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The World of Differences

Notes about art, globalization, and periphery. Essay by Gerardo Mosquera, published in 1995 within the context of the symposium "The Marco Polo Syndrome".
Sep 1997

The international symposium "The Marco Polo Syndrome. Problems of intercultural communication in art theory and curatorial practice" took place at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, on 11 and 12 April 1995. After the symposium Gerhard Haupt, who developed the idea and the concept, and Bernd M. Scherer, HKW, edited the issue 4/5 1995 of the magazine neue bildende kunst in close cooperation with the publisher. It contains the edited papers of the symposium, as well as further contributions to the topic.
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The major interest that the centers experience toward the art of the periphery is a result of the globalization processes, demographics, and decolonization. The global world is also, paradoxically, the world of differences. This has become more internationally visible thanks to communication-media and has simultaneously expanded within the centers themselves. In addition, decolonization has allowed a larger and more active intervention of previously totally marginalized voices. The Third World's new beginning since the end of the 1950's failed in almost every sphere: economic, political, social. But an all around cultural "third-worldization" has occurred in stride with the global "westernization". The degree of this westernization's expansion bears its own weakening together with the readaptation that it suffers from other perspectives. Today the strategy of power does not consist of repressing or homogenizing diversity, but controlling it.

Culture constitutes a field of tensions post- cold war where there occurs a pulse between social, hegemonic, and subordinate forces. The ethnocultural debate has become a political space of power struggles as much in the symbolic as in the social. These are revealed by assimilation, tokenism, rearticulation of hegemonies, the affirmation of difference, and the critique of power, among other tensions. When the incentive to pluralism is a basic feature of postmodernity, the implicit decentralizations remain under the control of centers that "self-decenter" in a lampedussian strategy of change in order for everything to remain the same. But simultaneously, they offer a crucial flank that is taken advantage of by the peripheries. There is that aspect of the peripheries exercising pressure and another that has to do with the new economic expansion of the centers.

The progressive globalization of European industrial capitalism since the end of the eighteenth century, with its colonial and neocolonial action, universalized until today western culture as the metaculture of modernity and furthermore as the cultural model for the institutions and general functions of contemporary life. But every homogenization process of grand scale, even when it attains leveling differences, generates other new differences from within itself, like Latin that shatters into the romance languages. This is often seen in the readaptation of the dominant culture by the peripheries such as by the heterogeneity that immigrants are producing in contemporary megalopolises. There are many and diverse people making Western culture "incorrect" and in there own way freely de-eurocentralizing it into a plural form. What we call post-modern is a result of the overlapping of all these contradictory processes.

Yet we cannot simply think of globalization in the sense of a transterritorial orbit with contacts in all directions. It does not consist of an effective interconnection of the entire planet mediated by a webbed link of communications and exchanges. Rather, it deals with a radial system spread from more diversified and differently sized centers of power toward their multiple and highly diversified economic zones. This fabric is laid out on the North-South axis. Globalization has advanced little in the periphery, because it has globalized from and for the centers. Such a structure implies the existence of large zones of silences disconnected to one another or only connected indirectly by way of the neometropolises. This world map of radial nuclei and unplugged areas causes intense currents in search of connection. The global orbit structurally generates the diaspora. The inherent contradiction is reproduced in the centers' control toward immigrants: they fear them as much as they need them.

In the middle of these complex confrontations is defined the use of the concept "art of the South". For example, it has more to do with geography of power than with a physical geography. The concept itself is the axis of the debates and negotiations to which I have referred. It can act as a ghetto, a check for the multicultural quota system and cultural correctness, or even as the space for a new exoticism. Nevertheless, it can additionally function as a notion of solidarity between the excluded in their critique and action in the face of power.

It is obvious that it does not signify a general cultural identity and even less a specific manner of creating art, but it does encompass similarities closely bound with the post-colonial situation, the subordinate condition, certain values, and, above all, the community of strategic interests in the face of the "North". It does not constitute a synthesis, but a mosaic. The lamentable result is that the countries and cultures of the Third World have only barely been able to articulate these unions in mosaic founded upon what could agglutinate them above their many differences-- even though it may only be poverty.

The "cultured" art of the Third World is not a result of the evolution of precolonial cultures whose trajectories were dramatically modified by colonialism. As contemporary art, it forms part of the universalization of the western concept and practice of art as a self-sufficient activity based on "disinterested" contemplation and driven to the production of very specialized aesthetic-symbolic messages. It is, therefore, a colonial product. However, as I recently heard Jimmy Durham say: Does any contemporary experience exist that isn't? Western art is also a colonial product, only from the other side. The historical process that I refer to envelop us all.

