An enormous confusion reigns about cultural diversity, which has obscured both the question of its necessity to society and also its relationship to creativity. If human society comprises a multiplicity of diverse cultures, then something must bring them together into a communion of exchange for their mutual enrichment. The history of the last six thousand or so years shows us how humanity has ad- vanced, carrying with it all the ideas produced by the interaction between different cultures within particular civilisations, as well as across those boundaries. It is therefore imperative that we approach the question of cultural diversity historically, in order to understand its significance to the postwar, postcolonial and multi-racial society of Britain today but also globally.
Our concern here is not merely with cultural diversity per se but with its relationship to human creativity, particularly that which produces art. Diversity of cultures and diversity within art must therefore be recognised as two different things, and diversity in art should not be considered necessarily a mirror image of cultural diversity. The passage of diversity from culture to art involves a complex intellectual process which occurs when the individual imagination is relatively free both from the demands of society and the culture of which art is a specific formation and expression. It is therefore requisite to separate the process of creativity from what already exists within society, either as cultural heritage or a multiplicity of cultural traditions. These traditions, of course, define the nature of society and provide it with an overall cultural framework that can be dynamic and inspire individual creativity. But what emerges from this individual creativity as art does not always replicate or display particular cultural forms.
The separation of art from the overall cultural milieu of society does not, however, diminish the importance of the diversity of cultures. They play a fundamental role in defining society and its identity. But if this identity becomes frozen in conformity, society will succumb to cultural fragmentation, intellectual stagnation and eventually decay and decline. Only when people have freedom to think, to reflect and contemplate, can they confront the norms that have become fixed dogmas, and so reactivate society’s creative energy. In other words, new ideas produced by individual creativity, underpinned by freedom of thought, create a society able to change and transform itself into a dynamic force in history.
Since early history, when human groups began to communicate with each other, diversity has been fundamental to cultures. When two or more cultures met and interacted, inevitably, an interface was created from which emerged a diversity of new cultural forms that enriched the cultures collectively and enhanced individual creative imagination. Out of such imagination, when it was free to think and act, emerged what we now call art.
The increase in travel and speed of communication, facilitated by the rise of modern science and technologies since the Renaissance, has created a constant flow of ideas between peoples, nations and cultures across the world. As ideas often tend to gravitate towards a dominant centre or centres, and since Europe emerged as a major political power following its ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’, knowledge began to accumulate in the major European cities. This accumulation at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in Paris, ‘capital of the world’, is of particular significance. Historically, it laid the foundation for what in my view became essential to the cultural diversity of modernism. Examples abound, Cubism and Surrealism for instance, besides the many individuals whose work was influenced by their admiration of art from Asia, Africa and native cultures of the Americas, proof that the issue of cultural diversity in art cannot be understood without looking at it historically.
Cultural diversity has been very much part of the emergence of new ideas in recent history. Only when this is understood, both in terms of the role of diversity in producing new ideas and of the failure of Eurocentric discourse to recognise the centrality of this role in the art of the twentieth century, will it be possible to reclaim the critical position of cultural diversity within art history beyond the practice of marginalisation on the basis of exotic otherness. We have to make clear the difference between appropriation of other cultures as exotic within Eurocentric art history and their true role in twentieth-century art. While exoticism ignores or undermines this critical role, by banishing it to the margins of history, a proper understanding challenges this marginalisation by invoking and recognising the historically central role of cultural diversity in the formation of modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The very basis of modernism, particularly that which emerged with Pablo Picas-so’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, was an emergence of critical ‘dialogue’ with cultural difference. Although this dialogue was determined within a colonial frame, the resulting discourse managed to come to terms with what was inevitable at the beginning of the last century: a move away not only from one’s own cultural specificity but also from the specificity and the homogeneity of Western traditions in art in order to construct a new order which could claim to be universal.
The interrelationship of many world cultures in European modernism is extremely complex and problematic. What follows here is intended only to show that it was the presence of cultural forms from other parts of the world entering Europe, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth century, that, by becoming part of European consciousness, both changed the course of European art and influenced art all over the world. This presence coincided with the discovery of photography which challenged the very foundation of European art. When it became clear that photography could achieve similar and indeed better results than European ‘realist’ painting had produced, and that there were radical alternatives offered by other cultures, the iconic pictorialism of European traditions in art began to collapse. This created a crisis in what was historically perceived via the idealist philosophy of G W F Hegel, to be the progressive mainstream that began its journey thousands of years before when humans first left their marks on the walls of caves. But with this also arose an awareness that the resolution of this crisis lay in the alternatives offered by other cultures.
