‘Cultural diversity’ has widely differing interpretations, from transparent initiatives to broaden inclusiveness to institutional policies that simply disguise political inequalities. However interpreted, the term almost always implies a majority monoculture against which all else is ‘diverse’, predicated on an hypostatisation of cultural and ethnic (or other) differences. Fundamentally, however, cultural diversity concerns social justice, because diversity debates surface in national contexts imprinted with legacies of injustice, inequality and discrimination against minority groups; and agency, defined as the freedom of individuals to act as political and creative subjects, within the limits of respect for the equal legitimate rights of others.
Any consideration of cultural diversity therefore cannot be thought outside universal human rights. This is already asserted in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an obligation upon the nation-state regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,1 and is based in the principle that such rights are morally non-negotiable and take precedence over geopolitical (ie national) interests. In recent years specific cultural rights have been elaborated by UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UDCD) whose ‘guidelines’ emphasise that cultural diversity is an ‘adaptive process’ in which ‘each individual must acknowledge not only otherness in all its forms but also the plurality of his or her own identity, within societies that are themselves plural’.2 The cultural rights protected – subject to respect for human rights – include non-discriminatory freedom of creative expression and language, quality education, preservation of cultural heritage, and access to the means of expression and dissemination.
But certain problems present themselves: how can diverse, and sometimes antagonistic cultural perspectives and values be accommodated by universal human rights? How do governing states interpret the obligation and implement it in practice? The answer to these questions must begin with the understanding that culture is not a fixed object to be owned, but a continuously evolving way of life in which, in a democracy, conflictual interests are integral and therefore the notion that they can be ‘resolved’ is less convincing than accommodation through open dialogue. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century it was the failure of central government to engage in dialogue with minority communities that turned disappoint- ment into violent conflict. In multicultural, multi-faith societies, majority culture policies of assimilation or integration have too often been based on assumptions that a minority either has no culture, or would relinquish its cultural identity and adopt some idealised national monoculture; such policies do not account for either the contribution minority cultures make to national life, or the transformative, creative potential of intercultural exchanges. Significantly, Article 2 of the UDCD notes that policies of cultural pluralism – the inclusion and participation of all citizens – give ‘expression to the reality of cultural diversity’. Hence, rather than institutional interpretations engineered to fit a narrowly defined monocultural perspective, one might look for policies that address basic values of humanity shared by all cultures: the hinge of universal human rights.
Given that over a period of thirty years British arts organisations under directives from central government have produced reports on ‘cultural diversity’, a fairly unique scenario presents itself from which to assess the context, nature and impact of diversity policies and initiatives on visual arts and artists.3 A cursory glance at these reports suggests however that government policy initiatives have mostly been reactive responses to periods when ‘minority’ communities’ despair at social injus- tice and disrespect boils over into visible social unrest; at which point short-term ‘management’ is sought, particularly through the cultural and educational spheres. That is, British government arts diversity initiatives have been intimately tied to what are, strictly speaking, political policies of social welfare and cohesion and, indeed, in a broader sense to concepts of social engineering.
Naseem Khan’s initial, well-intentioned report, The Arts Britain Ignores, 1976, was a response to the exclusion of what Khan called ‘ethnic minorities’ from active engagement and decision-making in British cultural life, which is to say, the British national narrative. Cultural exclusion is a political issue insofar as it reveals the limits in the national status of minority constituencies as fully constituted citizens, a problem that has recently returned to haunt the British government vis-à-vis its Islamic constituencies. It highlights the fact that citizenship is not simply a legalistic or ‘nationalistic’ category, but entails reciprocal obligations on the part of government and the people to ensure both the sociopolitical security and the cultural wellbeing of all citizens.
From the perspective of visual arts, Khan’s report set the terms for what was subsequently to be adopted by arts administrations as ‘ethnic minority arts’ (encompassing everything from the ‘folkloric’ to professional ‘high’ art) and which quickly became inseparable from the meaning of ‘cultural diversity’. That these terms were accepted so uncritically by both sympathetic administrations and the majority of British African, African Caribbean and Asian artists is due largely to the fact that the mainstream art establishment was not a level playing field and ‘positive discrimination’ was seen as the only immediate answer to endemic institutional racism. This continues to be the case: in 2003 Arts Council England required that its RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations) submit a ‘Cultural Diversity Action Plan’, with the implication that targets which included BME (Black Minority Eth- nic) would be tied to funding. Nonetheless, whilst these reports have diagnosed institutional deficiencies, in many ways their recommendations and how they were implemented have been counter-productive, not least in the elusive sphere of artistic freedom.
