Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]


The Work of Art in an Age of Diversity and Globalization

Mette Hjort
Aalborg University

The history of critical reflection on art is marked by a number of central positions and recurring ideas, but it is also shaped by certain movements involving a striking gravitation at a given moment in time towards a set of key concepts. Explaining why certain terms and approaches become compelling in this way is a complicated matter and would require some grasp of the sociology and psychology of fashion and fame, as well as some basic understanding of institutional arrangements and the conditions for research that they provide. In addition, it would be necessary, among other things, to ponder the ways in which intellectual tendencies reflect some of the deeper and changing moral sources orienting agents’ self-conceptions across history.1

The aim in this instance must, of course, be far more modest, and is merely to bring into focus the dramatic shift, over the past ten years or so, from a form of methodological holism to what is beginning to look like a promising emphasis on the specificity of relevant cultural, social, and historical contexts in theories of literature, film, and the other arts. Poststructuralism taught several generations to view art, not as works with distinctive traits expressing in some instances the intentions of creative agents, but as mere epiphenomena of language, desire, and Western metaphysics. Works became texts reflecting in most cases a general conception of language, while agents tended to be reduced to mere vehicles enabling monolithic social formations to become manifest. 2

More recently, the influential critical vocabulary associated with deconstruction has been replaced by, or must compete with, a new set of terms: ‘hybridity’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘transnationalism’, ‘nationalism’, ‘internationalism’, ‘globalization’, ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘exile’, and ‘postcolonialism.’ While the specific meaning of some of these terms--’hybridity’ is a good example--is linked directly to poststructuralist premises, many of the terms bring into play concepts and approaches that are able to mediate successfully between holism and individualism. Any successful attempt, for example, to deal cogently with the nationalist dimensions of a given work is likely to involve some account of the historical specificity of a given nationalist context, as well as an exploration of the ways in which the artist’s focal beliefs about national identity, and self-deceptions linked to the psychologies of nationalism, find expression in the work at hand.

Although the goal here is not to explain the shift in question, it is useful at least to evoke some possible causal factors. One approach would be to foreground the ways in which the new critical vocabulary emerges as a response to ongoing developments that are not only cultural, but also social and political. In that sense the terms in question would be directly linked to contemporary issues and recent changes in the conditions under which art is produced, although the relevant concepts are increasingly brought to bear on artworks from earlier historical periods. This kind of approach might involve considering carefully what Benjamin Barber describes as ´the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld" and the way in which the dissemination of sameness around the world leads to identity politics or an emphasis on multicultural diversity or even a ´bloody holy war on behalf of partisan identity that is metaphysically defined and fanatically defended." 3 The idea, more specifically, would be to show that the new critical vocabulary responds to a set of general conditions that determine some of the salient traits of contemporary artistic production. In this sense, ‘hybridity’ would be a term that helps us to pick out some of the specific features associated, for example, with writing produced by agents whose belonging to a given nation-state has been complicated as a result of exile, colonization, or migration. Similarly, ‘transnationalism’ or ‘transnationality’ would allow us to identify traits that are characteristic of recent films funded by Eurimages or other programs developed by supranational entities.

A somewhat different account emerges if we take seriously Charles Taylor’s suggestion that the various expressions of a politics of recognition themselves reflect deeper changes having to do with the very nature of modernity and modern identities. On this view the growing attention paid to various forms of diversity is prompted, not only by changes at the level of contexts of artistic production and reception, but also by those aspects of Enlightenment and Romantic thought that provide the moral spaces in which modern agents exist. That is, the gravitation towards terms such as ‘postcoloniality’ and ‘hybridity’ reflects the salience of certain contemporary developments, but also the extent to which we, as moderns, are moved by notions of authentic self-expression and a need for recognition that has been rendered problematic by quintessentially modern conditions. 4

Whatever approach is ultimately favored, it soon becomes clear that the new critical vocabulary is anything but a matter of settled doctrines or a stable consensus. There is disagreement, not only about the precise meaning of many of the key terms, but also about their relevance or ability to capture existing realities. Whereas for some globalization and postnationality are salient features of the modern landscape in which art is produced, others contest the idea that nation-states are slowly being eroded. 5 Whereas some scholars assume that nations are enduring, primordial entities that can be expressed in art, others assume that they are constructed in a process of myth-making or artistic production linked to the needs of the modern, industrial state. Following in the wake of a critical movement that was marked by strong internal cohesion and settled doctrines--poststructuralism--the new tendency provides a stimulating opportunity to redefine certain critical agendas, as well as to revisit with fresh insight some of the debates that were believed, perhaps wrongly, to have been finally settled.

The papers collected here are so many attempts, not only to work within the space provided by the vocabularies of diversity and globalization, but also to identify potential problems or avenues of research that might be fruitfully pursued. Scott MacKenzie’s contribution focuses on the notion of a minor cinema and its relation to diversity and globalization. Gunhild Agger’s piece suggests that concepts of intertextuality can be usefully remobilized in ongoing discussions of media practices involving, among other things, asymmetrical relations between small and large nations. Adam Muller takes issue with standard conceptions of the relation between expatriation and the masterpieces of high modernism by focusing on Van Wyck Brooks’ support for art ´ in the American grain ". Trevor Ponech argues carefully that if claims about (multi)cultural influence in cinema studies are to be in any way meaningful, they must be linked to some basic conceptions of agents’ autonomy as authors of cinematic works. Bo Pettersson focuses on some conceptual problems related to the postcolonial turn in literary translation studies. And Mette Hjort’s discussion of multiculturalist tendencies within the academy attempts to trace a via media between the most entrenched positions in the culture wars.


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