From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 2

Eugene Hyde - Good Friday
Eugene Hyde – Good Friday, from the Casualties Series, 1978 (Collection: National Gallery of Jamaica)

Here is part two of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part one can be found here. (c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that the challenge facing anticolonial cultural nationalism was to “to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western” (1993, 6) and added that “the search for a postcolonial modernity has been tied, from its very birth, with its struggle against modernity” (75). Anticolonial and postcolonial Modernist art has indeed developed in a conflicted dialogue with Western Modernism, reinforced by the fact that many postcolonial artists and cultural scholars have studied or worked in the metropolitan West. Still today, it is one of the most charged questions in the postcolonial mimicry debate, as is illustrated by the Indian expatriate art critic Annie Paul’s argument that mainstream Jamaican artists and art narratives “parrot” Western, high Modernist models, with a particular predilection for abstraction (1997).

Paul’s position is, in itself, highly problematic. First of all, the relationship between non-Western cultural nationalism and Modernism cannot be understood if Modernism is conflated with the formalist, High Modernist notion of art as an autonomous aesthetic preoccupation. Modernism is a much broader, more multifaceted phenomenon and the aspects of Western Modernism that attracted anticolonial and postcolonial nationalists are those equally important ones that accommodated social and political content and intent, such as expressionism and realism. While there has been some experimentation with abstraction, as is illustrated by the Cuban propaganda posters and a few “formalist rebellions” among artists who felt confined by cultural nationalism, representation has been the norm in most anti- and postcolonial art and this has certainly been the case in Jamaica, where art has always had a strong figurative focus.

Furthermore, the tendency to concede the authorship and rightful ownership of Modernism entirely to the metropolitan West needs to be challenged (Stam & Shohat 1998, 40). Modernism was a fundamentally transnational phenomenon, in which non-Western artists and intellectuals such as Wifredo Lam and Aimé Césaire and their international travels played a defining role. Latin American Modernism, in particular, has developed simultaneously with and sometimes ahead of European and US-American Modernism (Ades 1989, 125-149). While these contributions need to be reclaimed, the effects of Western metropolitan dominance in Modernism should not be downplayed either. There is an unresolved tension in anticolonial nationalist art movements between the desire to satisfy the cultural requirements of nationalism and those of the Western-focused “aesthetic internationalism” of Modernism (Shohat & Stam 1998, 40).

The primary means to make Jamaican Modernism “not Western” has been, to use Chatterjee’s term, the “appropriation of the popular” (1993, 72) but it has been a selective, vertical appropriation that relegates popular culture to being a “low culture” source for “high art” rather than a full-fledged part of the national culture. Norman Manley’s 1939 speech suggests that the artists – and he called them “our best young men,” in a remarkable, gender-biased failure to acknowledge the role of female artists such as his own wife in the nationalist movement – belonged to a separate category from “the people” whose culture they embraced and ennobled in their work, although several of the young members of the nationalist Jamaican art movement they mentored originally came from poor rural and urban backgrounds. Such views about the exceptional status of the artist are also evident in the work of C.L.R. James, who wrote in The Artist in the Caribbean: “A supreme artist exercises an influence on the national consciousness which is incalculable. He is created by it but he himself illuminates and amplifies it, bringing the past up to date and charting the future” (1977, 185).  The underlying issue is that nationalist art movements such as Jamaica’s have, in spite of the populist rhetoric and aversion to formalism, not fundamentally challenged the notion of “high culture” itself. The Jamaican nationalist movement may have originated in a genuine desire to transform society but it generated what was ultimately a new elite culture.

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From the Archives: Ideas about Art and Postcolonial Society – Part 1

450px-PaulBogle-MorantBay
Edna Manley – Paul Bogle (1965), ciment fondu, Morant Bay Courthouse, now removed (photo source:Wikimedia, Flickr: Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009)

While I work on some urgent publication deadlines and some new blog posts (and mark papers!), here is another text from my personal archives: the first of a two-part excerpt from my PhD dissertation “Between National and Market: Art and Society in 20th Century Jamaica” (Emory University, 2011). The excerpt is from the Introduction. Part two can be found here.

(c) Veerle Poupeye, al rights reserved

Nearly fifteen years have passed since I drafted this chapter and there have been significant changes in the context since then – it would be interesting to hear from my readers what these changes may be.