If perspectival depth combined with the chiaroscuro technique of a European tradition in art created an illusion of reality, Japanese painting, as it became available to view in nineteenth century Europe, was free of this illusion. This opened up entirely new vistas for European art. Artists now began to realise that art was not only about representing reality through illusionism. There were other different ways of looking at and representing the world.
Until then, the role of line and colour in European art had been to follow faithfully the contours and features of what one observed, so that the result was a representation of what one experienced in nature. If there was an occasional deviation from this norm, it was either to emphasise some important aspects of observed reality or to deal with social disturbances, caused by war or other disasters. Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings (1819–1823), made after the upheavals of the Napoleonic War, represent the first example of this deviation in the recent history of Europe, permitting the artist to abandon faithful representation of what one observed. Goya’s work, rare in the trajectory of European painting, predates the awareness of the alternatives offered by other cultures some fifty years later, yet foreshadows what became dramatically obvious only when art encountered these alternatives. Line and colour were no longer subservient to the realistic depiction of things but followed whatever the artist could perceive intellectually. This would not have happened without the presence of Asian and African cultural forms in Europe. This shift towards a freedom to perceive and conceive, without recourse to normative realism, was the beginning of modernism in art.
One can cite in particular the late nineteenth-century examples of Paul Gau- guin, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne whose work was transformed when it came into contact with the ideas as well as art forms of non-European cultures, and which then opened the way forward. The role of other cultures in the modern transformation of European art becomes much more determined when we enter the twentieth century. It was the time of great change, with new ideas in science (Aalbert Einstein), music (Claude Debussy followed by Arnold Schoenburg and Igor Stravinsky), philosophy (Henri Bergson), literature (James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T S Eliot), and so on. But my concern here is with visual art, as it was the form most influenced by the presence of many cultures and their art in Europe at the turn of the century.
One might actually describe the beginning of the century as the beginning of cultural diversity, as European culture mingled with many other world cultures. And, although one can begin the century with the art of Henri Matisse, one of the first artists to encounter and become fascinated by African sculpture and whose later work was directly influenced by his visits to North Africa, it was in Pablo Picasso’s work that the meeting of Europe and Africa first took place.
At the time, circa 1907, Picasso faced difficulty in continuing his work, as the consciousness of the history in which he found himself located was not only insuf- ficient but had itself become the problem. This is of course over-simplified, but European artists of the time undeniably faced a complex socio-historical situation which they could not resolve within the iconographic realm of Western tradition and still produce something new. It was also a moment significantly reflective of the changes taking place in Western society. It was this situation which led Picasso, among others, to the different world of African and Oceanic art.
When Picasso saw the African and Oceanic artefacts – as they were then called – in the museum at the Trocadéro, he was amazed not only by the freedom of im- agination that had created them, but by his own realisation of a potential alternative way of representing the world. Although a radical shift had already taken place in Western art, in the work of the post-Impressionists and Fauves, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has been seen as the first real work of twentieth-century modernism. It laid the foundation for Cubism and triggered a historical process based on dialogue between different cultures. When we look at this great paint-ing, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, what do we see? The heritage of Western culture – El Greco, Cézanne, and others – and forms from African and Oceanic cultures, intermingled and interlocked with each other, creating an interface that was to become fundamental to the relationship of different cultures within modernism for the rest of the twentieth century, and also beyond as part of late twentieth century globalisation.
One can also take the work of Matisse and Paul Klee to illustrate the main point, that of a dialogue between the West’s iconographic traditions and the Islamic tradition of North Africa. This ‘dialogue’ is full of problematic, if not unresolved, contradictions – to which I shall return. However, while picture-making dominates their canvases, it is the tension between the iconography of their work and what had been historically in defiance of and a challenge to European pictorialism that makes this work historically significant. This challenge has existed ever since the emergence of an Arab Islamic civilisation and art in the seventh century. But it was dismissed from Europe’s historical trajectory as philosophically conceived by He- gel and others. Now, in the early twentieth century, Islamic culture entered into the dynamic force of modernity and began to show a way forward in history.1 In other words, it was on the basis of modernism’s ability to incorporate the problematics of cultural difference within its mainstream that modernism was able to claim its universality, spreading its wings over the whole world and providing the contexts for other cultures to enter into a discourse that claimed progress and advancement.
