Pluralism in Art or Interculturalism?
The idea of pluralism as it has been used in this conference raises a number of questions, not because its meaning is unclear (indeed it is quite explicit) but because it seems to me that to apply such a concept to art and culture today is to move backwards to a notion which used to be in vogue in the 1970s, that of 'multiculturalism'. It was used mostly by politicians, and it meant that culture had to be diverse, plural and that each citizen, and of course each artist, had to recognize the existence of a diversity of surrounding cultures and eventually take them into account. It implied most of all a respect for the other, the foreigner, the immigrant, for those with a different background, whether political, religious, economic or artistic.
Although the concept was used in a positive sense, it led to a juxtaposition of cultures (the so-called 'Canadian mosaic') rather than to an interaction of cultures. The notion of multiculturalism was subsequently replaced by 'interculturalism' which I will not try to define in any detail, suffice it to say that it gave rise to something much deeper and more interesting than multiculturalism: the idea of a mutual friction of cultures, an interaction, an exchange between cultures.
I will therefore refer in this paper to interculturalism rather than to cultural pluralism. The former presupposes the latter but with the added awareness that different cultures never sit quietly side by side, they always intermingle or fight among each other.
What then is the role of art in this broader perspective? How can art serve as a model for the integration of diverse cultures? This is the question that is posed. I will try to provide an answer based on my own experience in the theatre, with reference to a number of experiments conducted by Quebec artists. These experiments are not new or particularly unique but they can serve as pointers to the kind of exploration with which we are concerned.
Obviously, interest in other cultures is not a recent phenomenon, either in Europe, America, Asia or Africa. As we have seen in this conference, the development of mass media, the increase in travel, the fairs and festivals which give access to different forms of art, have allowed an existing interest to grow. Indeed, it is a modern version of what has existed for centuries: whether it's Jesuits writing about their travels in China and India, Montesquieu, Artaud, Stanislavski, Brecht, Mnouchkine, or the testimonies of countless authors about the East. Modern art has been influenced from the very start by arts of other cultures, in painting (Picasso and African Art) as well as in dance and music (Martha Graham, Cage, Kaprow). When theatre artists such as Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Liz Lecompte, Reza Abdoh, Peter Sellars or Lee Breuer borrow artistic practices and traditions from other cultures, they are simply building on what has always been the basis of art: its ability to absorb the various influences that feed it and allow it to grow.
Curiosity about other cultures is therefore not recent, no more than the practice of adapting and borrowing. This has always been the essence of art. What is new, however, is the process of awareness which is connected with the phenomenon as well as to the theory and critical analysis that take it as its object. The need to understand the reasons for such transfers, crossings, contributions and exchanges seems to have become inescapable.
What is interesting about art is that it is located precisely at the intersection of the individuality, the subjectivity of the artist and the plurality of the surrounding cultures. A work of art effectuates the osmosis of these two entities. It allows the artist to reinterpret the reality of life, to show, answer and question its contradictions. In other words, to bring to light some of the hidden aspects of society as well as of him- or herself.
To achieve this the artist has to analyze and establish a cultural position. To reflect on their own history and background, investigate and analyze their origins so as to establish their own cultural position and thereby identify possible meeting points: in other words, one must clarify one's own analytical and creative context. This is the micro-social dimension.
A work of art occurs precisely at the junction of these two entities: the macro-social and the micro-social.
In the field of art under review here, the principal requirement of interculturalism is that it allows us, spectators and art analysts, to re-evaluate our own position in history in relation to the specific work, to re-examine the artistic event against its own background, contextualize the work based on the way it integrates cultural themes or artistic manifestations, and to reassess our relationship to exterior influences.
How does this loan from one culture to the other work? Let me start by quoting Lee Breuer:
'I am desperately trying to develop an overview of what it means to be working interculturally in the theatre. There are a lot of underviews. They fall in the pattern of either I love the world and the world loves me, let's all get together and party interculturally, or, the notion of Western cultural imperialism - that we are ripping off every cultural icon we can get hold of, and then selling it.'1
What this quotation shows is that bringing different cultures together is neither simple nor neutral. It has its own particular significance. And the way it is done also has a particular significance. Thus any statement on interculturalism (or cultural pluralism) is political and requires that we define our position.
Because interculturalism is novel and therefore raises new issues, we must reassess the legitimacy of the process. Interculturalism takes for granted that the simple act of borrowing, even if it is artistically justifiable, expresses a previously-determined political stand. It implies that a close look be taken at how those loans come to be integrated into the target culture and how they continue to relate to their source culture, the aim being to obtain a real pattern of exchange between cultures.
