What role does cultural exchange play in the current political climate? What does it mean to be closed or open to external cultures and what kind of effects do different approaches have on a local and global level?
My talk at international forum "The Siege Upon Civilization: From Wall to Wall" at the Guadalajara International Book Fair 2017.
The Guadalajara International Book Fair – often referred to as the FIL or FIL Guadalajara – is the most important publishing gathering in the Spanish-speaking world. Started in 1987 by the University of Guadalajara, the FIL is also a bustling and stimulating cultural festival.
Last November I had the immense pleasure to be invited to attend the Fair and speak at international forum The Siege Upon Civilization: From Wall to Wall, organized by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the University of Guadalajara (UDG). The main goal of the forum was to discuss the threats represented by the ascent of xenophobia and protectionism in the current political climate, building a critical front that endeavors to find solutions and overcome this rise of intolerance that endangers the development of a responsible, democratic and supportive global society. It also stands as a statement of rejection of any type of wall, whether physical or metaphorical. The debate dealt with several issues, such as economy, democracy and the internet, poverty, art and culture, equality, climate change, migration and journalism.
On 27th November, I contributed to the last day of the conference, which was dedicated to Cultural Exchanges & Development.
Given the context of the debate, which emphasised the crisis of globalisation in terms of separation and exclusion, I talked about the role of cultural policy in relation to this phenomenon, giving some examples in the international scene, in the attempt to answer the following questions:
• What are the reasons that justify a closed or open approach to external cultures?
• What kind of effects do these policies have (or could have) on a local and global level?
Regarding the cultural and economic consequences of globalization, there are many contrasting opinions. While critics point out how globalization has led to – in addition to social and economic problems – an increase in cultural issues, such as the loss of local identity, others believe this phenomenon embodies a unique opportunity for developing countries to achieve economic and cultural emancipation, as well as a growth stimulus for the developed world.
The complexities of globalization show peculiar characteristics on a cultural level, where the needs of local identities come face to face with the pressure from global cultures, often colliding with each other. Within this dynamic, cultural policies act as a filter between external and internal cultures. This filter can open – and even work as an attractive force –
or it can remain more or less closed, selecting the most convenient relationships with the world based on the policies' objectives. Among many interesting cases, I have chosen two which I regard as particularly emblematic: the first refers to a great country with a historically closed past, currently struggling with a tumultuous economic growth; the second involves a modern city seeking to strengthen its global image by challenging world records.
THE CHINESE DREAM
From a cultural perspective, China is the country where everything changes, but everything stays the same: even though in the past few decades the country has witnessed dramatic reformation from an economic standpoint, at its core, the government's attitude has remained resistant to change.
Until the late 70s, China's cultural policies had been quite consistent: all forms of art were seen as a tool to promote the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and were expected to help attain its political goals; every museum, cinema or theatre was state-owned and state-funded. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that cultural production in China has always suffered from an extensive political interference.
Ever since the country opened to the market economy in the late 70s, the economic potential of culture began to be more and more recognized: private cultural establishments started to arise, alongside independent artists and writers. Chinese cultural policies started focusing on developing the cultural industries as a force for economic growth; however the government never let go of its instrumentalist approach towards culture, and continued to maintain strict political control over cultural messages. And while the new Socialist China claimed to be open to the “global civilization dialogue”, their main goal seem to be to strengthen the influence of Chinese culture on the rest of the world rather than to establish a genuine cultural exchange. As a result, culture in China is still very much constrained into ideological and economic frameworks.This tendency does not seem to be softening; if anything, it is being reinforced by Chinese authorities. In a recent speech about cultural development, current Chinese president Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of a renaissance of the Chinese nation and the pursuit of the Chinese dream, which entails outshining the West, surpassing the materialistic Western culture and emancipating the country from Western definitions of modernity. To achieve this goal, the president is inviting artists and intellectuals to make the renaissance of the Chinese nation the central theme of their work, encouraging them to fulfill their‘sacred duty’ to spread authentic ‘Chinese values’ and promote ‘the Chinese spirit’.
