apexart :: Conference Program :: Bart de Baere

Addressing Progressive Social Values
Bart de Baere

At the end of this lecture I shall briefly dwell upon what MuHKA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium, tries to do as an institution, but first I want to expand on the question that brought us here, this invitation and its formulation. We are here to consider cultural hegemony and the re-assessment of indigenous culture, our brief says, and thus will address how the world has been caught in the middle of conflicting and/or disparate cultural influences.

The question of cultural hegemony is certainly a relevant one. But perhaps the focus on this question entails the impossibility of developing those modes of approach that might offer equal space to local traditions and to possibilities of resolving the confluence of disparate sources for these cultural inputs. Perhaps the very thought-pattern of hegemony is more part of the problem than of a possible solution. Even if here I’m in danger of becoming overly general, I shall try to question the basic assumption that brought us here.

Allow me to start with a vague memory, something Sarat Maharaj recounted in a lecture, the implantation of McDonald’s in India. I seem to recall that he referred to the seeming augmentation of possibilities, but which is actually a reduction of them. I think he was speaking, at that point in his lecture, about how the image of added diversity actually leads to the opposite.

This, in itself, is common knowledge. While offering a seemingly broad range of products, the way the economy organizes itself is structurally reductive, and focused on the possible advantages of scale. This has a two-sided effect. It guarantees a certain supply, but in fact, it also narrows overall supply. It guarantees a certain standard of quality, but as a consequence renders it improbable for more intense qualities to be present.

McDonald’s is a perfect topos to make the point I wish to dwell upon. As a hegemonic system it adapts. In recent years it has accommodated our desire for health, allowing more salads and other signs of healthiness. As mad-cow disease has come to haunt the common imagination, it has had to address that issue. It may even allow regional deviations in its line of products. When society wants something else, it will adapt. Or more precisely: it will try to adapt as little as necessary in order to arrive at the point at which it can keep all its customers satisfied. Or more precisely still: at the point where it can continue to offer the image of a complete and satisfactory product range.

At the same time it will turn these nouveautés into something familiar to the enterprise. Anything new that is brought out will be packaged as near as possible to the basic hamburger package, as near as possible to its square manageability, the package being not only a tradition in fact and memory, but also a mode of existence.

The reasons for this are manifold.

The company needs to keep its image intact. Its image is always its past, not only its recent past, the pragmatic past, the past customers have always known, but also its deeper past, the past that gives it something of a soul, the mythic past which customers assume to have been there before they became customers, the past as reliability, as origin, as the invisible double that complements the absolute up-to-dateness a company like that strives for.

Beside this the company also has its body, its logistics, which entail many constraints and desirabilities. The logistics of the enterprise require many small packages to be shipped, stored, set to wait behind the counter, and then rapidly distributed to make up the orders on that counter. Each of the parcels has to be strictly measurable, and not only in terms of logistics, size and weight. The many standardizations have to be certified, standardizations that guarantee quality, but even more, flawlessness with regard to clients’ expectations. They make the product describable in advance.

What is the offer McDonald’s offers and supplies? It is not the hamburgers and their variants, the vegetarian choices. It is sameness, guaranteed non-surprise, where even surprise becomes yet another product, offered to children in their Happy Meals, in the form of yet another hamburger-shaped package, with its manageable volume and plastic wrapping, controllability and “cost-size.”

This non-surprise—the nearly socialistic standard that gives a feeling of security—is McDonald’s offer; such in general is the offer of a globalizing society that processes each and every thing into measurement, and guarantees to add to it, in order to attach and feed it into the standardization and machine of communication and consumption, which then becomes the very possibility of visibility, the possibility of existence.

It is the basic security of feeling that you always know what will be offered to you, so that you can make a sovereign choice with guaranteed results; that is the offer. This is not Marxist alienation; it is simply the effective offer of choice for those who wish to choose what they know ahead of time, or which they feel they know. These choices have the advantage of being a shortcut in a society urging us to a life filled to the brim, one based on the choices its citizens continuously have to make—all the more so when their economic capacities are greater.

A completely different type of offer is conceivable, nonetheless, if one gives up the basic principles on which the ever-larger scale of product management is based: measurability, predictability, guarantees of standardization in the variations.

