Using cultural and disciplinary difference as a driver

IFICAN Debate: Beyond the Eye of Reason


St.Georges House, Windsor Castle 8th June 2011

Transcrip of Provocation by Dr Tiffany Jenkins

download as pdf

Dr Tiffany Jenkins is a sociologist and cultural commentator. Her research explores contested authority in the cultural sector, concepts of cultural value, and cultural property issues – especially repatriation and conflicts over cultural artefacts. These interests are underpinned by a study of authority and how today it has to continually justify itself and is constantly questioned and contested. Her research also examines the symbolic meanings and strategic use of human remains, and how the body becomes a locale for so many cultural, political, and ethical debates. She has written on the shifting relationship between museums and the sacred, and is the author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority, published by Routledge in 2010.
Tiffany is director of the arts and society programme at the Institute of Ideas and a committee member of the Battle of Ideas festival. She is co-convener of the British Sociological Association study group – Sociologists Outside Academia – which aims to raise the status of sociological work undertaken beyond an academic context, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce.
Tiffany is a frequent contributor to the broadsheet press on arts and cultural issues.

Tiffany Jenkins

In 2005, at the British Museum, once home to enlightenment thinking, a significant development occurred in the history of the institution. A collection of wooden tablets were wrapped in purple velvet and hidden in the basement. Curators, conservators and even the director of the museum, Neil McGregor, were not permitted to view them.
The tablets are 'tabots' sacred objects in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the most important of the 500 or so priceless Magdala treasures, looted by Britain from Ethiopia in 1868 and now held in this country – some in fact in the castle next to us. The tabots are regarded by Ethiopian Christians as representing the original Ark of the Covenant. In religious practice, only senior members of the Ethiopian church clergy are permitted to see them.
Today the British Museum’s tabots remain in storage because it has agreed never to display them or allow its curators to handle them – the director still doesn't go down into the basement . So there they sit, nobody can see them; curators, researchers, the public or even the believers themselves because they are after all in a basement in Bloomsbury. This isn't an isolated case. The code of ethics issued by the museums association argues that this practice should happen across the board. It commands professionals to (and I quote) 'Consider restricting access to certain specified items particularly those of ceremonial or religious importance where unrestricted access may cause offence to actual or cultural descendents'.
Indeed, in the last ten years objects considered to hold religious significance have been taken off display. In certain cases women aren't allowed to see certain objects (it's usually the women who aren't allowed to see certain objects as in the churinga in the National Museum of Scotland). So they're being hidden away. They're being hidden away in the name of respect, in the name of helping communities understand one another. And what I wanted to say tonight is that this is a warning. Knowledge will be restricted and art will be hidden if we ask art to heal religious wounds.
So I want to state my case very clearly. I want to argue that art cannot heal religious wounds. Not only can it not, asking it to do so will create problems. It will create problems for artists – commanding what they do, compromising their autonomy and curtailing their freedom. But I also want to argue that the suggestion that art heals religious wounds misunderstands the nature of conflicts today, creating confusion and avoiding political and social problems. To make this first case, the first point I want to make is that the arts must always be free from political direction. And secondly, I will question the assumption here that religion is at the heart of contemporary conflicts, which I think is implicit in the title.
So, to my first point, the arts must be free from political direction. Now I'm not naïve. The relationship between art and politics has never been straightforward. The arts have been used by leaders throughout history to bolster their status and authority, and to lend weight to concepts such as ‘the nation’ and 'British'. Some of the greatest works of art has been for religious and devotional purposes, demanding the devotion of one god. Artists, in turn, have used their talents to promote different agendas and to take sides in conflicts and revolutions. It can be very political – look at Picasso's Guernica. But while it may be a catalyst to political action, while culture is a factor in struggle, it is usually a subordinate one. And even then it can just end up as propaganda. Look at the environmental art of today – very clear political message urging us usually to restrain ourselves to come to the worlds attention and do something about the environment. Thing is though, its just not very good art. I am yet to be convinced of a good successful piece.
So despite the attempts to use art, in many ways, it cannot ‘do’ anything, even with the intention of the artist or the patron. This is it not to under appreciate it’s power. When it goes beyond propaganda and its original use to become great art what it does is speak a truth – not a scientific truth, as you outlined quite rightly. It's not something that can be tested in a laboratory, but a truth about human experience, human feeling and a way of understanding the world. It can show us the world in a way we know is true but wouldn't have necessarily thought ourselves. And when it is great it remains exhilarating seen hundreds of years later, across cultures. Great art transcends the very particular moment in which it was created and it goes beyond the particular ideas of the artist in that time and place.
Whilst there have always been attempts to use the artists across time for particular ends, I would argue that in the last ten years they have been asked to play a more directly political role. They have been instructed to raise self-esteem, build community and contribute to social inclusion. They were even called centres for social change by the DCMS under the last administration. And now tonight we have the proposition that they can heal religious wounds.
Undoubtedly we are all involved in the arts for a reason. We think they can make some sort of difference. We know they can have a positive impact on people’s lives but it is dubious how far these effects can go in transforming society. And there's a major problem with this approach and that is the instrumentalism of these trends tends to measure the value of art in social terms and it can shunt aside the more intrinsic quality of the work. The pressure on the arts to be socially useful means the artist is less free to determine the content of the work they want to pursue. I think this is a backward development which curtails freedom, curtails experimentation, curtails art that may want to hurt and harm, but may be brilliant nonetheless. The eye of artist is directed by outsiders in search of outcomes. So I think it is a very bad thing.