Among the critical analyses of the history of British cultural diversity policies within the publicly funded visual arts sector is Richard Hylton’s The Nature of the Beast, 2007.4 Hylton points out a basic evaluative problem behind ‘cultural diversity’ agendas: ‘The related notions that some people are more “culturally diverse” or more “ethnic” than others are equally problematic. “Ethnic minority” and “culturally diverse” are terms that privilege a limited notion of difference based on “race”. Such notions are unhelpful, because they presuppose or imply normality to be white and everything else to be diverse.’5 In addition, the historical ‘apathy’ and lack of proactive engagement of ‘white’ dominated arts institutions with cultural diversity reinforces the perception that, like racism, cultural diversity is seen to be the concern of ‘ethnically diverse’ people alone.
Two primary issues arise out of Hylton’s analysis. Firstly, what are the implica- tions in cultural diversity policies of categorising artists by racial or ethnic typologies? If artists’ recognition and support is only based on such markers, it places the artist in a straightjacket of conformity that, on the one hand, risks crippling artistic creativity, and on the other, confines them to a limited range of ‘thematic’ shows and critical discourses. It also further marginalises those ‘ethnic’ artists who do not wish to be so categorised. To focus and judge work on the basis of ethnic or racial markers is, on the one hand, to look only for confirmation of expectation, even prejudice – the artist as anthropological ‘native informer’ – and on the other, to ignore the unique artistic dimension and experience of the work and to overlook its potential to deterritorialise monocultural assumptions of contemporary reality. It has been symptomatic of cultural diversity policies in general that a ‘culturally different’ artist is presumed to be ‘representative’ of that community (and during the 1980s the common policy was to employ ‘ethnic’ artists in community projects rather than the fine art field). Aside from this rarely being the case, given that most artists sustain pluralised and often agonistic cultural positions, this denies non-white artists the relative aesthetic autonomy that is understood by white artists to be their right, an autonomy that takes as its core the idea of art and art’s entire history, not a narrow anthropological notion of culture. Nonetheless, despite Hylton’s rather bleak analysis, over the past decade British ‘ethnically diverse’ artists have been able to distance themselves from these entrapments in terms of the content of their work, if not from the way they themselves are positioned in the art system.
Secondly, that institutional cultural diversity initiatives to increase the percentage of non-white participation in the art system – administrative, curatorial and artists’ exhibitions – even if modestly successful (and Hylton claims that in fact there has been little improvement since the 1980s) have not fundamentally altered the qualitative structure of the system, or the attitudes that support it, so that existing power structures and relations remain intact.6 Hylton notes that what emerges is a ‘tick box’ culture where lip service is paid to cultural diversity with periodic ‘survey’ shows of non-white artists, but no substantial increase in recognition of individuals.7 Certainly, relatively few British ‘minority’ artists have gained private gallery support, or are selected to represent Britain in prestigious international shows, and most exhibition opportunities rely on publicly funded galleries and commissions. Hylton therefore recommends that policy directives, rather than target the ‘excluded’ should challenge ‘those who do the excluding’. It is Hylton’s contention that, insofar as cultural diversity policies continue to categorise individuals along racial or ethnic lines, and insofar as separate diversity funding pro- visions for ‘black arts’ absolve the more prestigious institutions and funders from engagement with ‘minority’ artists as independent practitioners alongside white artists, they have the effect of legitimising a segregated art world.8
Among the modest shifts in British cultural diversity attitudes is the Mayor of London’s policy document Delivering Shared Heritage, 2005, which draws on the expertise of a range of black and Asian cultural advisors.9 While the commission was not specifically concerned with the visual arts, it is notable for attempting to reframe national heritage and its institutions as a shared patrimony of shared histories irrespective of ‘racial’ ancestries, although its focus remains on increasing the institutional and audience participation of African, African Caribbean and Asian constituencies (unlike the Khan report, which included Latin Americans and East Europeans amongst the ‘ignored’). Of value here is the recognition that social and historical narratives are key to a sense of social cohesion and belonging. In fact, over the past two decades, the work of British black and Asian artists and film- makers, such as Zarina Bhimji, Black Audio Film Collective, Keith Piper, Isaac Julien and Shaheen Merali, has been instrumental in imaginatively plundering the ‘forgotten’ colonial archive to bring shared histories into the public domain. Re-narrating the past through the lens of the present towards a transformation of national narratives has been an important facet of artistic intervention in the broader social field.