So the current approach to cultural policy is based on the belief that an external ‘spiritual vacuum’ is threatening China's return to national greatness. With regard to education, the Westernization of local universities has been one of China's concerns, particularly in recent years: education officials have devised constricting policies aimed at forbidding teaching materials that propagate Western values. This is highly contradictory in this historical moment, if you consider that an increasing number of Chinese pupils are studying abroad; this is particularly true for the Chinese elite – in fact, Xi Jinping's own daughter studied at Harvard under a pseudonym.
Contrary to the right-wing populist leaders in the US and Europe, the Chinese President may be open to economic globalization, but he is also committed to rejecting cultural globalization and the undesired external influences that come with it.
If in the case of China cultural policies tend to close the country off to external influences (or at least attempt to do so), what happens in other places? From a cultural standpoint, the urban context has always been particularly interesting to observe, as it is in cities that we can experience the peak of interaction between peoples and cultures.This isn't a new phenomenon: cities have been at the core of global cultural exchange since ancient times. Just to give an example, consider that in the III century b.C. the Egyptian city of Alexandria was a melting pot of people coming from all over the Mediterranean and the East, attracting scholars, philosophers, artists and scientists which led to technological discoveries and the emergence of schools of thought that spread throughout the whole known world.Therefore it is fair to say that back then Alexandria was a truly cosmopolitan city, like many world cities today, although with notable differences.
Today, the world is undergoing massive urbanization: the number of the urban population grows by nearly 60m people every year, and it is expected to continue on this trajectory. As a consequence of globalization, c i t i e s around the world now compete for investment, tourists, talent, business relocation and much more. In this context, cultural policies have been focused on using culture to brand (or re-brand) cities in order to make them more appealing:this often controversial phenomenon is known as city branding. And while some places might want to renew a decadent or undesirable image – there are others, particularly newly built cities – that might use culture to build their own identity and affirm their place on the global stage.
EXTRA LARGE SCALE REGENERATION: ABU DHABI'S SAADIYAT ISLAND
When we talk about culture-based city branding, Abu Dhabi makes a very interesting example. Over the past few years, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates has received a lot of attention – and criticism – in the art world, as it embarked on an incredibly large scale development project: the Saadiyat Cultural District.
Saadiyat Island translates as 'Island of Happiness' and is located 500m off the coast of AbuDhabi. The highlights of the cultural district include five major, brand new cultural facilities: amaritime museum; a performing arts centre; a national museum; and t w o franchised museums: the Guggenheim, a renowned contemporary art institution with several museums worldwide, notably New York, Venice and Bilbao; and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the very first Louvre museum outside of Paris.These spectacular buildings are all designed by some of the most famous architects in the world. All of them are Pritzker Prize winners, which is often referred to as the Nobel prize of architecture. Due to financial difficulties caused by lower oil prices and the turbulence of the Arab Spring, the opening of most of these venues continues to be postponed; the Louvre however has finally opened its doors to the public earlier this month, after a 5 year delay.The 27 billion dollars development plan on Saadiyat Island also includes several leisureattractions, including a beach club, a golf club, luxury hotels and high-end restaurants.Abu Dhabi's need to foster the arts and culture was mainly motived by two factors: the first is to diversify the Emirate's economy, which is dangerously reliant on its oilrevenue; the second is to facilitate global dialogue, using culture to reinforce social cohesion and bridge the gaps of understanding with the rest of the world, which was considered particularly important in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
The 23 galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi – which has been described as a universal museum – host over 600 works: from Renaissance paintings to Monet to Ai Weiwei's contemporary
sculptures. The collection is breath-taking and spans millennia; to emphasize the museum'smission as a symbol of tolerance and cultural connectivity, one of the galleries is dedicated to ancient religious texts of some of the main religions worldwide, including a Gothic Bible, a leaf from the Blue Quran, a Pentateuch, alongside texts from Buddhism and Taoism. With this project, the Emirates are sending a strong message: not only are they an
open society, they are also asserting their power in the global world. Arguably, this city has adopted a very open approach to culture as a tool for cultural diplomacy; the president and ruler of Abu Dhabi has pointed out many times how the cultural district represents a milestone in international cooperation, bridging global cultures and strengthening international dialogue: and to this end, the museums play a very important role: Abu Dhabi signed a deal with the Louvre in 2007 establishing a 30-year art-borrowing agreement with the Parisian institution, alongside other French museums, which represents an unprecedented cultural exchange between the two nations. Abu Dhabi also paid $525 million dollars to be able to use the Louvre's name, causing plenty of controversies in France, where leading figures in the art world accused the French institution of “selling its soul.Based on what we have observed, one could assume that not only is Abu Dhabi
striving to foster intercultural dialogue and cooperation; it is also adopting Western models of cultural organizations such as the Louvre, as well as culture-based regeneration strategies that have been widely used in many Western countries (the well known example of theGuggenheim Museum in Bilbao springs to mind.) On the other hand, this incredibly large-scale development project essentially bypassed public debate in the decision-making process, which makes one question how these institutions will establish a dialogue with the local citizens. Without a strong engagement and fostering of the local arts scene, one of the main concerns is that the Saadiyat Cultural District will mainly serve as a consumer-based project, as opposed to the symbol of global cultural exchange which it intends to be.