I have put the word ‘dialogue’ in quotes in order to highlight the problem that has remained the basis of a divided world today. Globalisation might seem to reduce division by offering all cultures of the world a common space in which to manifest themselves. This ‘equalisation’ of cultures is an illusion created by the triumph of the neoliberal/capitalist system whose chief concern is not with the history of ideas and those who have been its agents, but the marketing of commodities. This history has been brought to end with the mistaken notion that what was meant to be achieved historically has been achieved, and that there is nothing further we can learn from it for the future.
What is this history which has ‘ended’? Why can it not now be re-examined and revised? Why are art historians reluctant to recognise its missing parts, particularly those which would reveal its cultural diversity? The answers to these questions will reveal the hidden agenda of bourgeois humanism that has been used to justify colonialism, and why globalisation is now being deployed to undermine and ‘end’ what began as an anti-colonial struggle.
A collusion between modernity and colonialism is well recognised in what is generally called the radical discourse of philosophy and social sciences. Enough philosophical ideas have by now emerged in the West that question the division of humanity on the basis of the Self and the Other – the former being European subjectivity and latter its colonised others. What lies beneath this division is the agency of history attributed exclusively to European (by implication, white) subjectivity, while the colonial other is reduced to the mere victim of history, incapable of self- definition, of determining their destination and entering history. What is remark- able here is not primarily the inferiorisation of the colonised, but that a colonial attitude towards the racially different on the part of the European encompasses an admiration for this difference, and a desire to help and guide them in the march of history.
Colonialism has been and is still a brutal force which dehumanises both the coloniser and the colonised. But it also has a liberal benevolent side which regards the colonised with sympathy and fascination. It has often sided with the colonised and helped them gain postcolonial independence as nation states. But this benevolence does not go far enough, and leaves untouched what is enshrined deep within the ideology of colonialism, failing to allow the colonised to define themselves as free subjects by confronting the so-called master-slave relationship that underpinned colonialism. The slave can demand freedom, and the benevolence of the master can allow the slave to go free; but without the master giving up his own ground.
My concern here is with this benevolent face of colonialism which effectively denies others their human subjectivity, and without which others cannot rid themselves of their Otherness and enter history. This is particularly important when we consider the struggle of art, not only in those areas of the non-European world both during and after the time when these were occupied by the colonial powers, but also in its continuous striving for modern subjectivity in the metropolis. An example from art history will show what I mean. From Matisse to Picasso, Klee and Constantin Brancusi to the Surrealists, each and all were fascinated by the artistic forms of other cultures, especially those of Africa and Asia, and they made these forms part of their work. Some of them even went further in their admiration and expressed their support for and solidarity with the struggles in the colonies. But that is where the solidarity ended, because when they actually encountered someone from the colonies who had come to the metropolis to pursue a course similar to their own as modernist avant-garde artists, there was either suspicion or disbelief that such a person could have ability equal to theirs. Suspicion still prevails, even now that there is overwhelming evidence that others entered the central core of modernism as talented subjects, defying and confronting that which persists in keeping them outside history, and thus demolishing the very basis for white supremacist exclusivity in modern art history. Something deeply entrenched within the European colonial psyche prevents it from recognising equally the intellectual ability of other human beings within modernity.
The dialogue between Europe and the rest of the world has remained prob- lematic to this day. This is not due to the inability of other cultures to find their place subjectively in history or as equal partners in this dialogue. But the space within which ‘dialogue’ took place was constructed on the basis of a colonial view that divided the world into ruler and ruled, conforming to the Hegelian construct of master-slave relationship, and also apparently fixed this relationship eternally. Master and slave can indeed speak to each other, both have their voices, but only one has significance – that of the master. The master can speak even with the voice of the slave and sympathetically represent the predicament of the slave. But the slave must not claim any subjectivity or agency that might threaten or undermine the power of the master. The struggle of the colonial other is therefore against the supposed benevolence of the colonial master. For if the other were ever to find a place as an obvious agent of history within history, this assumption of the benevolent master would collapse, and so liberate the space within which both had been confined in the slave-master relationship.
