The Creative Case

for Diversity in Britain

City University London 23/03/2011

Leon Wainright

Art (School) Education and Art History

A Decade of Diversity

It seems fair to say that art education and art history have developed throughout the past decade despite the demands to attend to cultural diversity. This has been my experience in advocating the need for greater diversity in the art curriculum; I have urged academic practitioners of teaching and learning to address the global relevance of art historical knowledge in the context of an irrefutably diverse world. I imagine that it has also been the experience of those who have resisted the question of ‘the global’ altogether (however broadly conceived), and for whom diversity issues were never to become a priority. Whichever approach we choose, we are at a complex moment when the terms of diversity in teaching and learning in art and art history seem unprofitable. This appears to be the case regardless of whether we occupy more conservative and reactionary positions, or try to urge radical change. It is a situation that deserves some thought. It may be useful to try and register the changing status of diversity in Higher Education over the recent period, in order to see a way beyond the present circumstances, and what options they present us with.

The immediate post-millennium saw the systematic conjunction of the cultural with diversity. This created a working term that was freighted with suggestions of racial and ethnic difference, so that cultural diversity became synonymous with difference in toto. There was a widely enjoined attempt at ‘raceing art history’, with a purpose of interrogating or holding up a mirror to art history as a discipline, and to disabuse it of its racism.1 An often abstract and consequently potent notion of racial difference came centrally into use. Attention to the multiethnic and multiracial, and to race relations, were thus synonymous with the multicultural, cross-cultural, intercultural and transcultural. This went together with the occlusion of the history of art history, of the discipline’s role in nation-building and global expansion. From within the rubric of cultural diversity, a litany of new ways was found to describe an underlying, much older interest in essentially ethnicised or racialised modes of encounter, historiography, representation and exchange.2

This narrowing and convergence of definitions, the conflation of the cultural field with an unspecified ambivalence about the political fiction of ‘race’, were no doubt more ideological than critical. Indeed, the problem for diversity became whether this entwining of priorities could last. Was it a suitably analytical term for a more thoroughgoing theorisation of art practices and their histories? Or else nothing more than a strategic one with only a passing usefulness? To embrace cultural diversity in teaching and learning has meant taking up a culturally comparative approach to intellectual inquiry. This is distinguished by being thought capable of resisting the allure of racial essentialism and ethnocentrism. It is an approach to knowledge which is also a scene of important anti-racism.

Even so, the commitment to cultural diversity has coincided with a circumscribed understanding of historical and cultural differences. These are drawn strictly on the grounds of ethnicity and ‘race’ alone. This is most transparent in academic contexts in art and art history where diversity is invoked, such as in the development of curricula. But here questions of difference are more difficult to broach. Diversity is promoted in a discrete sense, as if somehow removed from the larger and open-ended possibilities for seeing difference as a locus of historical transformation. The result is that a definite mode of particularism has emerged in the primacy of trying to account for diversity. It is to the chagrin of a more dynamic field of inquiry around difference. Certain strictures are placed on those attempting to assume or coin an alternative vocabulary of difference or, more modestly, to simply elaborate on the existing one.

Well before the Equality Bill of 2008, diversity had begun to lose its ‘cultural’ handle. It has now moved into association with a broader range of differences, including those of age, gender, sexuality, religion or belief, and disability. The assurance of diversity and equality is addressed by integrated working units within Higher Education. They focus on the experience of students and staff largely with regard to areas of admissions, recruitment and pay. They establish protections, such as those against intimidation and workplace bullying. But it is hard to know whether the status of diversity as an institutional priority has grown when coupled with these measures for equality. There is certainly a fear that diversity agendas become somehow diluted through this new association, forced even into a relation of ‘competing equalities’.3 Even so, the art and art history curriculum has not met with an ‘equality’ agenda on anything like the scale of the agenda for change in the area of cultural diversity. This may be due to the fact that informal policy, such as the Quality Assurance Agency’s Benchmarking Statement in the subject area of art and art history, was established before Equality legislation.4 What would spell disaster for equality is if its anticipated impact on the curriculum were to be gauged against the track record of diversity. There is a popular sense that cultural diversity – as with multiculturalism more generally – quickly lost the lead in initiatives for change in Higher Education. The emerging challenge is to avoid the pessimism that equality will soon follow suit.

