lne Gevers curator  \  writer  \  activist

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Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity

As for myself: I was born in the Netherlands, I am a westerner, I am white, I am a woman. According to demographic statistics I belong to the `lost generation' (1955 1970), a generation which underwent many disappointing economic, political and ideological fluctuations. It was just when this generation was ready to join the labor market that, in the early 80s, the economic recession reached its all time low. With the recession went a political and social hangover from the idealistic and expectant 60s which led to an atmosphere which has been described by cultural critics in terms of neo-conservatism, individualism, narcissism, and schizophrenia.

I did not consciously experience the more tolerant and energetic 60s I was not yet even a teenager. The first wave of feminism was also history to me, though it was one of the first areas to enter my political consciousness in the late 70s. I began my art history studies in 1978, and my historical knowledge gradually deepened without me realizing on what implicit premises it was based.

Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art was the first formative influence on the structure of my views. In this book Gombrich used the philosopher Karl Popper's `trial and error' principle to present a history of art which was both linear and founded on the logical principles of progress. Art meant implicitly: western art, produced by man. There were marginal references to art by women and non western art, but exclusively at those moments when they were considered to be important for the development of the unique, Grand History of Art. In other words, the Other was only recognized when he could be appropriated, colonized, incorporated in order to reinforce the cultural identity of the West. Quality was the key-word, leveling all differences in the name of western, male art. Gombrich's aesthetic approach, with its conception of quality as an irrefutable, universal standard, was also recognizable in Clement Greenberg's formalistic interpretation of modern art, which then became the standard, academic theory of art.

Though a vague resistance was forming in my mind, this was at first nipped in the bud by the overwhelming advance of the neo expressionists, who, in the 80s, demolished the critical heritage of conceptual art. Rudi Fuchs, once, as director of the Van Abbe Museum, an advocate of conceptual art, turned out to be the foremost champion of the new form of plastic art, which he claimed represented universal values. At Documenta 7 in Kassel (1982) he exhibited what he considered to be the epitome of quality.

The context in which I grew up was quite different from that to which Sebastian Lopez refers in his contribution to this symposium. Nonetheless my lack of faith in the Grand Narrative of Art on which I was brought up developed into doubt and disbelief. There were two reasons for this. On the one hand, my own identity played a role: I realized that in our culture women are excluded from language as a representational and signifying system of the patriarchal, symbolic order. In this order, the woman is the Other, and is assigned the same role as the non western artist in relation to Western culture. As such it appears impossible to express one's identity. The system simply does not include terms to express 'Otherness' in its idiom. The only option is to take up marginal, and at best subversive positions. It was art in the sense of visual culture which simultaneously sparked off my resistance, and sustained me in it. I came to know alternative routes. I discovered other (art) histories and minor stories which crisscrossed the great history of art as so many ineradicable under currents and escape routes.

'Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity' thus takes its place in a series of symposia and exhibitions in which I strive to take up a critical, and above all questioning, stance in relation to all that which is fixed, or which in any case, is presented as such.

The Netherlands has no tradition of an intellectual, and nevertheless practically based debate on questions such as cultural identity, oppression of `the Other', and veiled forms of racism and imperialism. Whenever cultural identity is an issue, it is taken for granted that it only refers to groups which are called, significantly, `allochtonen' (foreigners). The term is not seen as applicable to ourselves. Thus, articulating cultural difference in this way implies ideologically a continuation of racialist theories, rather then a questioning of them.

The boom in critiques which accompanied the exhibition `Les Magiciens de la Terre' (Paris, 1989) sparked off discussion within the circles of Dutch artists and intellectuals who till then, by virtue of their origins (culture, gender, generation), had been able to keep the issue of cultural identity at a safe distance. Various aspects of this exhibition for instance the choice of purely formal disposition, the denial of history and context, and the acceptance of the spectacle as the most important signifying practice could be interpreted as an exemplary post modern enterprise. The way in which art and cultural artifacts from various western and non western countries were brought together elicited reactions in the Netherlands also. Interviews, critiques in magazines, symposia, and exhibitions about `the Other' were the result.

In May 1991 the North Holland Cultural Council organized `The Climate', a series of exhibitions in various museums and galleries in the Netherlands which was centered around foreign artists' consciousness of their cultural identity and its (re)presentation. The organizers had a positive attitude to `Les Magiciens' and to a certain extent took that exhibition as a model, particularly in the way in which the work of both western and non western artists was presented free of any cultural or political context. The point of departure was that museums, galleries, and academies would be given complete freedom in their choice of artists with a cultural identity which was different from a purely Dutch one. Though questions such as `What is cultural identity?', `Is art geographically determined?', and especially `To what extent is the confrontation with another culture essential for one's becoming conscious of one's own identity?' were the basis for the enterprise, the exhibitions and the catalogue demonstrated that a number of these questions were rhetorical. Preconceptions were too implicitly anchored in the basic concept, and the consequences of the various institutions being able to choose the foreign artists freely in order to promote themselves had not been adequately foreseen. (See the article by Els van der Plas in this issue.)

