Under The Skin


Initially, I did not believe that postcolonialist ideas were applicable to my interests in contemporary art. My lack of basic knowledge of postcolonial theory in its various forms and examples over the past 25-30 years presented a significant obstacle to my understanding of the detailed and case-specific arguments posited within the required readings. For example, the authors of many of the readings assumed that one would be familiar with the work of Edward Said or Homi Bhabha. Without a functioning knowledge of the basic discourse on which these complex ideas were built, I felt subjected to accepting the information and opinions presented. In a hyperbolic sense, I identified two of the tools used as oppressive colonizing agents–knowledge and representation–as I faced the course unprepared and outgunned by a dominant force. With this identification, my perceived emphasis of post-colonial theory shifted from the methodical shaming and denunciation of imperialistic attitudes and actions to a systematic reconsideration of colonial subjugation and its outcomes through the expanded lens of contemporary theory. At the risk of writing a synopsis of the readings and discussions in Critical Theory III, I will use the assigned readings as a framework for reflection and reaction as well as a gleaming evidence of due diligence and academic compliance. My work looks to postcolonial theory as a foundational element for navigating some of the intercultural and geopolitical ramifications of our current world stage, especially as we look to the future and expansion to space. (Links between these theories and my work are still under evaluation, and correlations are forming with research, but the corollary effects will not be the focus of this paper.) Imperative and transformative to my work—and highlighted following—are the ideas of universality and/or a global culture, representation as a form of power, and the lasting effects of colonization – namely the irreparable shift that comes with mimicry and hybridity.

The difficulty in reviewing and summarizing a topic like postcolonialism is that the theory carries within itself many conflicting definitions and boundaries and even seems to be self-defining. Upon immersion into the more foundational modes of thought within contemporary discourse, my perspective on the theory began to change, unfold, and rapidly expand. Reading Foucault, I was reminded of the importance of responding to “one’s own present.” I was able to see past national histories and began to see connections to the peoples and cultures colonialism affected and the way postcolonial outcomes touch every part of the art world from artists’ relationships to the way their work is seen and interpreted. I was also able to see some of the illusory methods of control utilized in aggressive colonialism that continue to be at play within culture and society today. I came to understand the mechanisms of desire and the function of the exotic within a bored European society and how, as Edward Said put so well in Orientalism, “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other” (19).

This idea of universality has been handled often in various contexts, but Sally Price’s The Universality Principle revealed a sort of uncomfortable reality of how it plays out in the art world, namely, how the banner of universality can be used to benefit the privileged and give an appearance of benevolence while actually putting down the perceived beneficiary. Price asked her readers to consider the view from the other side, questioning the truth that universal ‘sameness’ is a vehicle of unification or if it may simply be a façade that parades under the guise of philanthropy. Price posits, “…from the privileged perspective of white Europeans and Americans, the mingling of races strongly implies an act of tolerance, kindness, and charity. The ‘equality’ accorded to non-Westerners (and their art), the implication goes, is not a natural reflection of human equivalence, but rather the result of Western benevolence (25).” This perspective was new to me. I had had a preconception (based on ‘global’ marketing by Coke, and other international brands) that the rest of the world’s societies wanted to be like the West with a flavor of their own native cultural heritage. I realize what an egregious assumption that is, that we were all the same under our skin–with slightly different preferences–but the same nonetheless. It is a misguided idealistic fantasy from a position of privilege and ignorance. While I do believe we all share a battery of biological functions and some rites of passage, to make sweeping assumptions that everyone else’s desires, hopes, and dreams line up with the goals of the dominant society, the “what I have” of the oppressive power, is pejorative and oppressive. I believe those differences should be honored, not manipulated or falsely presented. We are all worthy of the respect that being human entails.