Here I set out some discussion of why I feel cultural diversity should not be seen in this way. I argue why we should not allow diversity to go the way of an early dismissal. It was indeed at one time an expedient term that added institutional value to art and art history education in UK universities, and has since faced resistance. However, it is worth making clear why that description should apply only to the pale institutionalised image of ‘cultural diversity’ (concomitant with a measurable and managed sphere of differencing). By contrast, what we have not tackled is how to avoid giving up a belief in the recognition for diversity more broadly, and there- by of misrecognising difference. We have not questioned why there is an apparent choice between the rising contempt for ‘cultural diversity’, and yet a closer sense of the ‘convivial culture’,5 or ordinary commensality in the cultural life of everyday Britain. What I present, therefore, is not a totalising argument against institutional approaches to difference, nor is it a railing disregard for diversity. It is a case for why we must untangle individual experience from institutional arrangements and to draw out the distinctions between them. We may then see where the study of art and art history may carry us in the light of the recent history of cultural diversity.

Globalising The Curriculum

At the start of this decade I was engaged with a change agenda in the area of diver- sity, in a national three-year project in curriculum change, ‘Globalising Art, Architecture and Design History’ (GLAADH), funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning.6 We took as our premise the fact that interest in the global diversity of art, architecture and design history is under-represented in the spaces where it is taught and researched. There was much good teaching practice with relevance to a diverse globalised world, and this had been overlooked in a recent official report.7 At its inception, the project carried out its own survey of the forty-seven institutions that the report covered and what we found is that little was being done to promote and enhance a breadth of good practice in the area of diversity.

I was with GLAADH for the first half of the project and what I have to say about it is based on my own reflections. It is worth noting initially about GLAADH that ‘cultural diversity’ was not given any prior definition; members were instead left to set in motion their own sense of the value of the term. On this basis, we chose not to engage in anything like a conventional debate on the meaning of the ‘globalising’ in the project’s title, instead allowing participants to bring their own sense of what the term might mean. During our first year we called for bids from interested depart-ments to become sub-projects of GLAADH, subsequently naming as ‘Initiatives’ the ten sub-projects who joined until the overall project’s end. They were a range of institutions that included the universities of Manchester, Kingston, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Plymouth, Anglia Polytechnic, De Montfort, Birkbeck, Sheffield Hallam, and Central England; a range of old and new and projects of various sizes and ambitions. What they shared was a common aim to integrate ‘diverse’ materials properly into the curriculum, to embed diversity, and to combat the tendency to relegate them to the status of tokenistic ‘ethnic add-ons’.

It is fair to say that the GLAADH project did not lead to the sort of change that I thought we were hoping for. Of course, we could, and we did document evidence of ‘impact’ on more than a fifth of the AADH community in the HE sector. The project was evaluated externally and thus described; it became a flagship project for the Learning and Teaching Support Network, and a key element in an important phase of the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning. But there was a particular obstacle that the project highlighted which suggested that there would continue to be real difficulties and disappointments in establishing a more diverse curriculum. The project never hazarded a definition of diversity exactly, but it is impossible to review its significance without one. So I would suggest that the changed curriculum it aimed for is one that does not operate under the segregations of mainstream versus diverse, or Art versus World Art (and of Art versus Non-Western Art, which was the terminology that we encountered most frequently). It is on this area of divisions, and around the issue of the place of diversity within art history as a whole, that the really significant results of the project show up.

What we had highlighted specifically had more to do with individual academic teaching staff and their self-understanding in relation to the curriculum, than with some larger institutional or policy failing. We repeatedly heard it said, with emphasis, that in order to deliver more global or ‘diverse’ topics, individuals felt that they had most of all to be ‘experts’. This meant someone with an established research specialism in a field identified with ‘cultural diversity’. (It was easy to point to my own profile: trained at the School of World Art Studies at East Anglia, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, rather than Oxbridge and the Courtauld.)

This is significant for the larger enterprise of change. It is easy to understand why the relation of research to the curriculum should come to be of issue when academic identities tend to be defined by research profiles. However, the cultivation of ‘expert’ status in the diversity debate probably rests more on what is taking place beyond the academy in the arts and public sectors. There the conjunction of professional identity formation with, in particular, the cultural politics of marginalisation – the growing interest and movement of marginal issues to core issues – probably underlies the reasons why diversity initiatives in the academic environment have been so diluted. The result in art history is that diverse topics of teaching and research are ethnicised; and so are their practitioners, their teachers and researchers, and by extension their students. They are made to appear outside the mainstream of art historical interest, or else included or ‘accommodated’ on rather dubious terms. Most worrying in all of this is that academics of the notional ‘majority ethnicity’ (which has not even been seen as an ethnicity at all) have largely dismissed their own potential as agents for change. They have actively self-se- lected, or else dismissed the potential of one another to bring about change, and so stood in one another’s way. They have felt that identifying with a majority ethnicity rather disqualifies the effort to understand marginal positions. This is regarded as an inauthentic path that crosses over into foreign territory. The outcome is that the individual member of academic staff then disengages from diversity matters as if they were someone else’s proper domain.