It is worth mentioning that labour conditions on the Island of Happiness have also raised concerns: advocacy group Human Rights Watch, alongside Amnesty International and The Guardian newspaper have reported the severe exploitation of thousands of South-east Asian migrant workers on Saadiyat's building sites. As a result, labour rights activists have been
banned from the Emirates; the same thing happened to several artists who had joined forces to demand labour reform. For instance in 2015, Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad – whose work was actually supposed to be displayed in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – was
denied entry for unspecified security reasons and sent back to the US the following day. It is clear that such behaviour is highly contradictory. Banning and deporting artists is certainly not in line with the supposedly open and inclusive nature of the cultural district.
At this point, we need to ask ourselves what is it that we want cultural policies to achieve today. Certainly we want cultural policy to support the preservation of local identities, while still being open to external influences; however this cultural balance is anything but easy to achieve. With China, we have observed significant efforts to protect local culture and values from the westernizing effects of globalization. While preserving local cultural expressions can be seen as praiseworthy, this protectionist attitude is also intertwined with other questionable motives, such as the political suppression of ideas; it is also very debatable whether China is actually succeeding at closing the cultural filter; after all there are plenty of signs of western culture which swept into the country since China opened to foreign trade.
Can the Chinese government really cherry-pick what it wants to welcome into its borders and leave everything else on the other side of its metaphorical Great Wall? This is rather unlikely, especially at a time when China is – economically – very much open to the rest of the world.
By contrast, in the case of Abu Dhabi (although with some differences the same thing could be said of other cities, such as Singapore) the opposite trend comes up: cultural policies tend to be externally-orientated, focusing on the city's global profile and international political ties. In a world where nationalism and fundamentalism are soaring, “sending a message of tolerance through culture and “encouraging a global cultural conversation”, as the Emirati authorities put it, can be seen in a positive light; these are commendable goals, and with an improved dialogue with the local audiences and arts scene, they may well succeed. However their strategy seems to be lacking in terms of sustainability: as things stand, there doesn't seem to be many initiatives aimed at encouraging the local arts scene to thrive. In order to make the Saadiyat project successful in the long term, both a trained workforce and a vibrant arts scene are needed. However, in the Emirates arts and culture-based programmes are limited, and there aren't significant incentives – such as affordable studios – for artists to choose this city as their home.
Going back to the previous examples, and to conclude, while China seems to be building a new metaphorical barrier around its borders to “protect” its culture from a Western contamination, in Abu Dhabi's case the risk is that the emphasis on the city's global image
and potential lack of an inclusive and sustainable strategy could alienate local citizens
from the cultural district, therefore building this invisible wall within its own urban and social structure. In other words, Saadiyat Island's Cultural District could represent the beginning of a genuine dialogue between different cultures; but whether this cultural openness is just a facade remains to be seen.
Overall, adopting an open approach to other cultures is not only desirable but necessary in cultural policy - at least as much as revitalizing local cultures; however it is also important to recognize that local voices need to be heard and integrated starting from the decision-making process; this is an essential premise so that international cultural exchange can genuinely flourish.”