Turning to my second point. The premise tonight – that art can heal religious wounds – I think has an assumption at its heart that religious wounds are at the core of contemporary conflict. This is a fairly mainstream position. But let’s just think about this idea. For there is a danger that conflict will be understood as something that is simply caused by difference - cultural difference, religious difference. I think this is simplistic and it is at the expense of a more structural analysis, which examines the different state interests, peoples interests that may be conflictual - why leaders take their people to war, or why the people may want to overthrow their leaders.
It also, I think, alters the solution that is presented. Let us not forget that this is interfering in politics and just because it is art doesn't mean it doesn't have consequences in its political intervention. Instead maybe over overthrowing a regime, such as that in Egypt or Lybia, and the introduction of democracy by the people, instead, this could mean that we just give them a little bit of art to realise that ‘it’s okay to be different’, that we should be more ‘understanding’ and learn to ‘get along’. I think this could endorse the status quo. Just 'get on' with each other and 'it'll be fine'. Or we see threats where they may not exist, such as the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt. It failed to take hold despite such fears. This naive approach to international relations not only obscures political analysis; it also situates blame in religious identities, which are essentialised. Using art as cultural diplomacy, in this way reifies religious difference and leads to a depoliticised understanding of conflict.
Of course you may think I'm completely blind to what's going on today, to the apparent rise of religion. Just look at America where apparently more than 50% of people believe in the literal word of Genesis and the spectre that haunts our age is radical Islam, 9/11, 7/7, Madrid and Bali.
But I would suggest however, that rather than seeing the return of religion, we're witnessing something quite different in its name. The embrace of contemporary religion has little to do with God and theology, but is bound up instead in secular notions of identity. What I think we have seen is the collapse of ideology and the rise of a discourse and politics of religion and identity.
Let me try and explain that in the minute and a half I have left. The broad ideological divides that have characterised politics in the previous two hundred years have clearly crumbled. Politics has become less about competing visions of the kind of society that people want than a debate about how to manage the existing system. And I think what you have got as the meaning of politics has become squeezed is that people have come to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. Social solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms as collective action in pursuit of political ideals but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The politics of ideology, in other words, gave way to the politics of identity.
It is against this background that we talk of the rise of religion. But I think religion itself has been transformed by these changes.
A religion comprises both a set of beliefs and a complex of social institutions, traditions and cultures that bind people in a special relationship to a particular conception of the sacred. What is striking about religion today, in the form that it is taking, is that religious belief is being wrenched apart from institutions, traditions and cultures.
Faith, as the academic Charles Taylor has observed, has become disembedded from its historical culture and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’. Forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and routed in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the 'Me Generation'. So, what we see is not the return of religion in any traditional sense, but what the French sociologist Oliver Roy has called ‘religiosity’, a sensibility not to be found just in forms of faith, but also crucially in new forms of secular politics. As Roy says, studying radical Islam, what we need is a transverse understanding. Exploring it not in terms of specific Islamic history, but in comparison to other forms of contemporary faith; of new age philosophies of other identity movements and contemporary forms of political radicalisation.
What that basically means is that we should stop asking 'what is it about religion that makes people believe and behave in certain ways?', and engaging with them on that basis. And instead we should ask 'What is it about contemporary society that leads people – the faithful and the secular – to believe or act in certain ways?'. I think we should focus on contemporary society and political life for the answers and solutions rather than mystifying religion as a problem that artists should address.
I think we need to be very cautious about the idea of engaging with people on the basis of their religion, through art. What we end up doing is effectively making things worse. Because what you effectively do is you create a greater consciousness, you effectively create those wounds you refer to, for that is the basis on which you're treating people, that they're wounded, so they compete for how wounded they actually are. You end up creating a greater consciousness, for example, amongst Muslims that they are Muslims first and foremost, rather than citizens and that they are defined by this in isolation from anyone else.
So in conclusion, in case it wasn't clear, I think engaging with people on the basis of their religion through art to heal wounds could exacerbate a politicised identity along the lines of religiosity rather than engagement with people as citizens of the world. It would encourage groups to compete with each other on the basis of faith for recognition and it would avoid a more certain political understanding of very serious contemporary problems. There are very serious real problems that we need to address and this is the wrong way to go about it. And let me emphasise that with the increased attention given to artworks as agents of cultural diplomacy, it is likely that art will become more politicised, it will be subject to more controversy and claims-making. By taking the path of healing religious wounds through art, arts organisations will be the focus of all sorts of activism. And I think we've already seen the consequences where in fact organisations have internalised their own fatwar. In 2005 for instance, Tate Britain canceled plans to display John Latham’s work ‘God Is Great’ as part of the 2005 British Art Displays exhibition because they were worried it could upset Muslims after London’s 7th July bombings. And actually nobody had complained. They could have actually, and been entirely successful, but the art organisation anticipated and took it off display just in case it caused offence. And that is the situation we will have.
Therein lies repression and censorship, not enlightenment.
That is why we should leave art to be art and not ask it to heal so called religious wounds.
Thank you.

Supported by Arts Council England, London Centre for Arts and Creative Exchange and St.Georges House