Out of interest in the topic, and also as a representative of the Jan van Eyck Academy, an internationally oriented center for `post graduate' artists where these issues regularly came up for discussion, though they were often not made fully explicit, I decided to organize a symposium as an extension of the activities of the North Holland Cultural Council. The symposium was to center around cultural identity as a problematic notion. The title `Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity' proved to be only too appropriate.

It seems to me that any discussion of identity requires that one first examines the ideological implications of the notion. In order to undermine the rigid view of identity as an a priori given I posed questions such as the following, in a text written as an introduction to the symposium: `What is identity? Does identity exist a priori or is it an ideologically charged concept which, as such, requires ever-renewed confirmation? Is identity a cause or rather the result of our tendency to constantly make a distinction between the self and the other? And can we assume that identity has the same value for each person, regardless of the culture from which he or she originates?'(*) Although these questions were not meant to be treated separately, they did set the tone of the symposium.

Ontological questions such as these are also the basis for the wider notion of `cultural identity', or what Guy Brett calls the `identity of a culture', an identity which has never been a given, and never will be. Rather it is always in the process of formation, dependent on, and in symbiosis with constantly changing exterior forces. These themes were addressed in particular by the audio visual media game (performance) of Claudio Goulart. The audience was over whelmed, at more than just a linguistic level, by the complexity and undefineability of the notion of cultural identity.

The discussion of cultural identity becomes more complicated when one places it in the context of the continuing contemporary process of globalization. This appears most clearly in Clementine Deliss's contribution, which treats problems related to the growing tension between `global homogenization' and `local cultural identity'. Since the creation of a world culture does not only proceed via language, but also via other ideological and medialogical channels, Deliss argues for the use, in research, not only of linguistic models of representation, but also of visual representation forms. This choice becomes even more important when one realizes that the priority accorded to language as a form of cultural representation is an expression of the West, and that this structure is not always shared by other cultures which desire to express their own identity.

While writing the introduction for this symposium I realized that I was becoming committed to the notion of cultural identity as an intellectual concept, and that this threatened to reduce it to a fiction. The realization made me examine my own position once more. It is for this reason that the introductory text for the symposium ends with the following words: `It may be an intellectual challenge to see notions such as identity and cultural identity as relative, but this comes from the privileged position of western thinking. Such an line of argument may reduce identity to fiction, but for a non western individual, standing outside this narrative, it is an absolute necessity. His or her identity, seen in relation to western culture, its monopoly position and its conventional, linear historiography, has never had any significant right to exist. For the non western artist or intellectual it is essential not only to be able to distinguish oneself but above all to create or recreate the historical and ideological conditions which at least provide the possibility to do so.' (*)

The preceding passage illustrates how complex the situation is in relation to cultural representation, and how many pitfalls each of us can be led into by his or her preconceptions. It incited Rasheed Araeen to a reaction. Although he acknowledged that he was taking the remark out of context to some extent, he wanted to indicate that the problem of cultural identity was not exclusively one of non western artists, but held for all artists and intellectuals. Araeen was right in this. However, I must indicate that I was trying to pose a problem which has been worked out very extensively and with great precision by Guy Brett: the problem of `the luxury of curious detachment'. A detachment which, though based on the assumed universality of a fictitious objectivity, must be criticised as a too facile escape from general human responsibility.

Experiencing and following what Brett calls `the feeling of urgency' has become a problem in our era, in which the logic of representation (repeated presentation in the form of substitution of that which is represented) governs the fields of language, image, politics, and our private lives. The detachment mentioned above may have its origins in colonialism, but it survives with ease as a result of another form of `colonialism', that of the politics of representation. All direct responsibility has been taken away from us by the power of the series `split (between representation and what is represented) substitution hierarchy generalization'. Agitating against the power of representation, I would like, following Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to opt for a counter logic of representation: a logic of resistance, which, though doomed to speak in the language against which it makes a stand, consists of a refusal to allow oneself to be represented by others, or to represent others. In other words: speaking up for oneself, and allowing others to speak for themselves.

It seems to me that there were several attempts in this direction during the symposium `Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity', which are what made it such an inspiring and challenging gathering. For this I would like to thank all participants who contributed to the symposium: Sebastian Lopez, (chairman), Rasheed Araeen, Guy Brett, Clementine Deliss, Claudio Goulart, J.H.Martin, Helen Frik, and Bulent Evren. The papers and statements of the last three participants have not been included in this publication, for various reasons: The essence of J.H.Martin's contribution is to be found in already published texts and interviews. Both Helen Frik and Bulent Evren distanced themselves from the questions treated in the symposium. Though such a position is quite legitimate, the arguments put forward to justify it did not have any significant influence on the content of the discussion.

Ine Gevers

(*) Quotes from Ine Gevers, `Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity', introductory text to the symposium which took place from 23 to 25 May 1991.