Global Art and the Great British Fake-off

This blog post was written with Art History year 3 students in mind, in relation to the session on ‘Global Art’ for ‘Reading the Contemporary.’

‘nation: it is an imagined political community- and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’ (Anderson: 1983: 49)

bunting

As my Art History year 3 lecture on ‘global art’ was cancelled due to the strikes, because I recently wrote an article about art biennials – and because it’s one of my research specialisms – I thought I would write a blog post on what the term ‘global art’ means to me, regarding the ways in which it is problematic and in relation to the concerns I have for this field of discipline as such. Interwoven into the second half of my analysis are my observations of elements of contemporary popular British culture which, arguably, work to problematize the existence of Global, Cultural Studies.

The term ‘global’ relating to ‘globalisation’ is slippery, both conceptually and politically. It is often juxtaposed with the term ‘local,’ although as locales across all parts of the world become subject to globalisation, they simultaneously homogenise and differentiate, and have become referred to by authors such as Roland Robertson as ‘glocales’ (1994). Although not a new concept to the histories of the world, Robertson was also one of the first commentators – in the early 1990s  – to develop the term ‘globalisation,’ (1992) along with others such as Martin Albrow & Elizabeth King (1990) and David Harvey (1989). Harvey referred to ‘time-space compression’ in relation to the acceleration of communication flows and travel, at a time when the power of the digital – as a social and economic force – was becoming increasingly apparent in terms of its capacity to change social lives across the globe. As a definition of the late twentieth century, it came to refer to the ways in which people were progressively becoming citizens of the globe, rather than citizens of nations, with their everyday lives being affected by the globalising forces of transnational corporations – whether relating to food (such as MacDonalds) or to IT and the internet (such as Microsoft and Google).  People were able to send letters by tapping a keyboard, they could drink Coca Cola when on holiday in India, international business partners could fly to a meeting on the other side of the world in less than a day, but these social aspects of globalisation cannot be isolated from its (original) political and economic endeavours.

One of the problems with the term ‘global art’ is the fact that, understandably, it will be dismissed as a truism. The art market is global. Buyers in China bid for Damien Hirsts as buyers in Britain bid for Cao Feis. It is easy for us to expose ourselves to art from nations which are not ‘our own’. Another problem is the fact that globalisation – as we know it – is inextricably bound to laissez faire economic policies which were promoted in the 1980s by leaders (in the West) such as Thatcher and Regan, pushing for the benefits of Neoliberalism: the free market.  Businesses were free to expand, transnationally, to outsource work (using post-fordist production methods which developed in the 1970s), exploiting workers in nations where human working rights were absent, paying well below what would be the minimum wage in places likes the USA and the UK. Freedom for big businesses meant slavery for smaller companies and for global workers. Art is not eliminated from such forms of transnational labour. Biennials are sponsored by airlines and electrical companies, promoted with the help of social media (twitter is a product of venture capitalism, etc). Books about biennials are sold on amazon. Artists display their art at biennials and academics – who go to and write about biennials – provide links in their emails to their amazon page. The creative directorship, co-ordination and operation of biennials functions from multiple, local sites via digital, immaterial labour forces (Lazzarato: 1996; Hardt & Negri: 200) – using global production methods like those promoted by Post-Fordism and global capitalism. Based on an economy of ideas, the biennial creates a knowledge exchange to which global art goers and silent workers contribute or experience – and of which global businesses ultimately benefit. If art is global then art is business. But art is also a voice and it is now a global voice. Unfortunately, in Britain there is little opportunity for this voice to be raised.

Compared to nations such as America, Australia and Indonesia, there are few universities with Area Studies departments, providing little scope to research and lecture on non–Western art or art which is not representative of the university’s host country. Global Art Studies has to fight its corner in the academic world, so to speak. It is not really helped by the somewhat readily perceived failures of Post-colonial Studies which academics – including those originally heralding the movement, such as Rashid Araeen – criticised for its ultimate inversion of racial representativeness. Programmes of study, art exhibitions and texts which worked to represent the efforts of Black Minority Ethnicities (BMEs) or to highlight the damaging effects of colonialism and the relevance of post-colonial diasporas, have been seen to force minority identities into boxes – whether they be tickboxes or pigeonholes. The field is now sometimes referred to as post post-colonialism. In some ways, ‘the global’ is less loaded as a term – being not quite so unceasingly prescriptive or pushy and because it doesn’t solely position non-Western art in relation to European imperial histories. Also, it is loose and etymologically decentred, unlike the post-colonial, which refers specifically to the power of former colonies. The global is open to shifts in terms of the core and the periphery (e.g. potentially from the USA to China).