It is important nevertheless to recognise the positive aspects of what I call benevolent colonialism, even when this paradox has collapsed along with the failure of its attempted modernising projects. Whatever it achieved, in its efforts to bring the colonised into the orbit of progressive march of history, has remained contained within the self-interest of colonialism. What concerns me specifically is its edu- cational programme, part of which was to persuade indigenous peoples to adopt Western ways of thinking and living. While missionaries were busy destroying Africa’s ancient artistic heritage, often simply burning its artefacts, liberals of the colonial administration encouraged and promoted those who would adopt a West- ern way of making art. Art schools were set up, particularly in India, and stocked with teachers from the art schools of London. The idea was to lead the native artists on to the path that would eventually lead them to modernism along a track laid down by Europe and the West.
But things do not always go according to a predetermined plan. It is in the nature of humanity not to accept subservience or dominance, not permanently. There comes a time when the oppressed rise up, either to demand equality or to revolt against what is imposed. Many artists confounded the expectations of their patrons and supporters, even when they were genuinely helped in pursuit of their ambitions. There are many instances of artists being sent to the metropolises of London and Paris by their well-wishing colonial patrons. For example, Uzo Egonu from Nigeria went to London with the assistance of a colonial friend of his father;2 Aubrey Williams from British Guiana was persuaded by his colonial friends to leave the political turmoil of the country and go to London,3 and so on. Colonialism was not always a blunt instrument of oppression but frequently provided or created a space in which both the coloniser and the colonised could exist in a mutually sympathetic relationship, giving the colonised the means for the self-realisation of their own humanity, and allowing them to exceed the expectations of their empathetic masters. Behind this paradox lies a deeper unresolvable contradiction, for when the colonised do exceed expectation, sometimes surpassing the ability of the master, what can the master do? Recognise the achievement of the colonised? How can that be? Would it not demolish the very basis of colonial power?
My assertion here may seem crude, but how else can one penetrate the complexity of such an ambivalent relationship and reveal what lies behind it? It involves a sophisticated system that maintains the coloniser and the colonised in mutual dependence and admiration. By invoking the bonds of common humanity, they can even seem to love each other and share each others’ pain. But when the colonised try to confront this relationship by asserting their humanity in their own way, this relationship breaks down, often producing the extreme violence that has been a hallmark of anti-colonial struggle.
This relationship had a specific significance in art, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s in Paris when there was great fascination with so-called ‘Negro art’, described by some historians as Negrophilia.4 It was during this time that an ex- traordinary event of historical importance also occurred in Paris, which turned the whole business upside down. Ernest Mancoba, a black South African, set an example of what an individual artistic imagination can do to defy the seductions of colonial predetermination, and offers us allegorically the way forward to the real liberation of humanity. He has shown that the colonised can enter the central core of modernism’s genealogy and thereby assert the common humanity of both the coloniser and the colonised.
Ernest Mancoba was born in 1904 near Johannesburg and educated at the Christian school of Pietersburg. He also learned to sculpt there, in a European style, producing a work in 1929 called Bantu Madonna which caused a scandal, followed by a series of works that established him as an important sculptor. In 1936 he was of- fered a lucrative government job but declined it.
The Commissioner for Native Affairs in Pretoria... decided that I should take part in the upcoming British ‘Empire Exhibition’. The idea was... to develop the indigenous art trade by selling all sorts of pseudo-tribal figures for tourists. He offered me a good job with a fine salary, to gather young Africans to provide for this kind of traffic. I was shocked and, as politely as possible, refused the proposition.5
He goes on to elaborate his position:
Some of my political friends told me that the artistic activity was not the most urgent thing to concentrate upon, while our people were undergoing such a terrible plight, but I believed, on the contrary, that art was precisely also a means to favour a great consciousness in Man, which, for me, is part of the struggle for any human liberation, and without which any practical achievement would probably, sooner or later, deviate and miss its point. Therefore, making art, I thought, was as urgent as for the political evolution, which, at the time, anyhow seemed still a faraway prospect. So I decided to engage upon a debate with European artists by coming to Europe.6 [my emphasis]
Despite his poverty Mancoba came to Europe:
As I had absolutely no means to travel, I had the good fortune to be helped by missionary institutions, and when I arrived in London, I lived with Bishop Smythe, whom I had known as the head of my student hostel at Fort Hare... Through Bishop Smythe’s connection in Paris, I got into the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.7
When Mancoba arrived in Paris in 1938, the city was still in the grip of ‘Ne- grophilia’ and the ideas of Negritude.8 But he turned his back on both of them, with a defiance that required tremendous courage, leading him to the discovery of the power of free imagination.
