WHOSE EXCELLENCE? OUR EXCELLENCE!
Marc James Léger
It’s a modern folly to alter the corrupt ethical system, its constitution and legislation, without changing the religion, to have a revolution without a reformation.
– G.W.F. Hegel
Last March, a considerable number of artists, curators and cultural workers from Canada and abroad added their names to an open letter addressed to Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, for a series of comments he made during a CBC report on diaspora art and the cultural politics of public institutions (CBC, “Diaspora Art,” The National, February 2, 2010). Mayer’s comments to reporter Jelena Adzic can be summarized with the following quote: “Our real mandate is excellence. We do think about diversity, however… We put on what we find in the Canadian art scene that is excellent and we’re blind to colour or ethnic background, or even whether you were born in Canada, we don’t care. (…) We’re looking for excellent art. We don’t care who makes it.” These statements, because they presuppose the existence of universal standards which are then used to manage collecting practices at the NGC, solicited the organized response of people who gathered first through e-mail, then through the social networking site facebook, and then through postings to an online blog called excellenceatthenationalgallery. The open letter, penned by curators Milena Placentile and Emily Falvey, and with the subsequent support of curator Ryan Rice, quickly became a catalyst for scrutiny of the NGC’s mandate and policies.
The letter takes exception to Mayer’s comments, which seem to ignore recent efforts on the part of the NGC to address its colonial and sexist legacy. The letter states: “This begs the question: Whose excellence? This is what women and ethnic minorities have been asking for centuries. (…) Today you tell us that [the] NGC doesn’t show ethnic minorities because they are not achieving ‘excellence.’ The simplistic notion that connoisseurs know ‘good art’ was thoroughly discredited by 20th century feminist and post-colonial writers, artists and activists. (…) Well, we know ‘excellence’ when we see it, and today we prefer to call it hegemony.” The letter goes on to recommend to Mayer some essential reading from feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, postcolonial literary theorist Edward Said, and African-American cultural theorist bell hooks, and asks him at least to familiarize himself with Fuse Magazine.
Although the letter has generated some responses in newspapers and websites, in particular in the Ottawa Citizen (see here), I would like to consider some of the limitations of the petition as it relates to a leftist critique of the neoliberalization of cultural institutions. What I would like to address in particular is the difference between a politicization of culture that takes into consideration capital as the concrete universal and a culturalized politics (or post-politics) that considers class struggle to be one category of struggle among others, in particular those based on race, gender and sexuality.
In his 1996 publication, The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argues that the kind of cultural nationalism that characterized the National Gallery as recently as the 1960s, has been replaced by the technocratic management of a transnational class of people who refuse identification with a specific class status or cultural identity. The idea of universal cultural standards that are the object of feminist and postcolonial cultural critics may not be the same kind of excellence that actually forms the basis of cultural administration in places like the NGC even if at times some of its members may rely on atavistic intellectual frameworks. Excellence, as Readings describes it, has less to do with formal criteria of analysis, or even political relevance, however you define it (avant-garde, cultural politics of difference, anti-global), than with performance indicators that directly link the market in intellectual and cultural production with a global cultural marketplace in which national institutions operate as what Maria Carmen Ramirez has termed “cultural brokers.” Excellence in this regard is not only concerned with markers of identity, it regulates and manages cultural differences in favour of market-based notions of human capital. A perfect example of this is noticed in the policy shift towards “creative industries” in the UK and the European Union, and which was the common platform of all the major political parties during the last Canadian federal election. Another word for excellence in the old canonical sense, and one that actually provides a point of critique within this new neoliberal framework, is the concept of virtuosity, as it is explained by the workerist philosopher Paolo Virno. The kind of “culture wars” that the current debate is oriented around may in fact repress a class analysis.
Almost anyone who was taught critical cultural theory in undergraduate and graduate university courses understands that as soon as you provide such a class analysis of culture and you begin to relate culture to its socioeconomic conditions of production you run the risk of “economism,” or “vulgar Marxism.” For some, this is enough knowledge to leave sociology behind and move on to more exciting cultural analysis. In fact, much of the project of cultural studies as well as much contemporary art is premised on this sort of post-Marxist postmodernism and discourse theory. Janet Wolff argues that sociologists, in wanting to expose the social bases of aesthetic judgment and matters of taste as culturally constructed, tend to discredit aesthetics altogether. She argues against this kind of “sociological imperialism” as well as its flipside, “postmodern relativism,” and holds that one cannot remain indefinitely “agnostic” and forever postpone aesthetic choice and deliberation. In other words, we all eventually make judgments concerning cultural excellence, even though we may not expect these judgments to be universally valid.
There is a supplement to Wolff’s argument against agnosticism, however, in Slavoj Žižek’s theory of belief. Parents do not believe in Santa Clause, he explains, but in their ritualistic actions, and through their children, they effectively believe anyway. The children relieve the parents of the burden to believe. In some ways, this is the work that Mayer and the institution he represents is performing for patriotic citizens as well as the art public. The National Gallery’s constituents are relieved of the burden to believe in universal aesthetic criteria, or to define them for themselves, as long as there are gatekeepers within institutions who are willing to perform this task for them. This at least goes some way in explaining the profoundly social nature of all cultural meaning. Another word for belief in Slavoj Žižek’s writing is ideology. The NGC can do more in terms of equity and yet continue to operate as an institution that serves the neoliberal “end of ideology” status quo. It can easily perform the first task and ignore the other, and this is true of cultural production at all levels, from art school to artist-run centres.
In the work of some of the most sophisticated thinkers of our day — Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière — there is a critique of post-politics, the view that the major political struggles and “meta discourses” of the 19th and 20th centuries are a thing of the past and that we must now turn to the endless plurality of petites histoires, micropractices and the multitude of singularities. Cultural difference, as Žižek argues, is part of the logic of late capitalism. In Marx’s Capital, the worker’s sensual particularity and individual qualities are exchanged for their abstract value in the form of wages. In a similar way, Žižek argues that in today’s global capitalism, particular interests are not only universalized by hegemonic forces, but, more to the point, we become universal for ourselves. With liberal multiculturalism, he argues, identity coincides with the ruthless measurment of value in terms of the universal market forces of global capitalism.
For these reasons, we should not only consider our collective cultural wealth as such, but we should attempt to draw the links between this cultural commons and the social commons by asserting the struggle against capitalism. This brings me to the faux pas made by Adzic in her news report, wherein she conflated diaspora art and work by artists of colour with “outsider art” — a category usually reserved for art made by children, the insane, folk artists or sometimes by artists who are unaware of Western cultural frameworks. Perhaps the real outsider art is art that is capable of prefiguring an outside to capitalism. This art would have to be, given the state of things, the art of the masses who resist the reduction of life and all of human culture to the workings of free market ideology.
Marc James Léger in an artist, writer and educator living in Montreal. He is the editor of the collected writings of Bruce Barber, Performance, [Performance] and Performers (YYZ BOOKS, 2007), and of the forthcoming Art and Contestation in the New Century.