As oppressive forces operate, both representation and knowledge of a culture by an outside power can be understood as primary modes of mass-indoctrination of racist philosophies to the colonizing society. The act of representation, the taking of voice, is a major concern of Gayatri Spivak, and her perception of a voiceless subaltern, or lowest class, even becomes the lead question of her book, Can the Subaltern Speak? In the book, she aptly conceives that even when subaltern “speak” through the voices of empathetic sponsors, it ends up being a sort of ventriloquism (Morris and Spivak 276). As I was able to better understand this mode of thinking, the idea or representation presented in How Art Becomes History began to make a bit more sense. The book’s author, Maurice Berger, argues that the people in power (generally wealthy white Western men) control society’s perception of ‘normal’ and its inverse representations. Any depiction of a deviation from ‘normal’, “…even ‘innocent’ representations sustain racist ideologies. From the perspective of representation, there will always be a threshold beyond which difference becomes intolerable” (79). Under close and focused scrutiny, it becomes apparent just how powerful this mode of operating is: presenting to the masses a ‘normal’ reflection of themselves and a cultural ideal, not only undergirds a position of dominance for the society, but makes any act of extending one’s own culture seem to be an inherently altruistic action. This idea also extends to a passive representation in the colonial homeland. The museum, as demonstrated by Fred Wilson in his work Mining the Museum (1992), is a construct, built by the victors in the same way history is written. Often authors of ‘native’ or ‘primitive’ work are completely passed over and the object is the focus of attention as some sort of magical portal into understanding a society. In reality, many of these ‘artifacts’ have been forcefully taken or commissioned to become spectacles.

As the colonialist slowly saturates the cultures of the colonialized with this idea of new normalcy, the colonialized culture becomes a culture of hybrids – not pure in any way. The hybrid culture often engages in a form of mimicry, with the dominated culture becoming like the dominating culture in a variety of ways. This, as highlighted by Homi Bhabha, is often a survival tactic, the path of least resistance. “The effect of mimicry is camouflage It is not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against a mottled background, of becoming mottled – exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare” (84). Mimicry is often encouraged by the dominant force, but never assisted to the point of complete assimilation. It is flattering to the colonialist when the colonialist Other, the native, begins to imitate his oppressors or tries to become ‘civilized’ himself, but finds himself inept, reinforcing the feeling of control by the dominant culture. This perception of mimicry, or at least the mode in which it operates, has resonance in the art world. It seems, as highlighted in Alien-Own/Own Alien, the art world holds transnational artists at arm’s length, claiming that they don’t speak the ‘international language’ of art, which is of course written by specialists and collectors with “prejudices based on a sort of axiological monism” (Papastergiadis 19). Essentially, the people who define the ‘international language’ are the people who are already part of the conversation, forcing transnational artists to either stay outside or participate in a sort of stylistic mimicry in their own work. This hybridization is a small example, but still a damning reality for many ‘outsider’ artists. The issue with hybridity isn’t the creation of a new culture, it is the complete death of the original culture by means of sterilization. As is true of most mammals, hybrids are sterile and incapable of progeneration.

As Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge contend in their 1991 article, “What Is Post(-)colonialism?”, there is a “paradox that the ‘post’ in ‘post-colonialism’ may well imply business as usual, only more so” (276). They respond to this position in a follow-up article from 2005 titled “What Was Postcolonialism?” Mishra and Hodge continue their query, and in looking at “the paradoxical situation of postcolonialism, [they] are moved above all to insist on its pastness” (375). There seems to be an urge to move past the uncomfortable reality of colonialism and its outcomes, analyzed within postcolonial theory, but the frightening reality is that the ideas of globalism and universality– often striding under the guise of multiculturalism, of sameness–are so embedded in our culture, that we don’t stop to question motives or really listen to others. So often our point is to try to make someone else more like ourselves, to elicit some sort of mimicry from them, because if we are all the same under the skin, any time my “Other” isn’t aligned with my ideas, they are out of sync with ‘normal.’ We cannot deny our increase in digital interconnectedness, but we also cannot deny that that privilege of web-connectivity isn’t afforded to all of humanity. There are still gross inequalities when it comes to opportunity, oppression, and resources, but if we can stop and think outside of the tropes of ‘normal’ and the feel-good ideologies of ‘global’ (Western) corporations, we may just find ourselves in a position to empathize, learn, and listen to other people who have different experiences and who share in some, but not all traits, preferences, hopes, dreams, and moral convictions.

 

Works Cited

Berger, Maurice. How Art Becomes History : Essays on Art, Society, and Culture in Post-New Deal America. New York: Icon, 1992. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London; New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Mishra, Vijay et al. “What Was Postcolonialism?” New Literary History 36.3 (2005): 375–402. Web.

Mishra, Vijay, and Bob Hodge. “What Is Post(‐)colonialism?” Textual Practice 5.3 (1991): 399–414. Web.

Morris, Rosalind C, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Can the Subaltern Speak? : Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Web.

Papastergiadis, Nikos. “Complex Entanglements : Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference.” London: Rivers Oram, 2003. Print.

Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago  [Ill.] [u. a.]: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.

 


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