The sprawling Chinese cities have been, until now and to a considerable extent, provided for by small but intensive food production. This production flows into the city in the form of specificities. Specificity leads to an entirely different kind of possibility. It starts from intensities that are in flux. There is no system of guarantees; the outcome is played out and won over and over again. There is no system of measurement, and thus no predictability; validation happens through experience. It is chains of experience that make things happen, the experience of the one who provides the food, of the one who chooses and prepares it, and of the one who eats it. While McDonald’s craves to be perceived as contemporary, these other chains exist in the real present. The resulting experience of them, dishes that change over and again, an experience that flows through the intensities of its substances and moments, is the very opposite of McDonald’s. McDonald’s does not deny this; it simply cannot conceive of such changes. It is blind to this possibility because it is based on a different order of assumptions.

Are we not caught in something very much like this? We speak, during our days here in Hawaii, under the flag of culture, but in actuality all of us position ourselves within a small, very specific and standardized system within culture, one we call the art world. Art as a hamburger, so to speak. How far are we from this, if we are willing to be self-critical, how many limits do we take for granted? This is certainly so when we speak of hegemony, that is, of the global perception of the system.

The tradition of art is a specific one: it highlights the impact of the individual rather than the longevity of tradition and group dynamics. It is based on singling out products that are moments of concentration formatted for presentation and communication, rather than for validating continuity of process.

As such, the art system is one that can perfectly fit the model of cultural industries encapsulating culture within a global economic behavior. Its focus on the individual author prepares it to embed itself in the ever-growing system of rights that is the base of those industries, and its automatisms of format allow it to be an avid but flexible producer.

While the materials fed into its apparatus have diversified since the turning moment of Magiciens de la Terre, the apparatus as such only diversified formally, rather than structurally. It has developed formats responding to developments within society, the most important being the proliferation of the biennial model and the blending of in-situ and other thematic group exhibitions into the marketing strategies of cities. Seemingly, it also developed more structural space for internal activities that are not output-oriented, like residency programs or the kind of meeting like the one in which we are now partaking. At the same time the core validation system remained utterly immobile, even strengthened. The ultimate organization of meaning within the visual arts is a hierarchic one, that is, partially market-driven, partially based on symbolic presence within a global system of professional institutions: magazines, publications, museums, Kunsthalle, contemporary art centers. The two sides are ever more intertwined. The old distinction between a product- and market-based art world and the idealistic development of new content within an alternative system is no longer valid. The system has refined itself, and is now willing to negotiate any new content to feed it.

At the same time it did not change its mode of behavior, it merely blurred its borders. Museums remain like private collectors: managers of economically positioned objects, now based on rights. The bulk of presentations remain classical exhibitions, sequences of individualized positions wrapped in containable objects. The link to the Western art tradition is stronger if the sites have a higher symbolic value, even more so if within these sites presentation is more important for its public or media profile. Even Western artistic alternative paths from the past, from Dada, through Fluxus and Situationism, to the group practices of today, are only gradually processed and remain side-stories within the representational frame. Likewise, organizational alternatives are allowed in as alternative moments. “Process” exhibitions may get a time-slot, but they do not affect the exhibition system as such, which continues on, unhindered by the memory of process and its potential consequences.

What more readily occurs is a variation in content matter. This issue, too, was brought up by that problematic but hugely important show Magiciens de la Terre, which provided an index of possibilities outside the Atlantic framework. This took a decisive turn with the development of political correctness in the United States, where volumes of diversity were negotiated to make the art system more representative of the totality of a population now conceived of as multicultural. This has led to a global representative system, in which key artists have been singled out to stand for their country, some on the level of official celebration,
others on the level of contemporary hype. Ilya Kabakov, though born in the Ukraine, came to stand for Russia. Gabriel Orozco became a Mexican inclusion, and with him the Belgian-born Francis Alÿs. Many of the African countries have their single artist, like Pascal Martin Tayou or Meshac Gaba. China for a long time was highlighted by some of the radical artists of the first generation after the Cultural Revolution, like Huang Yong Ping, Chen Zen or Cai Guo Qiang. Often these representative artists are expatriates, and sometimes their relation to their country they come from is not unproblematic, as with the Angolan Fernando Alvim.
Overall, they are important artists, and they often thematize potentials of their country and negotiate those within the global system. Often they are as individuals substantially engaged with respect to the situation of art in their countries.

