apexart :: Conference Program :: Bartomeu Mari

On Cultural Hegemony and its Implications for Cultural Production and Artistic Practice
Bartomeu Mari

Over the last fifteen years my career has developed in the field of art, exhibitions and artists' projects at various institutions, markedly different in their scope, outlook and location. I have worked in art centers located in capital cities, and in others in medium-sized and small towns in Belgium, France, Holland and Spain, where conditions of cultural production, diffusion and reception are quite diverse. This experience forms the basis of the contribution I would like to make to the debate on cultural hegemony and its implications for cultural production and artistic practice.

The context I am referring to is present-day Europe, to be more precise, the political sphere of the European Union. What exactly do we mean by cultural hegemony? Colloquially, the term refers to the existence of dominant and minority cultures, and implies that the latter are less equipped to survive and evolve as such, to express themselves; indeed, many of them are susceptible to being absorbed by hegemonic cultures. The political framework of the European Union provides numerous examples of these conflicts or, as they are now sometimes termed, 'cultural dialectics.' In this paper, I take Spain as a case study, especially as concerns the last 25 years of its history. Here, cultural identity affects creativity, but especially affects the reception of cultural facts. Between creativity and reception we encounter both the instruments for the presentation and diffusion of culture, as well as the perceptual habits of the audience or public.

Another area in which we discover links between hegemonic and minority cultures is language. A significant number of languages, with varying degrees of official recognition, co-exist in Europe. Some are spoken by more than sixty million individuals, others by less than two million. In Spain, for instance, several cultural and political conflicts are waged in this sphere, as cultural production is one of the fundamental means of expression and communication of specific identities. Cultural industries require a minimum market size in order to protect their own production, and for minority cultures the preservation of these industries involves being able to export at least part of that production. The main element (or medium) of expression in literature and the audiovisual sector is language. However, the predominantly used non-linguistic materials and images are supposed to transcend geographical or political boundaries. The question is how to reconcile local production and exportation in this field and under these conditions.

How do these issues relate to contemporary artistic practice? Since the early twentieth century, art has striven to become a universal language, while remaining an example of cultural 'craft' (as opposed to the cultural industry). As an element seeking to convey a certain identity, yet simultaneously aspiring to be universal, art finds itself in a paradoxical situation. Confined within a system of its own, current artistic practice is determined by its relations with the market as much as it is by the local vs. universal dilemma.
February 2004

The above introduction, to an intervention I presented a few months ago, reflects the cultural and professional outlook of my European background. Europe today continues to consider culture inextricable from nations and nationalities, and thus a distinctive feature of many different contexts and debates. Moreover, we tend to associate the idea of culture with that of language, so much so that the notion of cultural politics is still very much related to words, language, literature (which at times acts as a repository for certain cultures) and history. I believe that on other continents like America and Asia, culture and cultural identity materialize and are expressed around other facts and signs.

While Europe claims religious difference, most of the different persuasions have been traditionally encompassed within a Judæo-Christian creed. This, of course, has not prevented rivers of blood being spilled in the past, giving rise to some of the cruellest and most repressive episodes of Western history. Just as our intellectual milieu has embraced globalization as the common ground for all forms of debate (one can barely avoid the word ‘multiculturalism' in either speech or writing), as a result of which the scope of the debate on culture and identity, and their inter-relation with politics and everyday life, has been considerably broadened, we find ourselves faced with a new phenomenon: immigration. Although in itself this is not new to Europe, what is new is the clash between the general flows of immigrants from different cultures (the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, former Eastern-bloc countries, South American, etc.) and the renewal of indigenous or nationalist cultural signifiers in Europe itself. Although any number of such clashes could be delineated, the case of Spain is especially relevant.

Nationalism versus Cosmopolitism
Following the death of General Franco in 1975, Spain initiated a process of transition to democracy. This process, which developed at various speeds, led to the present federal (though not fully federated) state. The first democratic parliament of the second half of the twentieth century in Spain established several autonomous governments responsible for most areas of public life, with the exception of foreign affairs and the armed forces. Citizens of the various autonomous communities elect their own representatives to regional parliaments, where the new governments administer affairs previously under the control of the central government. In point of fact the system is very similar to the one existing in Germany, although the relative amount of self-government varies according to region. Some of the autonomous communities demand special status by virtue of their historic nature and autochthonous culture. The Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands each speak their own language, which is co-official with Spanish; their citizens are obliged to understand both languages and have a right to use either. Although the public use of these languages was forbidden during the Franco dictatorship (1939–1975), since the mid-'80s they have all been taught in school, and have become the main vehicle of cultural expression in all spheres of public and private life.