One central assumption in almost all the literature on postcolonial culture, even in the most strident critiques of cultural nationalism, is the view that the arts can be mobilized to effect, or prevent, social and political change. Such ideas were first put forward by pioneering anticolonial and racial activists from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It became the foundation of cultural and educational policy for postcolonial states and a strategy for popular resistance and liberation movements alike.

The idea that art has socially transformative potential appears in two general, overlapping forms, which are by no means exclusive to the postcolonial world. The first is the propagandist view, which posits that the content, form and presentation of art can and must make a direct intervention in society, for instance by protesting injustice, by promoting a particular political, religious or ideological perspective, or by extolling or denigrating certain political leaders. This view has been influential in the postcolonial Caribbean although there has been resistance against the more doctrinarian forms of propaganda art on the part of many artists and intellectuals. C.L.R. James, for instance, scornfully dismisses “socialist realism” in What is Art? (1993, 200), an essay in Beyond a Boundary, his famous 1963 book on the politics of cricket, in which he argues for the “high art” status of cricket by appealing to universalist aesthetic concepts such as “beauty,” “structural perfection,” and “significant form.”

A similar reluctance to dismiss ideals of artistic freedom and aesthetic universality can be seen in the Cuban constitution of 1976, which states that “there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. There is freedom of artistic expression.”[1] With other words, the form of art is free but its content is subject to state interference. When exactly the content of art comes into conflict with the principles of the Revolution is, of course, subject to interpretation and this has varied significantly over time. Cuban government patronage has also actively interfered with artistic form, by rewarding artists who work in certain styles. There were times when it advocated a more dogmatic “socialist realism” – as happened briefly in the early 1960s and again during the 1970s, when Soviet influence was at its peak. Formalist trends, in contrast, have been tolerated but not encouraged and have, at times, been criticized for their association with American cultural imperialism. But generally, Cuban artists have enjoyed a fair degree of artistic freedom and this has made Cuban art more diverse and vibrant than in most other Communist countries. Cuban poster art from the 1960s and 70s, for instance, combined classic propagandist content with experimental form, including abstraction, and sophisticated visual caricature. Artists have occasionally challenged the Cuban government with overtly critical and satirical works, as could be seen in contemporary art from the 1980s and 1990s, but such episodes have usually been short-lived and subject to censorship. (Camnitzer 1994; Block & Mosquera 2001)

Propaganda art is nonetheless very common throughout the Caribbean and ranges from the crudest political propaganda to more subtle pedagogic approaches that advocate certain lifestyles or world views. Much of what can be classified as propaganda art has, naturally, been initiated by the colonial and postcolonial governments of the region, as is illustrated by the ubiquitous, and often controversial, official monuments, but a lot of popular art also qualifies as propaganda, as in Rastafarian street art which assertively promotes Rastafarian religious and political views.

East street rasta murals
Mural paintings on the Monica Bernard Building, East Street, Kingston, photographed in 2011 (Photo copyright Veerle Poupeye, all rights reserved)

The second cluster of ideas about the socially transformative potential of the arts is the more general and far less controversial view that expressive culture is essential to personhood and collective identity formation and that its production and consumption should therefore be encouraged and facilitated. It is for this reason that art is almost always included in school curricula and used for therapeutic purposes with the mentally and physically ill. The political and ideological implications of the belief that art is a fundamental human need rather than a luxury are wide-ranging and can, among others, be used to justify public expenditure on cultural programs and institutions, even to those who would be critical of obvious propaganda art. Notions of personhood and collective identity are, however, in themselves deeply political and the promotion of art for its edifying power therefore often amounts to indirect propaganda.

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Letter to Kei Miller

Port Royal

Update May 14, 2018: This letter responded to the essay by Kei Miller as originally published on the PREE website. This essay was removed, in the heat of the controversy it generated and at the author’s request. It was on May 3 replaced by a  substantially revised version.

Dear Kei,

I have been reading the inaugural issue of Pree. It is a good effort and I welcome it, although I would have been even happier if the contributing authors were not almost all part of the social circle of the editors. It is a bit self-perpetuating and, I need to add, self-congratulatory that way. And it is also very uptown, as uptown as Calabash–this does not detract from Pree’s importance (or the importance of Calabash) but it is worth noting, especially in light of the discussions you had on Facebook recently.