They do, however, remind me of the salads at McDonald’s. It is good that these salads are there now, if you take McDonald’s as a reference and health as your desire, but McDonald’s is still the hegemonic culture and hamburgers remain the reference point. This entails many implicit restrictions, and it is these which constitute the limits forming hegemony. A classic example from actor-network theory, a socio- logical theory of French origin, may provide a framework to clarify this notion of implicit hegemony. Take a car. If one speaks in terms of cultural hegemony, the question is not only who is allowed to sit in the car or who is steering it, but also who owns the car and builds the roads it rides on; who is distributing the gasoline and where it is available and for which functions it is delivered; who designs the car; and—above all—what are the implications of car-ness?

While an advisor to the first Johannesburg Biennale, in the aftermath of apartheid, I witnessed many hilarious scenes. We invited foreign curators not only to make their exhibition but also to engage with a disparate local situation. At that point, a weird colonization took place. Some curators literally tried to import minority strategies, urging a thematization of pain, inequality and difference, as a way of carving out a niche. On the other hand, I saw the South African youngsters we had brought into the process, hoping they might get interested in curatorial practice. They remained silent. Their desire at that point was rather to go forward, to get rid of the past and assist in building a better society. I committed myself to two artists from the two principal fringe situations, Albert Munyai from the former homeland of Venda, which had an important output of folk wood carving, and Billy Mandindi from a township in Capetown, who developed installations after having been trained in woodcarving, which the Swedes had brought in and which was another secondary black cultural-production and mercantile tradition. I held and hold them to be artists of great understanding, with distinct visual proposals. Neither of them could establish themselves afterwards. It seems to me now that they have perhaps merely been lacking too many secondary tools, the ability to deal with situations they were unfamiliar with, to begin with. They had too great a distance to bridge, and too limited assistance. They didn’t fit readily enough.

Thus, I have recently been feeling uneasy about the very question of hegemony, especially the way it has been developed in terms of conflicting or disparate cultural influences. This seems to me to be part of the limits that cultural theory has found itself stuck with. Progressive thinking was the first breeding-place of globalism, before capitalism started to follow its track. When it encountered differences and unheard voices, it wanted to accommodate those, the postcolonial debate being the principal terrain for doing so. So far, cultural theory has not resulted in an effective response to diversity. In the end, the hyper-relativism with which it was permeated opened the way to global capitalism.

That the image of monoculturalism has opened into one of multi-culturalism is certainly a gain. The fact that the texture of culture now has to be considered in diversity, both localized and through non-localized networks, is crucial. Diversity, however, cannot be embraced by analyzing conflicting or disparate cultural influences and accommodating them within existing parameters. The question of cultural hegemony as the fundamental one here quickly leads to this impasse. It presumes hegemony as a goal and different cultures that battle or negotiate for that hegemony. It thinks in terms of blocs.

When Antonio Gramsci first developed his concept of hegemony, he did so in harsh times, in an Italy witnessing the rising tide of fascism and part of a larger world in which blocs of thinking opposed each another. Though a Communist, he proposed for the party to search an alliance against fascism, because the Communist Party was weak in the countryside.

It seems to me that for our deliberations we should not think of our own field in terms of opposing forces, and certainly not of conflicting or disparate cultural influences. It seems to me that though we really want another kind of globalism, we do want a globalism, a basis to relate. If anything, we might see the fight for hegemony as one between the different dimensions in that global world, in which one dimension is at this point stronger, and thus results in a globalism different from the one we desire. We may analyze how this enemy goes wrong, and how wrong it really is to opt for empire, or for a global chain of franchises.

To set the setting, I often use a description I derived from a book by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. In this view economy, culture and politics form three separate arenas of value within which anything can be interpreted. Any artwork, museum, magazine, or the like can be (re)formulated within terms derived from any of these three fields of meaning. The core of economy is the
wish to make goods categorical, and thus exchangeable. Culture on the other hand searches for particularization, singularization, sacralization, hierarchization. The “culturalizing” of goods thus stresses their non-economic dimension. Politics in this view is the negotiation between these two poles.