I suppose I would have managed to understand Césaire and Senghor. But... the problem with their approach was that I never believed, for my part, that the racist ideology of the Occident is a problem of defective reason or insufficient comprehension. And I do not think, therefore, that it can be treated by forming new ideological concepts, like Negritude, any more than I would imagine that the humanity of the white man might rely upon any virtual concept of ‘blanchitude’... Because the true universality is a common goal on the cultural, political and spiritual horizon that will be reached only when all ethnic groups achieve, through an authentic dialogue, the many-faceted diamond shape and the full blossom of the deepest and widest human integrity.9
His work of 1939 and 1940 was a precursor to one of the most important postwar avant-garde movements in Europe, CoBrA.10 After the war, and his release from internment, he went to Copenhagen, where in 1948 he met Asger Jorn and Karel Appel and took part in the Host Exhibition. In the following year, 1949, he became involved in the founding of CoBrA. But no history of CoBrA mentions Mancoba.11 A few years before his death in 2002, Mancoba reminiscenced about his associa- tion with CoBrA:
The embarrassment that my presence caused – to the point of making me, in their eyes, some sort of ‘Invisible Man’ or merely the consort of a European woman artist [his wife, Sonja Ferlov] was understandable, as before me, there had never been, to my knowledge, any black man taking part in the visual arts ‘avant-garde’ of the Western World... And probably it was also our very conception of mankind and of art that not only contributed to our isolation from some in the group, but that invalidated us in the appreciation of the official art world, especially, later, in the eyes and evaluation of certain critics and art historians. Some critics totally obliterate my participation in the movement, as modest as it admittedly has been, on the reason that my work was suspected of not being European enough, and in his words, ‘betraying (my) African origins’.12
Here is an actual encounter described by Mancoba that demonstrates this attitude:
One day, at the end of 1950s, I met a well-known modern painter of the so-called ‘Hard Edge’ group. When he saw me together with Sonja Ferlov, addressing both of us, he said: ‘Ah, it is you who like the art of negroes [referring to Ferlov’s work]. They are full of sensuality, always making sculp- ture with a big sex, while we modern artists of Europe have left behind these primitive obsessions. Here it is all geometry, purity of lines and clarity of the intellect.13
When I tried to tell him that there also was geometry in African art, he shook his head and went away. For me, art can only be founded on the single notion – of which it is both the confirmation and the proof – that Man is One.14
Mancoba’s work is neither European nor African but in a dialogue with them both. He has created a space in which such a dialogue can and should take place, although this cannot be recognised by the colonial mindset trapped in the power it continues to entertain and enjoy. And thus we have humanity’s separation on a racial basis:
...but I’m not thinking about an artistic one. For me, what is still not realised is a common acceptance and understanding between whites and blacks (as the most contrasted opposition in terms of colour, but between other races as well). The dialogue has not started yet. It reminds me of... Danish writer Karen Blixen [when] she says that if the encounter or the meeting between blacks and whites has happened, historically it has, [actually] not yet taken place.15
Which brings me to the core of my argument, that the colonised, while struggling to liberate themselves, also liberate the colonisers. Ernest Mancoba’s achievement has not only secured his place within the historical genealogy of modernism, but, perhaps more importantly, with this he liberated modernism from its Eurocentric framework by infusing into its central core an African vision and placing Africa within it with its own authentic modern voice. It is in such an achievement that there exists, historically, true cultural diversity in art.
