Art and Interculturalism by Josette Féral
"The value of art lies, perhaps, in the fact that art is constantly offering test cases
in which a culture can prove it is serious about pluralism."
-Ria Lavrijsen

Different cultures never sit quietly side by side; they always intermingle or fight among each other. What then is the role of art in this broader perspective? How can art serve as a model for the integration of diverse cultures? An analysis of different manifestations of art can turn into an accurate reflection of what is happening in society at large.

Obviously, interest in other cultures is not a recent phenomenon, either in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa. The development of mass media, the increase in travel, the fairs and festivals which give access to different forms of art, have allowed an existing interest to grow. Indeed, it is a modern version of what has existed for centuries: whether it's Jesuits writing about their travels in China and India, Montesquieu, Artaud, Stanislavski, Brecht, Mnouchkine, or the testimonies of countless authors about the East. Modern art has been influenced from the very start by arts of other cultures, in painting (Picasso and African Art) as well as in dance and music (Martha Graham, Cage, Kaprow). When theatre artists such as Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Liz Lecompte, Reza Abdoh, Peter Sellars or Lee Breuer borrow artistic practices and traditions from other cultures, they are simply building on what has always been the basis of art: its ability to absorb the various influences that feed it and allow it to grow.

Curiosity about other cultures is, therefore, not new, no more than the practice of adapting and borrowing. This has always been the essence of art. What is new, however, is the process of awareness which is connected with the phenomenon as well as to the theory and critical analysis that take it as its object. The need to understand the reasons for such transfers, crossings, contributions, and exchanges seems to have become inescapable.

It seems to me that some aspects of cultural pluralism just happen unconsciously in the artist's mind and the artist's work reflects this. Artists do not aim specifically to produce multicultural work but since they are living in a specific time, and since art is rooted in real life problems, the realities of everyday life are transposed into their work and emerge transformed. The best artistic works are not political, they are not designed to emphasize a point or an ideology. However, they may suggest this or be imbued with it: every work of art has its macro-social basis.

What is interesting about art is that it is located precisely at the intersection of the individuality, the subjectivity of the artist and the plurality of the surrounding cultures. A work of art effectuates the osmosis of these two entities. It allows the artist to reinterpret the reality of life, to show, answer and question its contradictions. In other words, to bring to light some of the hidden aspects of society as well as of him- or herself. To achieve this the artist has to analyze and establish a cultural position. To reflect on their own history and background, investigate and analyze their origins so as to establish their own cultural position and thereby identify possible meeting points: in other words, one must clarify one's own analytical and creative context. This is the micro-social dimension.

A work of art occurs precisely at the junction of these two entities: the macro-social and the micro-social.

The principal requirement of interculturalism is that it allows us, spectators and art analysts, to re-evaluate our own position in history in relation to the specific work, to reexamine the artistic event against its own background, contextualize the work based on the way it integrates cultural themes or artistic manifestations, and to reassess our relationship to exterior influences.

Bringing different cultures together is neither simple nor neutral. It has its own particular significance. And the way it is done also has a particular significance. Thus any statement on interculturalism (or cultural pluralism) is political and requires that we define our position. Because interculturalism raises new issues, we must reassess the legitimacy of the process. Interculturalism takes for granted that the simple act of borrowing, even if it is artistically justifiable, expresses a previously-determined political stand. It implies that a close look be taken at how those loans come to be integrated into the target culture and how they continue to relate to their source culture, the aim being to obtain a real pattern of exchange between cultures.

Two types of reaction to the process of cultural pluralism and to interculturalism are identifiable, at least in the domain of the arts: the first is 'euphoric' and the second 'dysphoric'. The first group -- the euphoric -- describes the bases of an emerging global culture: this is the position of artists such as Eugenio Barba and Peter Brook, who called at the Fortieth Congress of the UNESCO International Theatre Institute for "a theatre that is based on the merging of traditions (including the mix of actors from different cultures and languages in performance) where audiences are confronted with the specific as well as the universal truth by virtue of performances that blend various cultures." To promote cultural pluralism (interculturalism) along these lines means to acknowledge that it is beneficial to broaden our mental attitudes, that it makes us more aware of our neighbours' otherness, hence better able to listen to them. Many theatre artists fall into that category: Robert Lepage, Peter Sellars, Ping Chong, Reza Abdoh, to name just a few.

The second type of reaction -- the dysphoric -- which should not be underestimated, is the reaction of critics who see culturalism as representing the danger of a ruling culture unduly appropriating other, often "minority," cultures and traditions without offering anything in return. As Carl Weber states (although I could also quote Una Chauduri, Rustom Bharucha, Daryl Chin and Richard Schechner):

"What seems to be ignored in all this blissfully utopian thinking are the realities of the contemporary 'transculturation business'. As pointed out earlier, the international theatre or performance festivals are just as much trade fairs as cultural events. Large numbers of transcultural projects, trying to combine, fuse, blend -- or whatever you wish to call it -- features of the indigenous with those of an alien culture, arrive at performances which use the alien component as a spicy sauce to make some old familiar gruel palatable again. They seem to have proceeded with little if any regard for the historicity of the chosen material. Yet, awareness of a given foreign culture's historic and social conditions, and their inscription in all works of art is paramount in our context. The neglect of such conditions, and of the ideology inscribed through them, inevitably leads to an incongruous mix of foreign and native elements which in the final analysis 'refuse to fuse,' adding up to a sum which is much less than its components."*

It is impossible to refute this objection and to dismiss the concern it expresses by simply stating that borrowing has always been the way art has developed. On the contrary, it should encourage us to treat the intercultural phenomenon more carefully, to reflect on what it implies at the social, political and aesthetic levels. We must therefore be lucid, prudent, and reassess our behavior.

In other words, duality and ambiguity always exist; any study of interculturalism must take this into account or else ignore a significant aspect of the phenomenon. It follows that studies of artistic interculturalism must be carried out within a "political" context. If one insists on protecting the integrity of art outside its relationship with society, then art might miss out on the real challenges.

*Weber, Carl. "AC/TC Currents of Theatrical Exchange." Performing Arts Journal (1989).

Josette Féral is a critical theorist and professor at the Graduate School of Theatre of University of Quebec at Montreal. This essay is an excerpt from paper created for De Kracht van Cultuur (The Power of Culture), an Amsterdam-based project exploring international culture and development.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).