Were we to accept such an approach, we might drop the fight altogether. Instead, we might analyze how the cultural arena is too weak to establish itself as a global dimension, how we fail to stand for our own dimension, one that might exist side by side with economic globalization. Alternatively, we might lay the responsibility elsewhere and accuse the political arena of not caring about an equilibrium. But then what does our arena stand for? What part do we want to be of a wider whole?

In order to further reflect on this, we must first of all reflect on the values we might want to take as our reference, rather than just on the norms that economy operates with, and, accordingly, embed these values into our activity.

I have encountered only few examples which made an effort in this sense in a symbolically and economically important platform that might be taken as a reference. There was the magnificent 1998 São Paulo Bienal, in which Paulo Herkenhoff not only highlighted the cultural tradition of anthropofagía at the heart of Brazilian identity, but also succeeded in making it into a modus operandi for an exhibition in which countless implicit and explicit themes, engagements by people and intensities of art, were intertwined, a mixture of high professionalism and intuitive risk-taking. There was the Documenta of Okwui Enwezor, who attempted to found his exhibition on a reflection on the discursive platforms which preceded it. There was the last Kwangju Biennale, in which Charles Esche and Hou Hanru mingled the group engagement of artist spaces with individual presences, basing the architecture of their exhibition on the home spaces of the groups.

All of these were singular moments. I see them as the best example of how the system allows for deviations while at the same time rendering them innocuous to its structure. It may allow individuals at a particular moment to convey the intensity of their views, but subsequently will not take these proposals seriously into account. I do not know of a major or even middle-sized institution that has been willing and able to choose such a radical track. Institutions are too dependent on local political and economic pressures for that and have to maintain a general and representative role. Because they have to guarantee and maintain a broader audience, they must continue to behave according to public expectations. They have at their disposal limited change-oriented funding, while burdened with a weighty infrastructure requiring predictable patterns of behavior. Furthermore, they are not surrounded by much in the way of challenging or reflective vision that would stimulate the difficult process of transformation.

The beauty of Antonio Gramsci’s thinking is that he did not focus on socio-economic structures, but stated that actions and ideas, too, might be effective. He believed that man acts upon his surroundings, and thus changes not only them, but also himself. If someone is conscious of the complex relations that exist, along with their history, he can be of influence. Hegemony for him is the development, organization and spreading of a world-view. As a Marxist, Gramsci thought in terms of class. People whose origins are in a powerless class can strive for knowledge and turn their common sense into coherent and critical thinking, becoming what he calls “organic intellectuals.”

If we think beyond class structure, rather in terms of arenas or dimensions of a de facto globalized world, we may see as our prime task the development of those values we feel should determine our dimensions, in order to then proceed towards a negotiation with politics and social organization.

This is what MuHKA tries to do in Antwerp, within the clear limits of its mission. More underfunded than surrounding museums, we can do so only because we have the good fortune of having bright young intellectuals on our staff willing to take on practical responsibilities alongside an intellectual undertaking that is really a hobby, conducted outside of office hours.

MuHKA is a highly specific institution, even though no longer only an institution of contemporary visual art (a recent fusion with a small reflective institute called the Center for Visual Culture has extended its mission to film and visual culture). I say highly specific, because I am well aware of the fact that we have a public mission only within a very narrow cultural niche. We have no responsibility for the vast cultural dimension within the industrial system, for example, but we do actively court a dialogue with it. We did succeed in extending the project we organized with Michelangelo Pistoletto around his grand undertaking of Cittadellarte, into the road plan for the Antwerp region through the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Chamber will now propose to its 3,000 member companies that they underwrite a binding cultural charter ideologically based on the vision of Pistoletto in his Progetto Arte, and which nominally refers to this. Nonetheless, we are not awarded money by society to change the economy; we are given money to present visual art, to reflect on it and on visual culture, and to communicate. It was our communication to the economic system that convinced it, that’s all. We don’t extend into it.

