Introduction by Jane Farver
Access to the Mainstream
To address "access to the mainstream" in the arts is to address the topic
of success in the market. For this reason, the subject has always elicited
contradictory emotionsprimarily desire and resentmentand these
emotions have been particularly strong among those artists who do not
belong to the social group that produces and supports what is considered
"mainstream" art. Although the term "mainstream" carries democratic reverberations,
suggesting an open and majority-supported institution, it is in fact a
rather elitist arrangement reflecting a specific social and economic class.
In reality, "mainstream" presumes a reduced group of cultural gatekeepers
and represents a select nucleus of nations. It is a name for a power structure
that promotes a self-appointed hegemonic culture. For this reason, the
wish to belong to the "mainstream" and the wish to destroy it often arise
simultaneously in the individuals who are or feel marginal to it. Depending
on origin and background, individual access is more difficult for some
than for others.
Discussion of the plights of different ethnic or national groups, anecdotes
about their failures and successes in their attempts to gain access, does
not illuminate the topic; it distracts from it. What does deserve attention
are the elements common to the experience of all: for example, colonialism
as a force affecting both internal and external colonies; values instilled
by educational institutions that separate peoples from their identities;
the market's fetishization of the success of the individual over the building
of culture. These are the substantive issues. It is through these elements
that the market becomes a tool for homogeneity, and "mainstream" turns
out to be a euphemism for its actions.
The Modernist movements developed in western cultural centers during
this centuryparticularly the myth of abstractionismwere always
associated with the promotion of an international style, and this style
was eventually used as a cultural answer to "totalitarianism," itself
a Cold War term created to put down Soviet autocracy by classifying it
with the Nazi regime. Concurrent with these developments, nationalism
became a word symbolizing cultural regression, thus minimizing the concept's
use as an anti-colonial instrument. Since this cultural expansionism included
a growth of the market, it was easy for these conditions to be accepted
as guidelines by the market. As a consequence, ethnic and national artists
belonging to subordinate cultures could only be successful in this market
if they worked within an acceptable formal repertoire, while the expression
of ethnicity and/or nationality had to remain confined to content. This
residual ethnicity allowed their products to be perceived as slightly
exotic, enough so as to maintain a satisfying self-image of openness and
pluralism on the part of the market. The same residual ethnicity would
signal the "roots" of the author in the artist's community of origin.
Yet, the community's pride would turn on the fact that their artist "made
it in the art world" rather than on the artist's cultural contribution
to his or her community. Artists like Romare Bearden or Fernando Botero,
for example, are more respected in their communities for the prices they
command in the market than for any possible changes in vision they may
have introduced to their national or ethnic constituents. A clear symptom
of colonization is the tendency to see the shift from subordinate to hegemonic
culture as a sign of progress and success.
In the recent years the eclecticism in vogue in the marketthe Postmodernist
"pastiche"has allowed for the introduction of some short-lived cracks
into this picture. German and Italian national identities, as projected
by the Neoexpressionists and the Trans-avant-gardists, have been allowed
a place, in spite of the fact that they do not totally conform to the
notion of international homogeneity. Through feminist and graffiti art,
the affirmation of distinctive group identity has achieved exhibition
status, and kitsch has been allowed to challenge formalist purism. While
the parties involved in this diversification of the mainstream have not
fully assumed responsibility for the implied political ideologies of their
work, clearly their contributions have tended to fit into two categories
of Postmodernism, right-wing and left-wing. In right- wing PostmodernismDavid
Salle could be an examplewe find past market products reintroduced,
even regurgitated, with revitalized selling power. In left-wing PostmodernismKenny
Scharf as an example for expression of identity. Hans Haacke for politicssome
hitherto unacceptable elements have been introduced to the market and,
as a result of their success, encourage the hope that the very definition
of "mainstream" might be changed.1
The hope has been followed by disappointment. A multinational gallery structure has re-internationalized these offerings. Until multinational galleries and prices caught up, Germany and Italy were the artistic counterparts of what Taiwan and Korea are for industry. The edge of left-wing Postmodernism was dulled by chicness, to better fit the galleries. Diversity was fused into a market's expanded repertoire, and what could have been a cultural breakthrough was blunted into no more than an increase of merchandise supply. There is a store in Massachusetts which offers "authentic fast food." What possibly was intended as a satirical stab ended up providing an authenticating genealogy for an ersatz, being co-opted by the same institution it started attacking. The danger quickly disappeared and the balance was re-established.
To malign the market as an evil is very easy. Its distorting incentives,
its self-congratulatory righteousness, its bulldozing cultural flattening
and its deep-seated racism make it a vulnerable target. But most of this
maligning assumes that under certain conditions the market can be corrected.
If only there were minority curators or critics. If only there was easier
access for minority artists. If only there were more galleries for minorities,
or more room for minority artists in the mainstream galleries.
Access to the mainstream really means a mainstreaming of the artist.
In the late '60s there was a push for something called "Black Capitalism."