For some time now language, culture and identity have gone hand in hand on the Spanish political scene. Let us review some key events that reflect on those developments. We could regard 1981 as a key year in the country's transition to democracy, as in the month of February it witnessed a failed military coup organized by a few members of the most conservative ranks of the army and the militarized police corps known as the Guardia Civil. By 1982 new political institutions began to consolidate strategies of public self-representation in order to distinguish themselves from the previous régime. In this context, new policies and schemes like social security and unemployment benefits and health centers would be undertaken in the field of social welfare, paralleled in the field of culture by the emergence of new institutions, mostly museums and art centers). The first to be created was the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (today MNCARS, or Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía), soon to be followed by IVAM (Institut Valencià d'Art Modern) in Valencia, CAAM (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno) in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, CAAC (Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo) in Seville, CGAC (Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea) in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona) in Barcelona, Catalonia, and Guggenheim Bilbao and Artium in Vitoria, both in the Basque country. The most recent centers to opened are Salamanca's CASA (Centro de Arte de Salamanca), CAC Málaga (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo) in the Andalusian city and MARCO (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo) in Vigo). While this list includes both internationally known cities and smaller towns, the fact is that practically all of Spain's autonomous communities have built their own contemporary art center, and some (Galicia, Valencia and the Basque Country) can boast more than one. Over the past twenty years the investment in institutional ‘hardware' has been spectacular, but does this mean that Spain has suddenly awakened to contemporary art? Does contemporary art in Spain really deserve so much public attention?

Hardware versus Software
The truth is that the amount of space, in terms of square footage devoted to art in the infrastructures built over the past fifteen years expresses another reality –– the need to present Spanish citizens with signs of their social and cultural progress at a time when Spain was becoming a member of both NATO (1982, ratified by referendum in 1986) and the European Community (1986). Isolated from the Western world — according to the expression used at the time — by Franco's dictatorship, Spain needed to meet her cultural and geographic neighbours on an equal footing. Until the mid-'80s Spanish nationals had traditionally emigrated to Central Europe. Today, on the contrary, Spain welcomes the greatest number of immigrants of all EEC countries, from nationals of the Maghreb and Central Africa, to those of former Eastern European and Latin American states. Spain's craving for visibility on an international scale culminated in 1992 with the celebration of three important events: the Olympic Games held in Barcelona, the choice of Madrid as European Cultural Capital, and Seville's hosting of the Universal Exposition Expo '92. By then, the country's social and cultural infrastructures were consolidated, while on the economic front, the concentration of banks and the media had begun to favour globalization. After years of growth in great measure sustained by cohesion funds provided by the European Union, today the country has attained levels of well-being comparable to those of many EEC nations, despite not being a member of the powerful G7 group. A few months ago the EEC expanded to embrace a number of countries from the former Eastern European block, which will now become the beneficiaries of the cohesion funds previously destined for the modernization of traditional economic sectors in southern European countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal, which are now on a par with northern European standards.

However, as the 'bricks and mortar,' (the square footage dedicated to art and culture in general) consolidated, the scope of the international 'scientific' ambition decreased. In other words, securing hardware did not automatically ensure the introduction of software; investment in physical infrastructures was not matched by an equivalent investment in knowledge. The spectacle of culture was promoted at the expense of research and audience education.

Regionalism versus Internationalisation
Throughout the 1980s, the internationalization of the various autonomous communities and cultures in Spain remained an important objective for the various public corporations. By the turn of the millennium, the thirst for internationalism had been quenched to the point that the 'bricks and mortar' would become the key element in the agendas of public administrations. The need for cultural institutions like museums and art centers grew as the idea that the arts could be generated by such institutions (and would therefore require public funding) took root. A number of decisions were taken in order to make up for lost time, as exemplified by the acquisition of the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection by Spain's central government. While the country possessed historically important public collections of art it was clearly lacking in collections of modern and contemporary work. The creation of new museums was confronted by the difficulty (even impossibility) of reconstructing an "official history" of modern art, as presented by the important North American and Central European institutions. Despite this, very few of them seem to be working on the formulation of parallel, alternative or subaltern accounts. Throughout the '80s and '90s the leading museums and art centers in Spain strove to bring the finest international art into the country, but even today the lack of collections, archives and material with which to reconsider modernism proves a hindrance to the re-evaluation of Spain's modernist movements. And no one has thought of investigating the country's links with Latin America as a source of contemporary discourse and a model of modern development different from that of the Western English-speaking world. Yet Spain and Portugal enjoy a privileged position from which to reread both the recent past and the present of modernist trends developing between Europe and America; the same can be said of the Mediterranean basin and of the relations between Europe and Africa.