Your essay was the first text I read. And I had to re-read it a couple of times, digest it, and read it again. And I am still digesting, hence this open letter. I understand that it is your intent to think through race in the Caribbean and that the current essay is thus part of a broader and indeed very important and necessary project. I’ve read the other three essays you had posted and I was hoping then that there might be a fourth one like that, about you and your own place in those issues. Perhaps that is yet to come.

But yes, race is a big factor in the arts in and from the Caribbean, and one that people have difficulty talking about, so your essay in Pree is a milestone, as it presents a rare such effort. That I welcome, and parts of the essay are indeed breath-taking, because of the writing and because of the sublime insights you offer — “It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us.” But there are also a few things that bothered me about this essay and I have questions about why you opted to frame it in the way you did. Perhaps you can answer some of my questions and, if you do, please consider this as an invitation to dialogue.

Most people who read it will know who that the essay alludes to actual persons and incidents, which is very different from your first essays on race, which used fictional but plausible characters. I could identity at least two of the women and the incidents in question are fairly well known. So why not get it over with and name them then? Or, conversely, create fictional, composite characters that allow you to address the same issues without getting personal, as you did in your first essays on race?

And it struck me that some of your account pertained to things that the women in question said to you, or confided to you about, in what appear to have been very private conversations. Conversations they had with you because they trusted you, because they thought of you as their friend. Did they know at any point, then or now, that you were going to write about what they told you, about what happened in your presence? And if so, were they consulted about how they would be represented? If not, I’d have a bit of a problem with that. We all have our vulnerable moments, when we do unusual things and say things to friends that we do not expect them to share with others, let alone having to read about in published form. I’m sure you’ve had such moments too.

You accuse one of the white women writers of not understanding or respecting her character’s voice, of speaking through him despite being at a significant social and cultural remove, of ventriloquism, really. But are you not doing the same thing to the women whose voices and positions you claim to represent in your essay? Are we hearing their voices, really; do they have any agency in your essay? Why did you not empower them more and let them speak to your readers directly, on their terms and in the present moment? Why did you not give them the opportunity to reflect on what had happened, years ago? That would not have prevented you from commenting independently.

And talking about power, why have you exclusively focused on white women? There is no shortage of white male writers in the Caribbean, born ya and elsewhere. Why is it that their legitimacy is less frequently challenged, if at all? Why did you not acknowledge that particular bit of gender bias? And as Brian Heap quipped in his comment on your timeline, why stop at white women? Why not add the “red” ones too? What about their legitimacy and status in the Caribbean literary world? And why not go through the whole register of social and racial privilege, while at it?

I know that “white fragility” is a hot topic, and that may have seduced you a bit, but it  strikes and bothers me that some of the women you are alluding to are presented in a way that suggests that they are unhinged, needy, overly dependent on the ways in which they are judged by others, unable to move productively beyond the relatively minor racial slights they have experienced. Why focus so much on these women’s perceived failings and vulnerabilities? Why focus on their bodies and on their weight, Kei? And yes, I am writing this as a white, overweight, foreign-born woman whose body has also been brought into the equation when her legitimacy in the Caribbean is questioned. Would you have brought any of this into the discussion if they were male? Does the way in which you paint them not conform to the most one-dimensional clichés about women, and specifically about white women?

What bothers me also is that you seem to focus on women who are willing to put up their race and origin for discussion, to make themselves vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticisms they have experienced, instead of doing what is the easiest thing to do for white people here, which is to retreat comfortably into the castle of their privilege and almost guaranteed position in the socio-racial pecking orders of the Caribbean. If they had done the latter, would they have been criticized in the way they were and discussed in this essay? And why discuss these white women as if they live in an insulated white world of their own, in which they expect to be supported, and judged, only by their “own kind”?

And I also need to say something about how you represent the black male writers who “attacked” them, their critics: are they, too, not deprived of their own voice and reduced to caricature? Why, save for one moment of hesitation and second-guessing, do you exempt yourself from their alleged predicament of smallness and “carry-down-ness”, presenting yourself in a more open-minded and benevolent vein, the wise and balanced arbiter of it all, all while writing an essay that goes much further than they ever did in terms of how your subjects are targeted as persons, and has much broader reach?

And finally, as I said earlier on, Kei, I would really like to hear more about you in all of this. Because I sense that these essays are ultimately about you and about understanding your own place and role in these dynamics. I suspect that your readers would get a richer and more revealing discussion about race, and class if you would make yourself more vulnerable in this, in the same way as you have made these women vulnerable.

Best regards,

 

Veerle