Delivering Shared Heritage clearly takes its cue from UNESCO, citing Article 1 of the UDCD, and includes in its ‘case for diversity’ statutory imperatives, citizens’ rights, national cohesion and identity, stimulating the knowledge economy, business, economic development and regeneration. While recognising that encour- aging participation in arts and culture may be a more effective way of building an individual’s sense of citizenship than more fraught and prescriptive notions of ‘national identity’ – which, as Benedict Anderson argued, is a largely ‘imaginary’ construction – like earlier reports, the underlying political philosophy of Delivering Shared Heritage bears further scrutiny.
The advocacy of ‘sharing’ is a positive move, but the concept of ‘cultural heritage’ does not escape the problem of how culture itself is defined. Cultural heritage is primarily understood as preserving the archive and those practices surviving from the past. As such, heritage claims, like those of cultural diversity, fall back on conservative anthropological definitions that see culture – and cultural identity – as a fixed set of terms, which again encourages segregation.10 This leaves little space for conceiving culture (and identity) in the terms addressed by visual artists, namely, as a dynamic transformative process that is enriched by borrowings and exchanges across fuzzy borders. As already stated, culture is not a property to be owned but an experience lived, with all its attendant paradoxes and conflicts; as such it is a mistake to conflate culture with ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’.
The promotion of heritage as an ‘agent for economic regeneration’ betrays some complicity with a shift in government policies in which culture has become increasingly instrumentalised and subsumed within utilitarian, integrationist policies primarily addressing social cohesion, urban regeneration and economic viability. As Jonathan Vickery notes, within this emerging social instrumentalism, ‘culture and creativity were means to generate an already existing process of social reconstruction, in which culture was conceived unquestioningly as wholly positive, not itself ridden by structural contradictions and conflicts, but which could create unproblematic modes of engagement with leisure, training, job creation and industry.’11 The consequence, as he further notes, is that,
under New Labour, the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) and Arts Council, whatever their virtues, have not presented a credible policy challenge to the hegemony of social policy in the ‘discourse’ of ur- ban regeneration, and that is in part due to a weak concept of culture and an untheorised understanding of the relation between culture and society. Consequently, cultural policy is either marginal, outside the mainstream of heavyweight urban and social policy areas, or is appended to these areas as a supplement.12
According to a 2002 DCMS document, the arts had to make a ‘demonstrable contribution to Government social policy’, notably in the areas of culture and community, a prescription with which Arts Council England subsequently complied, but which fosters national homogeneity rather than local particularity, and – insofar as they are subject to standardised performance indicators and the mantra of ‘public accountability’ – short-term, measurable goals focused on the popular end of the culture industry at the expense of long-term developments in ‘quality of life’ (another neo-humanist ‘definition’ of culture that New Labour has voiced but finds difficult to implement).
This is not to say that fine art practices do not contribute positively to social cohesion or urban regeneration, but as Vickery points out, none of the corporate policies described in recent Arts Council England documents concerns art as such. They concern art’s socio-political function, confirming the Chair of Arts Council England’s own admittance that there has been an unprecedented process of insti- tutional isomorphism between Arts Council England and central government and loss of its prior, more independent, ‘arm’s length’ status.13 One may additionally ask how far this encroachment of political, economic and corporate ‘interests’ on the independence of arts specialists is paralleled by UNESCO’s reconfiguration during the 1990s of an Executive Board no longer constituted by independent intellectuals and advisors but by delegates elected from or by members of Congress, and whether such shifts are a recipe for stifling the freedom and contribution to global debates of academic and artistic research. Any ‘constitution of citizenship’ has to take decisive steps beyond the concept of national sovereignty as it was elaborated throughout the history of nation-states. It must deepen and rearticulate the notion of ‘popular sovereignty’ in the sense of building an effective responsible international political leadership and direct representation of the population and its social interests, but in political terms – not ‘ethnic’ or ‘cultural’ ones – as against the current system of uncontrolled bureaucracy and hidden compromises among national politicians.