What we have tried to do, in order to be able to articulate our own position to ourselves, is to recalibrate basic words, the kinds of words that have been discarded along with ideology, or at least have no longer been pivotal to recent intellectual discourse, often too guilty of being innocent of it: love, for instance, morality, care, joy, style, the sublime… We approached these words as metaphors in order to describe the mental space we strive to make into a public place. We approached them through texts that are essays in the literal sense: a provisional activity that may grow and transform. They seek to relate from experience rather than to find a perfect response to academia. We started from an “aesthetic” position in a radical sense, from the etymology of the Greek word for “perception”: the wish to enhance experiences here and now that are both immediately sensorial and intellectually reflected. In the second instance we focused on the zone that is our responsibility as mediators, the zone of encounter. The sublime, for example is articulated as a daily sublime, in the tradition of phenomenology or of John Dewey, who associates the pain of the sublime with a continuous reconstruction, an ever-continuing reassessment of its own borders and principles. Joy—or rather the Dutch word vreugde—is articulated as “the joy of,” in the sense of being a part of external phenomena. Crucial words are also “conversation,” the desire to find togetherness in communication, while at the same time accepting the existence of limits, and the Bakhtinian idea of a dialogical space.

All of these metaphors started from the dominant perspective of today, that of the individual. From that perspective on, they seek out qualities that might enhance a sense of community. They are developed as concepts of a means, there being only one concept of purpose, an empty space around which they all circle: “liveability.”

Such reconstructive thinking we used as the grounds for our policy note, in order to have a more effective non-economic set of criteria proper to our domain and our function. If we will succeed in remaining conscious of these, we may succeed in gradually developing our operational activity, opening it up in a structural way, making slight shifts, moving away from the exclusive production of presentations, taking risks and being able to argue for them. It is only from such a firm base that one can have faith in the expenditure of the energy, time and resources required, on modes of actions that cannot be quantified, that are not efficient, not even necessarily effective. In a certain sense, our ambition is to let our little place of culture become more “culture,” something that is made, with values that can be debated the way conservative approaches discuss them, but in a progressive sense: open to the possibility of change, and thus to difference.

When I was asked to write a 250-word abstract for this lecture, I hadn’t sufficiently weighted the final length of the 3,500 words requested. I therefore added the example of the Latin word interesse as an object, which the English language fuses with its economic aspect into the noun “interest,” while Dutch keeps both aspects separate. It is one of the words we wish to turn into a metaphor for our museum project. I had hoped to develop that text for this occasion, not being aware I would need so many words to depart from the brief.

Interesse is in itself a weak word, a word that seems ready to be left for more or less. It means “being in-between,” taking part. As such, it is a primary operation, a base for many potentially intense relations, and a necessary condition for any movement on the part of an individual that strives to go beyond individuality. Taking this condition as a continuous reference, rather than as a transitional moment towards seemingly more secure relations, might reinforce the openness of our relations. It may lead to a more continuous questioning and thereby to a continuous reconstruction of engagement, a space that could be approached over and over again. It could become a metaphor for dynamic relational space, a “third” term, an in-between to be regarded in its own right and generate its own fascination.

Were we to try and establish such values as starting points for encounter, each of us our own values, as individuals, localized groups or global networks, we might arrive at a more diversified system than that of exhibition grids which receive “others.” We might find certain values in common, others perhaps in opposition or with different twists. From this dialogue, always trying to understand our own position and that of our partners, we might find that more deviation in practice is possible and desirable than we normally take for granted.

What we need, if we strive for progressive social values, is not a multicultural space, but a profoundly cultural space, a space which cultivates modes of encounter and does so in a voluntaristic, continuous, irresolvable negotiation.



Since 2002 Bart De Baere has been the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Antwerp. Before that, he was involved in policy making for two years, developing a policy for cultural heritage that envisages the whole of it as an immaterial activity. Prior to that, he was chair of the Flemish Government Council of Museums, and now he is chair of its Council for Culture. He was, among other things, an advisor to the City of Johannesburg for the foundation of the Biennale of Johannesburg and a member of the International Board of the network of Soros Centers of Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe. He was a curator of Documenta IX in Kassel.