Ernest Mancoba’s release from war-time internment in France, and his subsequent extraordinary achievement in art, unprecedented during the classical period of colonialism that produced its most barbaric form in South Africa’s apartheid, offers us an appropriate metaphor for the beginning of the collapse of the West’s colonial empire and the release of a creativity that enters the European body to liberate it from its self-imposed assumptions of intellectual superiority and supremacy. Surprisingly, even paradoxically, it was a white South African in London, Denis Bowen, who recognised this liberated creativity and called it ‘a breath of fresh air’. Bowen constantly struggled, along with artists from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean who began to arrive in London soon after the war, against the division of humanity into racial or cultural differences.16
However, my concern is primarily with those who faced the problem of being seen, due to their racial difference, as ‘others’ and who became ‘black artists’ in the white artworld of Britain. Even when they were right at the centre of mod- ern developments in art, they were seen as merely representing their own Asian, African or Caribbean culture. And with regard to the diversity and experimental nature of the avant-garde activities in 1960s London, Guy Brett has highlighted the problem:
These qualities have never been recognised by British art history. In fact the entire mainstream historical writing and exhibition-making has been concerned with constructing a national image of British art... ignoring or excluding the work of those foreigners which cannot be assimilated within the national canon. By the cruel logic of chauvinism, official aspirations to make London an international art centre have only resulted in obliterating London’s cosmopolitan reality and the actual ferment of its cultural life.17
‘London’s cosmopolitan reality’ comprised not just members of the European avant-garde but the active presence of artists of Asian and African origins (‘black artists’) that turned this reality into a culturally diverse art world. When both white and black artists showed in the same galleries, the basic premises of the modernist avant-garde were transformed into a culturally diverse discourse.18 Unlike the early part of the twentieth century, when the role of other cultures within modern- ism was enacted through their cultural objects penetrating into it and precipitat- ing a transformation, now this penetration was that of a subject who challenged Eurocentric modernism and liberated it from its white ethnocentrism. When we link this achievement to the exemplary one of Ernest Mancoba, and those of many others in the modern world, we have a completely different history. It is no longer exclusively the history of the achievement of European or Western culture in art but a history that has engaged in defiant challenge to the colonial frame of modernism and has given to modernism what the West had always claimed for it, its universality, now truly meaning the liberated subjectivity of all humanity. In short, the true history of modernism and the avant-garde is the history of many diverse cultures of the world.
With the change in its demographic map, resulting from the arrival of people from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean after World War II, British society could no longer be considered an exclusively white society but a multiracial and multicultural one. This has been constantly reflected in art during the last sixty or so years, producing what is and should be recognised as the historical accomplishment of Britain’s cultural diversity. What is striking about this success story is that it is located at the centre of British mainstream and not as a separate cultural entity – or a specific ‘sector’, of the sort institutionally promoted in Britain, representing only what is described in the Arts Council’s Cultural Diversity Action Plan 1998–2003 as ‘African, Caribbean, Asian and Chinese Arts’. The Arts Council’s report, we should take note, describes cultural diversity as ‘ethnic diversity resulting from post-war immigration’. This is not simply a ‘misguided’ perception due to ignorance or the legacy of benevolent colonialism still embedded within the art institutions,19 but, more disturbingly, a denial of the reality of what has been historically achieved in the art of Britain and a perpetuation of the institutional suppression of the actual facts of cultural diversity in art. Which raises some very disquieting questions. If cultural diversity has been an integral part of the British mainstream, why is there institutional insistence on its separation and exclusion from that mainstream? And why are millions being spent in the official support and promotion of this version of ‘cultural apartheid’?
The facts of cultural diversity within the mainstream are well known. The art establishment has been constantly reminded of the importance of these facts for a culturally integrated multiracial British society. And yet these facts are persistently ignored and this ignorance is institutionally advanced by publicly funding separatist art projects based on ethnic or racial categories. I do not wish to invoke the former apartheid policy of South Africa, but questions must be asked in the interest of a society that has consistently declared its opposition to all kinds of discrimination. I do not doubt that British society truly aspires to be an integrated multiracial society. So how can exclusion from British art history of those artists who have been historically responsible for the cultural diversity within the mainstream be explained or justified? Why instead are racially based separate categories of cultural diversity being officially supported? I am aware of the complexity of the problem and know that these questions alone will not provide for sufficient answers. One must go beyond simplified polemics. There is a genuine desire for radical change, no doubt, but this desire is itself trapped in the very perception that also traps ‘black artists’ in their presumed displacement from their own cultures, which it is believed, prevents them from being creative. Hence it becomes policy to help them recover from this loss. Being helpful to others in this way blocks the recognition of the reality that such recipients in fact do not require this sort of help but are confronting the very basis of this benevolence.
Free imagination is fundamental to creativity. This imagination may carry with it personal experiences involving ‘diversity of culture’ but its creativity cannot be predetermined by these experiences. They may appear as part of what emerges from it as art, though not necessarily in a way that clearly or simply reveals its specific cultural roots. It is more likely, instead, that when creativity faces a culturally specific precondition or an institutionally imposed cultural framework, it will lose its vital force. I am not denying the role of one’s culture in what one creates as art, but when this is seen ontologically as the predetermination of creativity, then its power becomes limited and contained; and consequently it is prevented from giving rise to what can claim to be profoundly and historically a significant idea performing a social function. The ambition of art throughout history, both in national pursuits and across all cultures of the world, has been either to reflect what society aspires to collectively or suggest a way for it to move forward.
