The Infantilization of Local Contexts

Miley, what’s good? – Nicki Minaj 

In a recent conversation with a European curator, he stressed the importance of creating dialogues between contexts. A context that refuses to speak to other contexts, according to him, performs a monologue. I was bemused at his suspiciously chummy position. In the artworld’s lingua franca, context is often associated with the periphery, the small or isolated region looking in at the centers. Try to imagine a small region willfully isolating itself in our age of hyper-connectedness and exploitative “collaboration.” Such a privileged refusal is very difficult to picture given the artworld’s cynical consumption of the global periphery. 

Sober criticism of the international worship of dialogue is hard to come by. We follow Miley Cyrus’s bone-dry cue on this unified complicity: “We’re all in the industry, we all do interviews, and we all know how they manipulate shit.” The transnational capital of in-group favoritism cools down selective criticality. Surprisingly, the global art world’s diplomatic entourage tolerates absolute solidarity. With international art’s slow distribution across borders, populism and ethno-nationalism gain support. Up here, dialogue is affordable. We’re left with a cosmetology of democratism slathered with communitarian spirit: a political consciousness akin to shopping at H&M. 

Enter exhausted reflexivity. We know histories of capture very well in the dingy halls of ethnographic museums, the touristic relics of world’s fairs and heritage buildings, the experimental, area-wide art projects occurring at fashionable intervals. These sites lull institutional critique and post-colonial studies into a coma: sweet, tolerant measures for a truly global art community. Having shunned the anthropologists, missionaries, scientists, and cosmopolitan dilettantes who looted archaeological sites and spoke paternalistically for Indigenous people, we further soften the social blow of advanced capitalism with gentle euphemisms: “non-hierarchical transactions” or “horizontal decision-making”. Assimilation transitions gradually from antiquated device to uncontestable virtue: the slow and long exposure eventually captures the context, instituting one model of dialogue as something given, natural. Same hegemonic structures at play, but the looting is a lot neater.  

These contexts have a desired shape according to the international consensus in which we participate (some of us more willingly than others). For instance, the triumphalist report from artnet News entitled “Are the Art World’s ‘Peripheries’ Becoming the New Centers?” invests in this tacit shaping of political sites and social scenes where art occurs. These places, often configured as “regions” (standing in for unfashionable “nations”) and “cities” (“independent of the countries they’re in”), have a system. With giddy anticipation, it imagines a “contextual” nervous system: decentralized agencies of thought and meaning-production. The artnet author, Nicola Trezzi, notes that their arrival as “peripheral centers” supposedly initiates them into a complex society without dichotomies, overcoming “the binaries of the past.” But, paradoxically, binary is the condition for the region’s appearing: the context is local and quaint, seen against the speed and complexity of the global. The kind of dialogue cherished by the international artworld has strict ideas about what its participants look like. 

Organizing localities into stable blocks and uncomplicated geographic clusters is a prerequisite for this dialogue. They gain reliability. Their conversion affirms the integrity of resilience. A cottage industry we can trust. A rim of the vernacular that shows oversight and intervention affect change. Their voices calm the anxieties of excess. But just how did we get into the business of trading contexts, like currencies, in the service of this soothing dialogue?

The answer probably lies when the artworld joined the international framework of development. In the 1970s, the itineraries of Western ethnocentrism merged with the soul-searching of local cultures. Art played a vital role in the amassing of cultural resources, assimilation, and formation of national cultures. These localities, however, hated the nation-state’s corollary project of “national culture.” Improving humankind – the colonial definition of development – has seeped into the international ideology of art. 

Forget what Brecht told us about art as a hammer. The rhetoric of development has shaped art, producing new drivers of the old ethic of progress. Operating individually yet collectively determined, the diverse group of global interlopers, content-providing native informants, regional mediators/specialists, and solvent-like multinational institutions weave another dream of development in the horizons of the cultural and artistic: “good governance.” Dialogues are the desired outcome of good governance, and act as adhesive for civil society, culture, and government. The international artworld plays host to this with its most socially-conscious and critically-astute actors, who know exactly what didn’t work in the interventions of development. Good governance never stops fascinating us. It puts a compassionate and nurturing face to the extractive industry of arts and culture, concealing inequality and abuse of power.  

In the 1975 session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Imelda Marcos became the first wife of a head of state to deliver a speech in the 30-year history of the institution. She made a persuasive appeal to the progress of humanity: 

The new international economic order confronts not only our instinct for survival, or our natural desire for material well-being, but also the deepest values of our civilization. The challenge, therefore, is ultimately addressed to the conscience of humanity. We are called upon to create a new moral image of man […]

Dialoguing to the world, the First Lady of the Philippines singlehandedly portrayed the agency of cultural development. Imelda Marcos’s aggressive development of cultural infrastructure dovetails with her dictator-husband’s authoritarian rhetoric of “good government.” The latter was defined by Ferdinand Marcos as “the science and practice of government,” which is “evolving within [a] national life” and is not merely “preoccupied with political philosophy and system.” This ideological collaboration echoes the conditionally inclusive vision of the international artworld: a politically legitimate place with pluralistic inter-institutional structures driven by economic liberalism, subsequently confirmed by the participation of civil society. In short, the artworld breathes new life into neoliberal notions of good governance: the afterlife of development.

Patron of the social dream of art, Imelda Marcos is the model of an international cultural agent. She showed the insufficiency of her context. She addressed an international audience. She rallied for support to uphold a new vision. Her actions exemplify a practice of dialogue between art and development, across geographies: banking on the coalition of ethno-nationalism and globalization, and promoting “Indigenous” forms of capitalism, while avoiding the optics of exoticization. 

This brand of dialogue fuels the assiduous internationalism in contemporary art. It divides and controls localities, like a dam. Contextual differences are distributed as needs and urgencies. Like the juridico-engineering structures that symbolized progress for centuries, this cultural globalism has consumption at its core. It dabbles in irrigation too, getting these regions soused on the liberal democratic fantasy of salvation via harmonious, multilateral exchange. 

As frontiers prone to corruption, local contexts have been designed to speak about their lack. They can hardly appear, despite the spotlight given to them, when steered towards active channels of communication. Meaningful dialogues are therefore perpetually postponed – or hijacked by demagogic monologues. Global peripheries have always been accommodating. They nourish growth and decay. And this faculty is more than enough for an exchange between contexts. The international artworld’s struggle for exchange must now be relocated in monological circuits across the topographies of power and restitution, not in the geographies of guilt and embarrassment.


Image credit: One of the sites of the First Lucban Assembly: PAMUMUHUNAN (Waiting for a capital). Image courtesy: Project Space Pilipinas

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