Two types of reaction to the process of cultural pluralism and to interculturalism are identifiable, at least in the domain of the arts: the first is 'euphoric' and the second 'dysphoric'. The first group - the euphoric - describes the bases of an emerging global culture: this is the position of artists such as Eugenio Barba and Peter Brook, who called at the Fortieth Congress of the UNESCO International Theatre Institute for
'a theatre that is based on the merging of traditions (including the mix of actors from different cultures and languages in performance) where audiences are confronted with the specific as well as the universal truth by virtue of performances that blend various cultures'2
To promote cultural pluralism (interculturalism) along these lines means to acknowledge that it is beneficial to broaden our mental attitudes, that it makes us more aware of our neighbours' otherness, hence better able to listen to them. Many theatre artists fall into that category: Robert Lepage, Peter Sellars, Ping Chong, Reza Abdoh, to name just a few.
The second type of reaction - the dysphoric - which should not be underestimated, is the reaction of critics who see culturalism as representing the danger of a ruling culture unduly appropriating other - often 'minority' - cultures and traditions without offering anything in return. As Carl Weber states (although I could also quote Una Chauduri, Rustom Bharucha, Daryl Chin and Richard Schechner):
'What seems to be ignored in all this blissfully utopian thinking are the realities of the contemporary 'transculturation business'. As pointed out earlier, the international theatre or performance festivals are just as much trade fairs as cultural events. [...]
Large numbers of transcultural projects, trying to combine, fuse, blend - or whatever you wish to call it - features of the indigenous with those of an alien culture, arrive at performances which use the alien component as a spicy sauce to make some old familiar gruel palatable again. [...]
They seem to have proceeded with little if any regard for the historicity of the chosen material. Yet, awareness of a given foreign culture's historic and social conditions, and their inscription in all works of art is paramount in our context. The neglect of such conditions, and of the ideology inscribed through them, inevitably leads to an incongruous mix of foreign and native elements which in the final analysis 'refuse to fuse', adding up to a sum which is much less than its components'.3
It is impossible to refute this objection and to dismiss the concern it expresses by simply stating that borrowing has always been the way art has developed. On the contrary, it should encourage us to treat the intercultural phenomenon more carefully, to reflect on what it implies at the social, political and aesthetic levels. We must therefore be lucid, prudent, and re-assess our behaviour.
Lee Breuer wonders why it has suddenly become necessary to integrate other cultures. He asks
'why this thrust toward integration of cultures even exists. For whose benefit? To whose advantage? Who is saying "Let's integrate?" We've got to allow for some cynicism in looking at the ultimate purpose of interculturalism.' Breuer adds, however, 'I also feel deeply involved with the side that says cultures can be shared without its power being taken away in the process of the exchange'4
In other words, duality and ambiguity always exist; any study of interculturalism must take this into account or else ignore a significant aspect of the phenomenon. It follows that studies of artistic interculturalism must be carried out within a 'political' context. If one insists on protecting the integrity of art outside its relationship with society, then art might miss out on the real challenges.
Since I have been asked to discuss the Canadian, and more specifically the Quebecois experience, I shall begin by stating that in Quebec - and Canada as well, of course - there has always been an intercultural dimension. It is often called a land of immigration. Close to the United States, and yet different from its southern neighbour, Canada has always nurtured a distinct culture.
Art in Quebec reflects this cultural pluralism: there are a number of multicultural phenomena, expressed individually by specific ethnic groups (Greeks, Haitians, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Latin-Americans, Italians), or as an ensemble incorporating an integration of several cultures, races and colours (like Gilles Maheu and Carbone 14, Robert Lepage and Ex-Machina, Paula de Vasconcelos and Pigeon International, Jean Asselin and Omnibus, Alberto Kurapel and Arts Exilio). It is impossible to discuss cultural pluralism in Quebec without mentioning these aspects.
It should not be forgotten that in addition to imported multiculturalism there is also a domestic brand of multiculturalism, after all, Canadian identity is composed of two linguistic groups: French and English. Harmony does not always prevail in the relationship between the two groups, but they co-exist through a mutual - and sometimes unnatural - tolerance. There is also a third group whose linguistic identity is founded on cultural identity, that of native culture: the aboriginal peoples of our continent. This is also often forgotten.
Do all these combined cultures produce cultural pluralism? That depends on how one defines cultural pluralism.
If it means a pacific co-existence of diverse artistic traditions springing from different cultures: Asian, African, South-American, North-American then, yes: there are many instances of artistic experiments of that kind.
These are either texts written by recent immigrants who showcase their own culture and present it to the public or artistic events bringing together on stage artists from diverse cultural backgrounds.
1. In the first instance, the texts display the authors' own traditions and the customs to which they had to adapt upon their arrival. They highlight what they had to renounce and the problems of getting used to a new country and a new life. Examples include Marco Micone, of Italian descent, and three Lebanese writers: Abla Farhoud, Wadji Mouawad and Khaldoun Iman
These playwrights present intercultural themes on stage for a public that often has no awareness of the issues. The main interest of these works is that they introduce the public to other cultures, those of immigrants who have been uprooted and are now forced to adapt to their audience's country.
