By Dusan Bogdanovic

“Enlist me in your J.Crew and hand me my mouse ears!”
Salman Rushdie

Stripped of cultural identity every human faces both the promise and the terror of the unknowable; left to our inherited devices we are only a little better off than our closest primate relatives. If the biological imperatives present the bare bones of our existence, the cultural realities give it a uniquely human dressing. While every culture focuses on a particular segment of the spectrum, their totality reveals the historical structuring of the entire human world.

An African mask, Balinese cremation ceremony, whirling Dervish trance, a painting by Vermeer: they all present indissoluble wholes. Their forms and contents are bound by particularities of the aesthetic processes involved as much as they are bound by the social rules and regulations of their social milieus. In order to give justice to any of these cultural products we have to understand them in their proper context and history.

Ethnic art is an integrative part of the tribal reality. Taken out of its world, it becomes a museum piece, an object of veneration, a PhD. dissertation and a possible lucrative source of income. In its place of origin, however, most tribal art has very specific psychosocial function. Rites and rituals, for one, reinforce the social bond among the members of the tribe integrating various aspects of individual and social dynamics. One of the roles of the ritual is creation of a unified vision of the cosmogony and mythology of a particular tribe. Hand in hand with what has been (historical reality), and what is (the present reality), come the visions of what might be (the future potentialities).

The vertical structuring of the self (the depth of history) coalesces with the horizontal (the expansion of the present) to create stable individual and social identities. Religion and art in their fused, syncretic form become a tremendously powerful integrating force for the anxiety-ridden pre-modern individual3. The gaping chasm between the instinctual and the human-created reality is bridged
and the schism temporarily healed.

All art in its origin reflects its ethnic sources. The oscillations of its stylization vary historically and within bounds of a particular language. Music of Bach, while soaring to its mathematically constructed heights, nevertheless reveals a metric profile of the West European folk music. There is nothing in the history of Western art music that can compare to the polyrhythmic complexity of the African or the melodic refinement of the Indian music. The expressive distortions of African masks had to wait for Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon to find their match in Western art4.

Although the multiplicity of cultural forms persisted throughout the development of Western civilization, its full impact remained a marginal possibility up to the twentieth century. The inevitable development from “the raw to the cooked to the gourmet”5 reflects the process of refinement and an increasing complexity of most cultures. Western cultural hegemony, however, was not built only on brilliant recipes. The legitimacy of its success is built on its artistic achievement as much as it is a result of its economic and political power.

If Western art shows a powerful coherence and a fluctuating cosmopolitanism in the creation of its universal canons, it also reveals a tight grip on the instinctual and a certain colonial attitude to the ethnic art. It is a symptom of the general Western habit of “objectifying” all reality that perhaps interferes with the genuine understanding of the art of “others”. At its worst, the influences of ethnic art on the Western have been on the level of the “make over”, such as “Chinoisirie” in the visual arts or the “whitened Jazz” of American popular music. At best, ethnic influences became a vehicle for new syntheses that could stand on their own.

Faced with the inevitable expansion of the communication technologies, the tribal art becomes a given. The human consciousness naturally expands to encompass all of the created art. To say that the art today should be limited to only Western or tribal art is a form of fundamentalism most thinking people would not subscribe to. On the other hand, an indiscriminate artistic promiscuity only creates a state of confusion, which treats genuine artistic realities, as candies to be collaged at will, independently of their actual entity and history.

As a result of these freshly acquired territories, a new, multicultural art industry is blossoming. Instead of perceiving genuine artistic realities (in the context of their place in the tribal life), we are given three-minute segments in which to discern their exotic qualities. “Experts” are sold that represent those cultures and anybody else is waved aside as not being the “legitimate artist”. Should anybody coming from the Balkans (myself included) have an exclusive copyright on odd- rhythms? Should anybody Chinese have an exclusive right to calligraphy?

Good art does not have any extraneous guarantees. It is the integrity, the coherence of the elements and the processes, the authenticity of its statement and its expression, its ability to stand by itself that gives a work of art its strength and its longevity. Of course, no art object stands in a vacuum; there are frames of reference that give its intelligibility and its context. Where as the tribal art matches its standards to the artistic archetype, Western art matches itself to the historically fluctuating aesthetic postulates and models.

While both tribal and Western art have more or less clear frames of reference, the newly evolving synthetic culture inhabits a no man’s land. What is promulgated to us as the new “global”, multicultural art shows as much fragmentation and entropy as anything pop industry has created so far. Repackaged ethnic art, taken out of its context is simplified and made palatable to the artistically bulimic public. It is the particularities and idiosyncrasies of ethnic art that give its depth and its strength, not the “beige” quality of the commercial effort.

This does not mean, however, that the only value lies in purism and conservation of the “authentic”. Most cultures are mishmashes of various influences, which do crystallize into unique synthetic products. In order to successfully synthesize new cultural realities, first we have to fully assimilate the depth of their particular systems of references, and then acknowledge the structural pivots, which lie in the intersections of their very beings.

Our common human ancestry, our need for a variety of experiences point to our capacity to assimilate diverse cultures and thereby expand potential of our own humanity. Building the new, unique cosmopolitan culture has to encompass both the individualities and the commonalities of its participants. Anything short of building this edifice from the basement up is bound to leave us all fluttering, uprooted in an artificially created cyber space.

© 2003 by Dusan Bogdanovic

except taken from Ex Ovo