I do not think it is plausible to look for a difference per se in Third World art opposite other contemporary practices. The differences will originate from the use that each author, movement or culture makes of art which may be conditioned by Weltanschauung, values, strategies, interests, cultural patrons, themes, and particular techniques.

In the centers exists a certain tendency to look at this art with suspicions of illegitimacy. With frequency the art is not looked at: passports are asked for, and these are usually not in regulation, because they correspond to processes of hybridization, appropriation, resignifications, neologisms and inventions in response to today's situation. It demands of this art an originality related to traditional cultures (that carry this name precisely on account of the imposed marginalization by colonial modernization), that is to say, oriented towards the past, or as a totally new invention, ad ovo, towards the present. In both cases it is demanded to declare the context and to not participate in a general art practice that on occasions could only refer to art itself. In this sense, the term "authenticity" has been employed from the tale of purity of origins in order to disqualify post-colonial culture by accusing it as derivative of the West. This results even more problematic in an epoch in which complex readaptations of identities occur: multiple identities in the form of Chinese boxes or matiushkas, neo-identities, mixing of identities, displacement within identities, "ethnic games"...

The syndrome remains so deep-seated that it possesses postmodern manifestations. The new attraction of the centers towards alterity has allowed greater circulation and legitimization of the peripheries' art. However, with excessive frequency the art that explicitly manifests difference has been valued, or rather it satisfies the expectations of the "other" in postmodern neo-exoticism. The "Frida Mania" in the U.S. is an evident example. This attitude has encouraged the "self-ostracization" of the peripheries whereby some artists, consciously or unconsciously, have leaned toward a paradoxical self-exoticism.

The peripheries took European modernism but almost always used it as a means rather than an end. Modernism was put to function for a particular agenda concentrated on the construction of identities and social and cultural criticism. In Latin America modernism's role results notable in this sense and in the negotiation of the heterogeneity of its societies. Latin American modernism adopted popular culture and the contradictions of a fragmented modernity. Wilfredo Lam, for example, was the first visual artist that intended to take advantage of modernism as a space to affirm and communicate Afro-American meanings.

The peripheries appropriation of modernism, more than completing its particular agenda, signified a pluralization and complexization of Modernism itself. The saxophone can be a metaphor for this. It is the modern prototypical instrument designed in a laboratory for the symphonic orchestra and presented in the large industrial fairs of triumphant modernity. However, it only found its destiny in jazz as an unexpected vehicle paradigmatic of the Afro-North-American sensibility.

The expansion of Third Word artistic practice, in addition to breaking the western monism, can yield structural changes. A notable case is the so called new Cuban art. Indebted to the widely available free artistic teaching and the social dynamic of the country, young people of all social groups were trained as "cultured" artists and simultaneously continued linked with their ways of origin. In their work is produced a construction of the avant-garde from the popular. It is not the vernacular participating in the "cultured", rather it is making it in a manner qualitatively different. It is evident by artists who structure their work based on the Afro-Cuban cosmology of their family context, a cosmology which they actively embody. This entire phenomenon encompasses a change of meaning. Jose Bedia, for example, would be doing post-modern Congo art.

The situation outlined in these notes makes evident the necessity of a readjustment in the circulation of art exhibitions which also implies the active intervention of the peripheries in the communication of their own art against the dominant centralism. This would include as much North-South as South-South movements, thereby establishing circuits of interchange and legitimization in the peripheries. This pluralization would not only benefit the South: it would be enrichment for everyone. But furthermore, what we call the international art circuit only reaches a reduced part of the world's population. It is necessary to pay attention to the problem of abandoned publics that constitute the majority of humanity. The difficult steps in this direction will bring transformations in the present format of art circulation, and even of the art itself by aspiring to a larger and active participation of communities, linked with education, interaction with vernacular culture, the use of mass-media, etc. Perhaps it seems a bit utopic to attempt to take on the correction of this problem. But it is at a minimum important to know where the problem is.

(Translation from Spanish: Kaira Cabañas)

Essay published in 1995 within the context of "The Marco Polo Syndrome", a symposium in Berlin, and a double issue of the magazine neue bildende kunst.
© Copyright text: Gerardo Mosquera

Gerardo Mosquera
* 1945 Havana, Cuba. Critic, curator, author.

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