The role of history is fundamental to creativity, as history is the motor of art. Its his- tory will also define the space in which this movement occurs. In other words, the movement of art in Britain defines the nature of British society. If this movement is recognised as only that of a certain racial group, then the space of movement is defined only by this group. If the history of art in Britain is the history only of white artists – as it is institutionally recognised and promoted – then Britain is a society defined by these artists. If this is what should be accepted wholeheartedly and without critical thought, then what is expected from Britain’s non-white popu- lation? To remain at the margin of this society without any active and equal part either in its formation or definition? Has this not created the problem of a culturally divided Britain? It seems that society is aware of this division and suffers from its resulting conflicts, but is unable to deal with the underlying causes of this division. Awareness of this problem was publicly expressed in 1999 by none other than the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith:
If we have a national identity, as I’m sure we do, then that pre-supposes we have developed a common cultural heritage and history, and we are aware that we have developed it. In representing and reporting that heritage, we need to look closely at how it has been done in the past, at who has done it, and how we can do it better in the future.20
He then goes further on to elaborate his point:
Cultural professionals should be aware of how narrowly based their own in- terpreters of history can be... They need both to employ people with a wider vision and undertake projects that focus on missing history. As Secretary of State for culture, I want to see organisations working in this field – I would put this very strongly – providing a more complete version of the truth.21
What is significant about Smith’s view is not only his awareness of the role of history, of its ‘complete version of the truth’, but also his knowledge that something important is missing from dominant British history. He goes further, in the same speech, to emphasise the importance of ‘a common cultural heritage’ that includes all people, without which those who are excluded from it will look to their own cultures outside Britain:
Without a recorded history, nothing else can follow: no celebration of achievement, no development of a common cultural heritage. This results in immigrant populations looking outside these shores for their history and cultural points of reference.22
Chris Smith was then head of a government department that decided the cultural policies of the country and funded the institutions to implement them, and which, a few years after his speech, funded the Arts Council England to the tune of twenty-nine million pounds in setting up ethnically based separate organisations and projects. How can one explain this backslide and contradiction? Was Smith una- ware of what his department was doing to promote the fragmentation of British society into ethnic ghettos? What happened to his idea of ‘a common cultural heritage and history’ and the elements he suggested were missing from it? And what happened to his aspiration for ‘a more complete version of the truth’? My experience has shown me that there has been little actual concern with ‘missing history’ or to pursue ‘a more complete version of the truth’.
It is common knowledge that what is being taught as art history in Britain is racially constructed in favour of the white race and at the expense of those who are not. I say this not because I demand the inclusion of ‘black artists’ into this history, regardless of the nature or quality of their work, simply to make it a ‘multiracial’ art history, but with a knowledge of those who have been at the centre of important developments in postwar British art. Those who have been at the forefront of post- Abstract Expressionism, Kineticism, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism and Conceptualism. Those who have been part of the new experiments by which the 1970s are identified.23 So why are they excluded from these developments as narrated in official British art history? I ask this not merely because of their race but because their innovative work placed them at the centre of modernism’s mainstream, and in so doing they have re-defined the central core of the British nation as multiracial and multicultural. British art institutions have not yet fully come to terms with the changed reality of postwar Britain.