The various autonomous governments in Spain soon realised the importance of regional and local media for their voter base. Priorities were shifted to favor the establishment of local TV stations, and as a consequence, the international repercussions of the activity of Spanish museums and art centers diminished. Did this imply a greater interest in the local in preference to growing globalisation? Should more attention have been paid to the citizen than to the visitor? Was vernacular indeed better than foreign, or could this merely be a case of resisting a loss of identity?

One of the most relevant examples of this trend is the creation of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Much has been written about this project; I would add that one of the motives adduced by the Basque authorities for launching the museum was attracting a million visitors per year to Bilbao, a city characterized as the economic engine of the Basque country, although somewhat uninviting as a city. The purchase of an American franchise proved a most successful move in the establishment of an artistic institution on the country's periphery, in a territory with a yearning to assert its own cultural difference. The project of Guggenheim Bilbao was never intended to bring indigenous cultural representation into this geocultural system; it was rather to introduce a developed and bourgeois component of great cultural prestige — even a hegemonic element, as we would say in the context of this conference. However paradoxical it may appear, people in Bilbao and the Basque Country in general are proud of 'Guggen,' and the museum's silhouette has now become the logo of the region, appearing on road signs informing drivers they have entered the autonomous community of the Basque region.

Cultural Identity versus Cultural Industry
The idea of cultural hegemony is directly related to that of cultural identity, which, in turn, competes with that of political identity in today's Spain. Besides the evolution of national politics, the search for contemporary discourses, signs and symbols for these separate unique cultural communities (as we have seen in the case of Bilbao) is indeed a search for referents capable of coexisting in a globalised international world. Difference must be expressed in a language comprehensible beyond the borders within which it has been produced. One is different — one exists — vis-à-vis others. As I have attempted to argue, the visual arts, unlike language, focus on expressing and upholding difference and singularity in global syntax, and modern architecture and abstract art, supposedly universal idioms. The highly impressive project of rereading and reinterpreting the history of twentieth-century art from a Spanish perspective carried out at the Reina Sofía over the past few years, has culminated in a clearly provincial exhibition program and permanent collection. The best contributions by Spanish artists to twentieth-century art are not to be found in Spain, with the exception of the monumental presence of Picasso's Guernica, one of the most emblematic works of modern art. On the contrary, one must travel to the great European and American museums in order to contemplate the best examples of work by Picasso, Dalí, Miró, and others.

The outlook is even more alarming with respect to the contemporary. If the project of rereading, rewriting and updating history remains in the hands of institutions as precarious as museums, the creativity of our own times will be deprived of the specific and solid support that confers stability and growth potential. Spain has been unsuccessful in developing a local market for its own art, yet creating a vigorous art market within Spain is now no longer a national, but global, task. Furthermore, the market itself is the working mechanism of global hegemony, often concealing highly significant and overlooked cultural practices that do not entail the same measure of visibility.

I do not mean to say that art in Spain does not benefit from social recognition, merely that it lacks the intellectual and performative base that confers relevance. Indeed, creativity is still conceived in Europe as dependent upon the protection of public institutions, given that it is unable to compete in the market, especially the sphere of art. In this sense, art (including musical composition, poetry, etc.) is a peripheral practice, present in society and the media only thanks to a few passing instances of glamour, in the interests of cultural and political representation that tend to produce confusion rather than serve art's main purpose. Approaching this case study from the point of view of present cultural policies and their recent genealogies, I endeavour to draw attention to the need of investing in local forms of creativity susceptible of transcending their own indigenous limits and living in the intermediate spaces of cultures, nations and nationalities. Spain's investment in hardware and its neglect of, or disdain for, software leads to neutered realities, scarcely able to attain and convey the objectives of artistic creation: reconciling knowledge and pleasure, the individual and the collectivity, past and present. As French ethnologist Marc Augé affirms, culture can be explained around three forms of tension: the tension between past and present, between interior and exterior, and between self and others. Unfortunately, while encouraging the desire to resolve the tension between past and present, we have forgotten the need to cultivate the relationship between the self and others, indispensable to the life of all cultures. We have invested in brickwork and disdained the importance of individuals, of networks of knowledge, and of the uncontrollable yet vital increase in creative mass.

As I mentioned at the start of my presentation, I hope these thoughts and comments may act as elements of reflection as regards poles of creativity in an ever-changing world. Microcosms like Spain enable us to perceive failed attempts based on the transposition of certain working models (success, profit, etc.) that have proven ineffective. Creativity is not the monopoly of large metropolitan centers, and its social recognition no longer depends exclusively upon dominant institutions. The market is still the market, although the possibilities of rewriting, reinterpreting and reconsidering the arts involve greater diversity than ever before. Our task now consists of striving to update these possibilities.