuit) and, when feasible, even the end production (through biennials and various events); but the road map for this whole process is written at the origin, there where the costs would be excessive and where furthermore there is now supposedly little to tell. But sometimes it occurs that this delocalization of production, apparently encouraged by a real horizontal interest in the difference factor, uncovers its inevitable hierarchical condition. This happens, for example, with the recurring appeal and examining of the mishaps suffered by the Modern Project in former European colonies8. Of course it is worth questioning the intervention of colonialism through modern architecture and urban planning, but this reconstructing the failure of the European model in Caribbean countries or in African deserts still highlights the prominence of a hegemonic narrative which, in the end, is more focused on different kinds of modernism due to the distance, which does not allow local efficiency of the modern model because of this very difference; that is, despite the unarguably critical register of this kind of projects, what prevails is a self-reflection on the main narrative which thus conserves its pre-eminence.
By adapting the Western canon, recognised as a neo-colonialism capable of exerting control from a distance beyond the logic of a delocalised production, we develop another resource where it might be recognised as cooptation of the imagination inside the networks of Information. This mechanism, as we shall see below, is like cancelling the expectations which Arjun Appadurai promised some time ago when he believed imagination as a social practice capable of using forces of offsetting resistance would reorder cultural differences as opposed to the process of homogenization9. Indeed, Appadurai expressed the hope that this process of globalisation would serve as inspiration to awaken certain local narratives and these, while being deployed, would end up becoming ingredients which could not avoid globalization. However, the new geopolitics of knowledge, as we have seen, even organising the production of knowledge internationally by using differences as raw material, prioritises a single model of Information Society based on global and totalitarian distribution of just one narrative. Indeed, the Western perspective which controls production and hegemonic maintaining the canon, distributes it through a complex web of networks in the information society which, to guarantee the effectiveness of its expanding distribution, finally, only requires a simple connection between the main hubs of the same networks. This is the tremendous confusion between Information –that which should facilitate access to plural narratives– and the Connection –that which reduces local narratives and difference to being an agent connected with the set of dominating theories–; in other words, the geopolitics of knowledge, disguised with costumes of an information society, accelerate access to canonical knowledge but does not guarantee the real production of knowledge. Interlocutors do not multiply by connections but resolves the merely spreading the canon’s information. Perhaps in this despotism of communications10 the networks have already become one-way streets and each come from one and the same centre of the metropolis. The consequence of all this, besides Appadurai’s optimism, is that local differences, reduced to a receiving point of connection, are deactivated as points of transmitting singular narratives with their own imagination. The networks of imagination which constant meetings should have built between different narratives for a true production of knowledge, at the end of the day were co-opted inside the networks of Information which became a mere spreading of the canon.
In short, if it is true that the Western canon guarantees its hegemony by using these strategies through banal reproduction or detailed updating, thus within this alleged Querelle, one only believes in imposing a model of global highlighting due to the need of adapting it through a suspected in-situ intervention. In any case, in the debate raised by these two cases, there is no way to preserve art’s hypothetical capacity for listening and producing difference. It is necessary to overcome the false limitation of the Querelle exactly as performed by the historical avant-garde against the moderate modernity of the Enlightenment. For this the only possible horizon requires it to be turned into something local, no longer an object of study or link but an enclave from which and based on which to operate such potential of thought. The networks of imagination must be freed from the space of information which simply disseminates a model. It might not be enough to appeal for a kind of site-specific intervention either, more than something purely phenomenonological and institutional, in the way genuine “discursive vectors” are inserted which are appropriate for the local nature of social space11. Thus truly surmounting Tradition which aimed to preserve the academic Querelle was only possible at a much later date and by the aesthetics of shock, it is now perhaps only possible to question the Western canon from something local outside its own field of art. While intervention in the country of difference, despite acting in collaboration with it, is kept in the logic of art, history and local imagination will continue to be subsidiaries, not because of the possible weakness of its subjects compared to the linguistic arrogance of the Western canon but due to the mere fact of its own practice of the subject. This is exactly the very paradox, apparently by Dipesh Chakrabarty, which prevented subordinate studies to prosper from the viewpoint of History, defined and ordered from the colonial perspective12. Recently, Mathew Rampley showed how even the widest range of viewpoints of Visual Culture with regard to the traditional History of Art fail to overcome the “difficulties of equivalence” between the Western economy of image and the one prevailing in other cultural systems13.
Leaving the field of art is not, of course, something that can be promoted lightly. One quick turn of these features may simply lead us to dissolving art into the same orthodox of anthropological frameworks. The eagerness to conserve a true approach to creativity which traverses local experiences compels us to be aware of an area of quite diverse skills and practices naturally far from the canonical idea of the meaning of art. In any case, the difference is freed from any tentative translation or post-production in the sphere of what Western logic may only recognise as underground knowledge. There has been a long tradition of interest for this knowledge in the West (ways of exchange, artisan practices, oral discourse and rumours…) but it seems so difficult for these to be included in an infinite network of narratives in the name of art.