In terms of Britain, I think that the lack of integration of global art and other geographies within the school and university curricula is being hindered by the fairly recent trends in popular culture to celebrate Britain and Britishness. These are tendencies which sometimes masquerade as anti-globalisation, indoctrinating a pride in the provincial which is – at worst – nationalistic or racist and – at best- fake or empty (as Anderson suggests, based on an ‘imagined community’). As  Examples of this include: an increasing fascination, celebration and merchandising of the monarchy – epitomised at the recent royal wedding and jubilee, the Olympics obsession, programmes such as ‘The Great British Bake-off,’ a fascination with afternoon tea, magazines such as Country Living and a flood of dramas and associated memorabilia surrounding WWII (e.g. Keep Calm and Carry On). There is a cultural focus on the dynamism of the British war effort – whether this is about ‘our heroes’ on the battlefield or the land girls and the ‘make do and mend’ mentality – the latter of which is assisted by the Cath Kidston brand. It is as if WWII was, in fact, not a world war at all. It is also as if domestic tasks such as sewing, knitting, growing vegetables and cooking are peculiar to British heritage and that self-sufficiency is sewn into our genes. The problem – as I see it – is not that these things aren’t valuable (and I think I used to be Home and Antiques magazine’s biggest fan), or that it isn’t important to focus on the preservation of local cultures within the changing globe, but that their sheer saturation into our media culture is unhelpful for an intercultural Britain whose heritage, particularly since WWII, is post-colonial, diasporic, migratory – or global. These aspects of culture are also not only strewn with problematic visual signifiers relating to issues of nationalism but some are also implicative or even avoidant of aspects of our (negative) colonial history. Afternoon teas came into vogue amongst the upper classes under Victoria’s reign – a time when the British Empire was at its zenith. The tea was a product reaped for the British market from the exploits of the Raj, where Indian workers were mobilised by the British and forced to work under inhumane conditions (eventually resulting in Gandhi’s liberation movement). World War II occurred during the last years of the British empire – before it became too post-war poor to rule nations from abroad – and so the nostalgia and pride for this era also has tricky geopolitical underpinnings. The union jack – a symbol used by the BNP and the NF – is visible throughout all these aspects of our contemporary culture – often seen on bunting and sewn into patchwork cushion covers, an omnipresent reminder of the ‘unpicked’ nation to which we are a part. These aspects of material culture are not global, ideologically – although they may be manufactured by transnational corporations.

sonia_boyce_lay_back_tp12_0

Sonia Boyce
‘Lay back, keep quiet and think of what made Britain so great’ 1986
Charcoal, pastel and watercolour on paper; four parts, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/other-story-and-past-imperfect

In visual and material culture sessions at university I have occasionally asked students to analyse such aspects of popular culture which focus on Britishness. We have dissected shabby-chic, chintzy interior scenes in the thatched cottages of Country Living, questioning the thread of union jacks which form part of the hand stitched bunting or the prints on John Lewis china mugs. We have addressed the ironies of Cath Kidston’s ‘make do and mend,’ mass produced sewing kits and her political allegiance to the Tory party. Self-sufficiency is cute but if you work hard – particularly in a manual profession – on a low wage, you are more likely to shop at Asda or Iceland than to spend your evenings stitching clothes and digging up vegetables (particularly if you live in a city rather than in the ‘great British countryside’). However, these discussions are limited because lectures about nationhood and colonialism are few in an educational system which favours European art histories – aside from those universities with Area Studies departments. Furthermore, because these lectures are few it is more difficult to engage students with them because trying to broach the art of a nation when students aren’t aware of the history of that nation with which to begin (a history which would be addressed in, say, a unit on Japanese early modern art at SOAS) is a difficult task in a one-off session. It can begin to feel like a pick n’ mix of lectures about art from ‘other’ nations. Moreover, most students do not want to reject the British aspects of popular culture with which they identify because – apart from being visually seductive and easily accessible, the nostalgia which they embody is conceptually reassuring -authentic or not – to the majority of art students, who come from white ethnic backgrounds. If there was more nostalgia in visual and material culture and in education surrounding the Windrush, perhaps everyone would feel nostalgic about that part of our heritage. Collective memory in Britain should be intercultural memory. To reorient the art history education system, changes have to be made to the way we consume ‘our’ cultural history from an early stage in the infrastructure and within popular culture.

If art history really was global we wouldn’t need to label it as such. Perhaps, in Britain, the term ‘global art history’ needs to exist at least in the nascent stages of its (hopeful) cultural/educational infiltration. What I would ask would be that ‘global art’ as a term and as a discipline should be taught in terms of its troubled relationship to colonialism and neoliberal economic capitalism but that it should not simply be equated to them. The term ‘globe’ predates neoliberalism. It is important to keep reminding ourselves that there is a world beyond Britain. And that parts of that world are embedded within British culture.

References
Albrow, M. & King, E., (eds.) (1990) Globalization, Knowledge and Society, London: Sage.
Anderson, B. (1983) (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,  Verso, London.

Elkins, J.,Valiavicharska, Z. & Kim, A., (eds.) (2010) Art and Globalization, The Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA.
Gielen, P., ‘The Biennale: A Post-Institution for Immaterial Labour,’ Open: 16, http://classic.skor.nl/3843/en/contents-open-16-the-art-biennial-as-a-global
Hardt, M. & Negri, A., (2001) Empire, Harvard University Press.
Harvey, D., (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Robertson, R., (1992) Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture, London: Sage.
Robertson, R., (1994) ‘Globalisation or Glocalisation?’ The Journal of International Communication 1(1): 33–52.

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About Art Theory and Practice

BA Contemporary Art History Manchester School of Art http://www.mmu.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2012/9406/

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