The predominance of justifications for the social value of culture, in which ‘cultural diversity’ is now an embedded factor, overlooks the crucial question of what culture – let alone fine art – is as a value and end in itself. As Vickery says, without a robust concept of culture it is not only difficult to formulate the relation between culture and society, but also the relation between culture and fine art (which, as Pierre Bourdieu described, has its own specialist infrastructure of lan- guage, rules and agents), and the place of professional visual artists – provided that one can still maintain the view that the visual arts are evolving practices relatively autonomous from ideological and political interference. Without an appropriate language, how is it possible to advance convincing political arguments for the integral role of artists and artistic autonomy in our global societies; or is artistic autonomy to be dismissed as an anachronism from an earlier, more elitist era? Institutional concepts of ‘creativity’ refer to broad education-orientated notions of developing individual ‘expression’, social identities and communications skills, but in practice do not necessarily involve fine artists; and where ‘creativity’ programmes exist with artists’ involvement, development of the artist’s own work is typically distinct from the programme. While ‘creativity’ programmes may provide the impulse for a young person’s choice of art as a profession, they offer no insights into what ‘creativity’ means in the visual arts context. Public policy, as Vickery states, lacks a concept of culture ‘that embodies both subject-specific values and socially-grounded action’.14
It is clear that the current condition of visual artists globally and the forms of artistic practices they employ cannot be separated from the complexities of the economic-political institutional contexts in which they function; and yet they are not reducible to them. Contemporary fine art practice is interdisciplinary in its research sources and understanding, and provides an intellectual value that cannot be trapped in market, political or social value systems. While governments may appropriate market-successful artists to their national agendas, this is not the sphere in which genuine artistic thought operates. Beyond institutional policies or directives, visual artists are themselves adept at imaginatively diagnosing, researching and expressing the complexities, aporias and systemic failures of our shared contemporary realities, often before political culture is aware of them. It is the failure of institutional policies that this rich vein of visionary thought is not drawn on at the inception of policy discussions but rather as a cosmetic afterthought.
Visual artists are also adept at traversing a plurality of social and cultural spaces, opening up new, non-market dependent networks of global exchange as well as sustaining older collaborative forms of artists’ workshops and collectives, none of which, of course, can be effectively sustained without economic support. Over the past decades, most of the incisive critiques of contemporary reality under ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘globalisation’ have come from artists institutionally bracketed as ‘culturally diverse’. They are ‘national’ artists, insofar as they respond to the specific historical conditions that a national society presents; but they are also ‘transnational’ insofar as their experience, alliances and insight extend beyond political borders, operating at the interface of multiple cultural identifications. In this sense they provide an overwhelmingly crucial role of translation – not only across disciplines and practices, but also across diverse cultural ideas and positions. It is from these artists that we learn to reconfigure the meaning of ‘citizenship’ as an inclusive, transnational cultural right, which means artists engaging on their own terms with the social sphere, negotiating between the aspirations of the local and the pressures of the global.
To a large extent political policies on cultural diversity suffer from similar problems to those that cripple debates on ‘multiculturalism’. In both cases there is a difference between diversity and multiculturalism as lived experience and how they have been interpreted and implemented through political policies. In 1985 the Swann Report sensibly defined multiculturalism as promoting common values, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, freedom of cultural expression and conscience, clearly in accordance with the principles of universal human and civil rights. Successive governments have, however, failed to implement these values by failing to address the sociopolitical roots of inequality and racism. Instead, policies have attempted to ‘manage’ diversity according to ethnicity: that is, homogenising individuals and communities into boxes that ignore both internal differences and external affiliations, giving in to conservative separatism (such as faith schools), and then policing the borders under the mantra of ‘respecting difference’. As a consequence of these failings, all debates on multiculturalism have become dis-credited.
In sum, institutions have tended to regard cultural diversity as a policy exercise, implementing it through the occasional BME project, not through genuine structural reform. Reform cannot simply mean raising the percentage of BME actors in senior management and governing bodies; it must mean a radical review of core philosophy in which cultural pluralism is genuinely embedded throughout arts, education and heritage institutions. Culture and the visual arts have not been served by their subjection to the neoliberal capitalism of central government. The innovative benefits of cultural pluralism are often immeasurable and long-term, so do not have immediate ‘economic’ viability as marketable commodities: economics is the wrong yardstick by which to measure cultural efficacy or artistic intellectual value. The extent to which public arts funding has relinquished its responsibilities to the short-term interests of the private and corporate sector is a recipe for the stifling of art’s autonomy and cultural innovation, where sustaining the richness of cultural diversity produced by ‘ethnic minority’ practitioners is likely to be a primary casualty in the long term unless more fluidity is encouraged between the public and private sectors under the current economic reality. Above all, cultural diversity initiatives should not be a substitute for failures in the political sphere, a point that our arts institutions should impress more forcefully on central government. What is needed are policies that work towards implementing a new British national narrative of cultural pluralism and tolerance based in universal human rights and aspirations that emphasise what we share and contribute as common humanity.