But this of course is to misrecognise what we may mean by diversity. It is worth remembering that conditions for change are over-determined when initiatives are emptied of their legitimacy well in advance of being mobilised. What GLAADH showed is that it is all too easy to lose sight of our own diversity, or else to relocate a sense of diversity to somewhere outside the usual run of our attention – to relate it to other people and other people’s business. Our meditations in planning the project were forever focused on a non-prescriptive approach to teaching about difference. I can recall one meeting when the project team members vocalised a sense of their own identities as fractured by difference in various ways: with regard to gender and age, certainly, but we also each hailed from peripheries of one sort or another, whether the hierarchies of British regional, social and ethnic identities, or from outside the Anglophone world. Our coming together and mobilisation of such differences was not by design. It was not aimed at ‘managing’ diversity to produce in the project a semblance of representativeness. It was the result of true contingencies, of fertile common ground and shared critical interests expressed through and not despite difference.

Inclusion and its Aftermath

Terms such as diaspora and cross-culturalism have entered the teaching of art and art history from their more established place in the social sciences, namely in cultural and media studies. When we teach about migration, diaspora, belonging, national identity, difference and diversity, we have tended to draw liberally on what has been established in these other disciplines. It might be argued that this creates an interdisciplinary space of critical writing about art that enriches all of its par- ticipant disciplines. Still, there is cause to wonder whether this separate field of inquiry is not rather too isolated from art historical theories and methods in the main. Certainly many artists – largely those associated with ‘cultural diversity’ – have come to be studied in disciplines other than art history, or in a separate space within art history away from its central, canonical ground. This disciplinary arrangement has helped to cultivate a complementary or secondary discourse for certain artists alongside mainstream art history.

There is a strand of art and art history teaching that responds to the demand for radical change in the arts that was first championed by critical commentators and artists who had tired of marginality, racial exclusion and ‘invisibility’. But those same demands are increasingly part of the package of measures by which techniques of segregation from art history are reproduced. There is a further complication in the present climate. Presenting themselves as suitable subjects for cultural diversity initiatives in public arts funding, artists themselves are often hurriedly complicit with forms of differencing that lead to their separation from art history in the main. This is a sort of self-objectification – a ‘xeno-’ or ‘ethno-spectacle’ – in response to the demands of marketplace and public patron. Yet there is a firm contribution to this process by art and art history in the way that the curriculum is constituted to include discrete topics on ‘diversity’ and in its use of disciplinary tools from elsewhere.

The artist, curator and writer Olu Oguibe has described how:

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the struggle that non-Western contemporary artists face on the global stage is not Western resistance to difference, as might have been the case in decades past; their most formidable obstacle is Western obsession with an insistence on difference. As some have already pointed out, it is not that any would want to disavow difference, for we are all different one way or another, after all. The point is that this fact of being ought not constitute the crippling predicament that it does for all who have no definite ancestry in Europe.8

Oguibe is focused on a new phenomenon, or an old phenomenon seen on an unprecedented scale. It is the inauthentic incorporation of difference – an ‘insistence on difference’ – in such a way that goes against the interests of those who have been historically excluded from the art market and art history. This has reached the level of ‘obsession’ as the global art marketplace plays what Oguibe calls its ‘culture game’. The ‘game’ takes place when difference assumes a discrete and stable category, and is consequently accommodated into the commodity system of the art mainstream. It is cultural diversity being traded as currency. Higher Education teaching operates together with patterns of art criticism, curating and arts programming (and indeed, with many artists themselves) to constitute difference as a commodity and in shaping this ‘predicament’.

Trying to understand the place of artists and artworks in this process, the cultural theorist Sean Cubitt has written:

Where once the task was to champion the silenced voices and invisible canvases of artists outside the pale of the power-broking metropolitan galleries, now it is to understand in what ways global art practice has become a spice to flavour the pot of the new multiculturalism.9

In what has been described as ‘the carnival of hetero-culture now at large in the metropolis’,10 ours is a time when diversity in the teaching of art and art history discloses the operational language and the complexities of Britain’s current politics of multiculturalism. In arts programming and the art market appetites have sharpened for ethnic, racial and cultural ‘difference and diversity’. It would seem as though the pleas for inclusion from those who are at the historical margins of art history have therefore finally been heard. Even so, the development of such appetites has meant that artists are under increased pressure to provide an explicit codification of accepted forms of difference in their practice. The artist and researcher Sonya Dyer has described in her report on ‘artistic autonomy’ for the campaign group, The Manifesto Club, ‘the unhealthy pressure on artists and curators from non-white backgrounds to privilege their racial background above all else in relation to their practice’.11 This raises the concern that apparently radical terms of cultural analysis have achieved a more popular embrace without any ensuing substantive change.