Although these approaches are interesting, they should be treated with caution. These writings should not be presented as a way of getting to know other cultures as exotic, slightly foreign objects. This can be avoided only if the text is strong, if the presentation of the themes is backed by real talent.
With the present vogue for interculturalism, various government programs are designed to stimulate intercultural events and help promote Quebec's immigrant authors. Although this is entirely legitimate, care should be taken that the same criteria of quality be applied whatever the playwright's origins and whatever the themes presented.
This category should also include art representing native culture, such as the work of Yves Sioui Durand, a Canadian Indian whose productions are based on ancestral mythology and incorporate rituals from his own traditions. These productions are often staged at festivals and although not without interest, are less relevant to the discussion of interculturalism. Turning the work of art into an exotic object results in segregation: the spectator perceives these productions as invitations to an initiation into native culture rather than as artistic objects with a specific artistic value.
2. The second instance, that of artistic experiment, involves bringing together on the same stage and within the same performance artists from different cultural backgrounds: as in Gilles Maheu and Marianne Ackerman's plays which use both French and English in the same performance.
These productions involve a cultural integration which underlines the fundamental duality of Canadian Society, a Janus-like figure in which the two cultures co-exist without ever truly integrating. It is surprising, however, that these manifestations remain so limited in a field of art in which the violence of the divisions is reduced.
The productions do not alter the basic duality of French-speaking society, but by showing both groups together, working side by side in a dialogue and dealing with a common work, they can change the audience's perception and acknowledge not only the difference of the other but also their inescapable presence. They offer an accurate mirror of the state of society, and force the public to see things differently exercising a powerful influence on the evolution of mentality.
3. Some artists extend this use of the two official Canadian languages to include others such as Chinese, Hebrew and Japanese, as in Robert Lepage's performances The Seven Branches of the Ota River or The Dragon Trilogy. Along with the use of the language comes the integration of many elements from other local cultures that have more or less recently arrived: Chinese, but also Spanish, Latin-American, French culture. Again the Dragon Trilogy is a good example, a lengthy saga of two young girls' lives, beginning with their childhood in one of Montreal's chinatowns. The characters have different ethnic backgrounds: Chinese, French, Quebecois, English.
The Seven branches of the Ota River is a long story of an American soldier falling in love with a Japanese woman and the people they meet. Their romance is mixed with stories about a young Czech girl who escapes a concentration camp and becomes a star while friends of her's are dying of aids in Amsterdam. Of course there are many more characters, including a Buddhist monk, a Canadian journalist, an American landlady.
Lepage's plays encapsulate the present state of the world. A stage on which cultures intermingle and interchange. To judge from a work of art like this, geographic frontiers do not exist for people most of the time, except as a political requirement when arriving in another country. What Lepage's work does is to make us familiar with the 'different', with the 'other', with the 'alternative'. Different cultures suddenly become familiar and legitimate. The various characters, although their deep differences are bared, seem to have much in common with each member of the audience.
What Lepage and others borrow at this level are stories - elements from other cultures woven into the narrative fabric. Since this form of interculturalism ends up creating a work of its own, it goes beyond the cultural divisions and integrates differences. It becomes transcultural. This transculturation probably explains the phenomenal success of these stagings, not only in Quebec, but in other European and non-European countries as well: Sweden, Great Britain, France, Japan.
4. There is a fourth and last example of intercultural practices. It relates to the staging of artists from different cultural backgrounds by Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Sellars, Peter Brook, Reza Book and others over recent years. They all practice cultural pluralism in their own companies. The actors are very specifically linked to their origins. They retain their accents and much of what makes them different. This may sometimes make it difficult for the audience to understand, as is often the case in performances directed by Peter Brook, or as when Ariane Mnouchkine staged Les Atrides in Montreal. One member of the audience who mentioned this difference (in accents) aroused Mnouchkine's anger. She considered the remark unwelcome, rude and untrue. One of the objects of the show is to highlight our own biased view when we look or listen to theatre. This biased perspective we have when viewing artists on stage is an expression of the same bias we have in everyday life.
No wonder that any effort to erase these frictions and to present the plurality of cultures and respect for their differences as normal is not only necessary and welcome but inescapable in today's art. The artist has a very specific responsibility here.
There are many other forms of cultural pluralism that I have not touched on here because they concern the practice of art itself: i.e. borrowings from other cultures, oriental dramatic techniques, such as rituals and dances, with an underlying influence based on oriental philosophy and spirituality. These should be studied separately in connection with the work of art into which they are integrated. There is no doubt that these practices contribute to cultural pluralism but they go far beyond that: they change the way we actually do art. These influences have always been the essence of art: they escape any political framework.