It was clearly more a promotion of capitalism than of blackness. The unexamined
assumption was that capitalism is the bestif not the only
way of life, and that by granting an invitation and some aid to participate
in it, critical problems would disappear. It was not, as was claimed,
a matter of "integration," with the problems of two parties to be analyzed
toward the creation of a third alternative. It was a matter of tolerating
the access of one of the parties to a mainstream controlled by the other
party. Capitalism wasn't supposed to change, it was to be expanded.
The cause for this ambivalent reaction is not based on the content of
the remarks but on the context in which they are made, signaling a distrust
which could be healthy if used well. It is our obsessive focusing on the
market, colored by the frustration of accessibility in theory and factual
inaccessibility in practice, which hinders us in the correct use of our
instinct. Only when resigned to failure do we look away and criticize.
While there is a chance for success we may criticize some, but our actions
will contradict our words. While criticism gives us a feeling of connectedness
with our original community, our goal remains the access to the mainstream
in any way possible.
In all the cases of the mainstreamed minority the foreign artist,
the black capitalist who applies to the mainstreamthe colonizing
process leads to the internalization of the wish to assimilate. When colonization
is successful assimilation becomes something "natural" and unavoidable.
We are then allowed to enter the field of competition and free enterprise
so that everyone becomes the happy and credulous owner of an equal opportunity.
But on the way to this plateau, certain changes occur in the expression
of the individual. Some of these changes become believable, others less
so. If believable, assimilation has been completed successfully. If not,
the only thing achieved is affectation. What is expressed is perceived
as a sign of kitsch, nouveau-richeness or "arrivism." A culture to be
forgotten is partially covered up with a culture incompletely acquired,
or a culture badly remembered is falsely reinterpreted for the eyes of
a culture badly understood.
A recent review of a concert by the Peruvian singer Yma Sumac stated
"Her stage show was a campy, sexy 'south of the border' stylization of
grand opera, in which she portrayed a primitive diva mystically in tune
with the forces of nature." And further on: "Positioned on either side
of the stage were Styrofoam replicas of Incan deities, and the singer,
costumed in a filmy purple gown, comported herself with theatrical hauteur."
While it is unlikely that the reviewer expected Ms. Sumac to borrow original
Incan statues from the Metropolitan Museum, nevertheless the account is
a good inventory of the many ways she transgressed the good manners of
hegemonic high culture. Even the possible originality of her transgressions
is second-rated by a later comparison with "the showmanship of Liberace."
Totally absent from the review is an account of Ms. Sumac's transgressions
against her own culture, the violations performed to fit Liberace's market
and the feedback of this market into Peru.
In our quest to the top we end up classified somewhere between two interesting
examples, the one of Lang Shih-ning and the one of the upper-class Uruguayan
ladies. Lang Shih-ning was the Chinese name of Giuseppe Castiglione, an
Italian painter who lived between 1688 and 1766. He went to China, worked
for the emperor Ch'ien Lung, and tried hard and unsuccessfully to erase
his western art training for the sake of becoming a Chinese court painter.
During the late '50s in Uruguay, it had become fashionable for ladies
in idleness to take up Chinese watercolors as a creative activity. There
were several exhibits per season, and the more "authentic" the work looked,
the better it was rated. The first example is one of a mercenary assimilating
to better perform his job. The second example is one of indulging in affectation.
In their activities, neither Lang Shi-ning nor the Uruguayan ladies were
directly led to their activities by colonization in the same way that
we are. But all of us are led to a debatable cultural substitution, one
which should not be allowed to happen casually and thoughtlessly through
an unconscious mimetic drive.
We have been taught to view art as an apolitical act, devoid of political
consequences, operating in a nonpolitical space. When politics do seep
into our work, it is confined to a level of residual content, placating
somewhat our conscience, but not forcing us to review our strategies.
We fail to see that politics are not just reduced to content, in a simplistic
fashion. We live the alienating myth of primarily being artists. We are
not. We are primarily ethical beings sifting right from wrong and just
from unjust, not only in the realm of the individual, but no communal
and regional contexts. In order to survive ethically we need a political
awareness that helps us to understand our environment and develop strategies
for our actions.
Thus the issue is not our access to the mainstream, but the mainstream's
access to us. Only put this way can the mainstream act as a resonance
box for our activities without eviscerating us. Whether the mainstream
comes to us or bypasses us is of secondary importance. Of primary concern
is that we remain in the trade of building a culture and know as precisely
as possible what and whose culture we are building. Equally important
is that we reduce our ego. The idea of us building a culture may leave
the impression that we may do so singlehandedly. In fact, our role is
equivalent to that of one more brick during the construction of a building.
Under certain circumstances this attitude may sound like a separatist
stance, but it is not. It does not imply a reversion to provincial nationalism
or to parochialism. It is a position which stresses that what has selling
power is not necessarily in our best merest, while stopping colonialism
is. There is an important difference between cultural autonomy and chauvinism.
Cultural autonomy is conducive to generating independent individuals.
Chauvinism is only conducive to racism and, given the power, to imperialism.
Imperialism is no more than provincialism with bullying power. What the
stated position implies is in fact no more than a reordering of priorities
in a moment in which a much-needed radical change of society still seems
out of reach.
They found Reality had intruded upon the Image, 1986