We might argue that the need to privilege a ‘racial background’, as Dyer indicates, in fact hardly features in an art curriculum that ‘includes’ artists such as Oguibe. There may be scope for studying these artists as a view onto the historical architecture and the legacies of exclusion and marginalisation in the hegemonic spaces of art galleries, museums and historiography. Their presence in the cur- riculum may not foreground or embody racial difference so much as highlight and undermine racism. Yet even this preferred purpose for such artists may be considered another, if lesser, ‘unhealthy pressure’ on them. We must ask whether certain artists are also studied in ways that decouple them from the terms of both racism and ‘race’. Under the demands for ‘cultural diversity’ this cannot be so – their presence exemplifies a theme of discourse around cultural or diasporic difference and yet not much more.

The artist, curator and writer Rasheed Araeen has described this situation as a sort of ‘tyranny’ ensuing from modes of viewership which 

... have very little to do with the specificity of art and which have now been appropriated by art institutions that use them to reinforce their colonial idea of the Other. This has helped them redefine postcolonial artists as the new Other, but also predetermine their role in modern society. With the result that any art activity which does not conform to or defies this new definition is looked upon as inauthentic and is suppressed.12

In Araeen’s view such ‘postcolonial’ artists live and work persistently within the limits set by their viewers, and are forced to negotiate official sources of support and institutionalised practices of art reception. The field of art education intersects with such contexts of reception. In these spaces, concerns about modern and con- temporary aesthetic criteria are paid to artworks by and large only when their makers are white. Such criteria are put aside in favour of using the tools of the social sciences, and of cultural and media studies, for the art of ‘diverse’ practitioners.

In this way, the art curriculum orchestrates evidence of a separate tradition of art-making, an ‘Other’ to European modernism. This is the teaching and learning arm of the promotion of ethnic or racial difference as expedient in the wider art environment. Certainly the vocabulary of cultural analysis – with attention to the migrant, diasporic and postcolonial – has fully penetrated the study of certain artists, while their exclusion from the mainstream has continued. Those artists who readily identify as diasporic or postcolonial are now placed in a circumscribed space, and kept there with the assistance of the art curriculum. The expectation that such artists make works that are best viewed as cultural evidence of their Otherness has contributed to undermining their value and reinstating ethnic and racial hierarchies.

Such a preference has helped to constitute an unsatisfactory form of inclusion – what elsewhere has been identified as ‘differential inclusion’13 – brokered through academic models drawn from disciplines other than art and art history. This is a reproduction of the existing order, where, as Paul Wood has written, ‘the underlying structure (and of course, the wider structure-beyond-the-structure) has remained intact’. Addressing this development over a thirty year period, Wood has noted ‘how little has changed’ since the time of his writing, with Dave Rushton, the long pamphlet, The Politics of Art Education. This comprised a ‘radical reportoire’ that involved the ‘questioning of the authority of the western canon’.14 With this in- tractable continuity in view, we might consider what appreciation is being fostered through the curriculum of a deep sense of the transformative and critical potential of art making. It would also be worth asking what future is there for an engaged mode of teaching. The curriculum actively contributes to undermining the very artists who have staged a questioning of canonical knowledge, and who prompted the development towards the recent historical moment of cultural diversity.

Seeing the Way to a Real Difference

An added dimension to debates on difference is brought by the winner of the 2003 Turner Prize, artist Grayson Perry, writing that ‘There seems to be a very new Labour idea that if we rigorously ensure a numerically fair proportion of BME (black or minority ethnic) practitioners, then that will automatically facilitate so- cial justice in wider society. Hmm.’15 The suggestion here is that the multicultural ‘mainstreaming’ of attention to art is not the same as more widely-reaching social, political and economic change. This assessment tallies with Martha Rosler’s de- scription of the situation in the United States during the 1990s, of ‘an art world version of multiculturalism (and where more appropriately situated than in the realm of culture?), necessary but sometimes painfully formulaic, which produces a shadow constellation of the identities of the wider society but without the income spread’.16