The facts are plain. The ‘missing history’, invoked by Chris Smith, was in fact presented to the public in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989.24 But the question remains: what is still missing from the recognition of the specific nature of discrimination in art that a ‘racial equality scheme’ will not suffice to address? It cannot just be about ‘cultural variations’ in society which can be seen celebrated every day in British cities without hindrance. Even when the concern is about those described as ‘Black and minority ethnic artists’, it is not clear who these artists are. If this includes artists like Anish Kapoor, Yinka Shonibare, Chris Ofili and so on, then there should be no problem. Don’t they represent the success of what the art establishment perceives as ‘cultural diversity’? This paternalistic view separates those who are seen to be different from the indigenous white people of Britain and has led to the division of society into two different discourses: one for the dominant white majority whose creativity is believed self-generated without outside help; and the other for the non-white minority, defined racially or ethnically, who must be told how to be creative. Thus the former becomes part of the mainstream history, while the latter must linger at the margins to reinforce the white centrality of society. This paradigmatic division of British society has been determined not by the reality of what it actually is, and what it has achieved historically in art as part of its postwar postcolonial transformation, but by a deep-lodged perception unwilling to accept this achievement as precisely that of cultural diversity within the mainstream that unites the society.25
What Guy Brett calls the extraordinary ‘cosmopolitan reality’ of postwar art in Britain looked forward to a racially integrated multicultural ONE society. A transformation took place because there was a space in which different cultures could meet and intermix and provide an interface from which emerged a notion of modernism that was previously absent in Britain. This modernism gave Britain its post-war national identity. And although this development was at first welcomed – in fact celebrated in the case of some artists – it became a problem for the writing of history. There was a clash of views within British society about what this history should represent and how it should be written. Some wanted it to represent the new multicultural reality of postwar Britain, while others, like Enoch Powell, saw such an inclusive history as a threat to British culture, whose values could only be defined and protected by its indigenous people. However, the struggle for a society in which all people, irrespective of their racial or cultural differences, would have equal rights and would be part of Britain’s new identity and history did vigorously proceed. But as British society began to perceive postwar immigrants from the British Commonwealth as a social problem, the impetus for change lost its ground to the notion of immigrants as a separate entity in need of separate development. Thus emerged the idea of ‘cultural diversity’, based on the ethnicities of the diverse minorities, which masked the real struggle between equality and exclusivity. And with this, as ‘black artists’ became ‘foreigners’,26 their place within British art history became untenable. But these ‘foreigners’ could not be sent home; nor could their demand for equality be ignored. The conundrum demanded a resolution for the good of all society, but that became increasingly difficult as the fear of other cultures grew. This fear had less to do with the presence of other cultures in Britain than with their critical potential to intervene in what was perceived to be indigenous British culture and change its basic character. This fear became acute when Margaret Thatcher, following in Enoch Powell’s footsteps, declared in 1979:
I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture... The British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, then people are going to be rather hostile to those coming in... We are a British nation with British char- acteristics. Every country can take some minorities, and in many ways they add to the richness and variety of this country. But the moment the minority threatens to become a big one, people get frightened.27 (my emphases)
If we compare Thatcher’s declaration with Chris Smith’s vision for ‘a common cultural heritage and history’, then we can better grasp the nature of the rift I have underlined. Thatcher’s triumph commandeered the future of British society and left the issue of ‘British character’ unchallenged.
What was this fear Thatcher was referring to, if not the very one regularly implanted in the gullible public by a reactionary element within British culture to maintain its power? This power has never come to terms with its past and continues nostalgically to celebrate the glories of colonialism, and stubbornly opposes any attempt to transform Britain into a racially equitable postcolonial society. But if, at the same time, the aspiration of British society is to become an equitable society, how can this be achieved without confronting the beliefs enshrined in Thatcher’s notion of the ‘British character’, which clings to the colonial past? Did this not create an irresolvable contradiction within a power structure that still wished to maintain the status quo of this ‘British character’, and to thus subject a section of society to minority status, preventing it from claiming equal rights within the main- stream? Did this not then lead to riots in the major cities of the UK in 1981?
Following the riots in Brixton, Liverpool, Manchester, and other cities, Prime Minister Thatcher appointed Lord Scarman to investigate the matter, and he, in his report, suggested special funding for the promotion of the cultures of ‘ethnic minority communities’ as a solution to what was a socio-economic problem. At the time, unemployment in Brixton stood at thirteen per cent and twenty-six per cent for ethnic minorities, while among the black youth it was estimated at fifty-five per cent.
It comes as no surprise that Thatcher provided funds for this programme in 1986 in support of what she called ‘people of a different culture’, and thereby reinforced the separate cultural status of those who might otherwise have changed the ‘British character’ of this nation.
History is our best guide to understanding the present and constructing the future. What we face today are the mistakes of the past and its results in the present; but they can be rectified if we are prepared to look at things historically. Historically, there have been two cultural models: one emerged from the freedom of imagination and is integrated within the mainstream; the other was imposed on a section of society on the basis of its assumed separateness. The former was hailed by Chris Smith who wanted it to be the basis of the unity of British society; while the aim of the latter was to suppress or mask a conflict that could not easily be resolved. The continuing non-recognition of the former and the institutional perpetuation of the latter comprise the problem of our divided society today.
The question remains: what do we really want? Should we adopt a model of cultural diversity that brings us all together in a cohesive whole, or accept the at- titudes that promote the division of society into unrelated fragments? If society’s true aspiration is the former, then we must listen to Chris Smith and pursue what he suggested; otherwise, we will leave society as it is, to undergo further conflicts and violence.