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the nature of recent attention to the artist Chris Ofili who is firmly within the mainstream of contemporary artists and broadly identified as black (of Nigerian parentage and raised in England). The largely unacknowledged modern and contemporary art history of the Caribbean has not become any more visible since Ofili took up permanent residence on the island of Trinidad in 2005. The opportunity has not been taken for a merging of British and Caribbean horizons and art histories. Outside a few examples of radical historiography, there is no transatlantic, transnational awareness of the art and art- ists that comprise the Trinidad context of Ofili’s current path as a painter.17 Ofili’s promotion follows the pattern of satisfying inclusion in the short-term. It produces a hyper-visibly black, even ‘post-black’ presence that unfolds without any con- stitutive change to art history, curating or art education at large. It is the terms of representation in these fields, and what difference the promotion and inclusion of certain artists cannot make, which should now concern us the most.

Such perspectives are largely corroborated by current research in the field of cultural policy studies. This has moved away from so-called ‘impact analysis’, the enterprise to determine the value and function of the arts and of how artworks actually affect people. The preferred direction for this field is, first, to draw back from presenting ‘appealing advocacy arguments’ that would otherwise be demanded in any account of the positive impact of the arts, and second, to signal ‘unexpected and rewarding directions’ for research.18 One direction that has been paid little at- tention is that of art and art history education, and yet it is unclear why this should be considered so out of bounds for systematic research on the cultural and the social. There are poor results observed both within and beyond the arts of initia- tives of cultural diversity and difference. These suggest that the critical use of their vocabularies has not fulfilled the ambitions of historically excluded and marginalised artists. This picture appears to agree with the sense of needing to think beyond the advocacy of marginalised individuals and groups in art history, as if advocacy were somehow part of the wider problem. Cultural policy studies has also sought to expose the wider historical and political background to ideas of a shared or common culture and the notion of social or national unification in the arts. This would illuminate the historical role that the curriculum for art and art history has played in constructing categories of community as well as difference. It may help to show how phenomena such as the art history canon serve to structure the art mainstream, and so inevitably assist in marginalisation and exclusion.

Further to this account of the institutional space of education are some powerful contradictions that would repay the broader inquiry into relations between difference and works of art. They would also suggest not the end of advocacy, but its return in an unexpected way. I wonder whether declarations of the end of advocacy are to do with a loss of political will to see the arts as a suitable setting for struggle, and whether traditions of ‘engaged’ scholarship, criticism, teaching and learning can and should be so gleefully abandoned. If by advocacy we mean the narrow pursuit of diversity and difference as forms of objectification, the ethnicising of art works, of curricula, students and their teachers, then its lifespan should duly be over. But in negotiating a contrapuntal or counter-hegemonic route, in creating alternatives in the face of the commoditisation of difference, surely we already undertake to advocate.

Such advocacy marks the end to what Sean Cubitt calls the ‘belated revolution’ of ‘the assimilation of the exotic Other into the new world art’.19 It works to disrupt those practices in which artworks, artists and art histories are promoted under the terms of diversity and multiculturalism; it works to lift the barriers and exclusions that such assimilation represents. Slavoj Zizˆek has argued that the customary logic behind this incorporation of cultural diversity is in order to create the semblance of a conflict-free space of commerce.20 The remaining option for any oppositional participant in this setting is to shatter that semblance and to bring on the conflict – a far different role from the one assumed during the promotional drive to diversity.

Grayson Perry embodies an intersection between the performance of sexuality and a polemic on ethnicity. He reminds readers of the need to confound contemporary Britain’s political investment in discrete categories of difference. However, the idea that ethnicity may serve as a principal site of difference for the writing and teaching of art history may be disrupted not by the shift from diversity to equality, but by a more ‘intersectional’ notion of diversity that draws upon the taxonomy of equality. One possibility is that it may come from the locus of teaching and learning in art and art history education itself. This is a clear vantage point for registering a difference in practice despite the wider shifts in programming and policy around the terms of representation.

I am wary of the generation of a separate, if complementary, discourse in this area. So I would prefer to see academic practitioners seizing the opportunity to move contingently as well as in conflict with the unfolding story of cultural diversity. We need express no long term commitment to one or other institutional agenda or vision, yet nor should we pretend to be free of their influence. Shaping a less overdetermined field of intellectual and creative culture demands that we find an elective affinity with those who have felt excluded or marginalised from official spaces. It requires us to see our institutional frames differently. This is not simply about defamiliarising the academic setting for art and art history, but daring to abandon the myths of diversity that have framed our efforts. Ultimately, we need to see our way to a real difference by winning back our own diversity.


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