“The right not to conform, to be different and get away with it, is the right of the most privileged groups in society.” So writes Richard Dyer in White (1997), and it presents him with a problem: in trying to analyse, describe, grasp, define what it is to be white, he finds himself confronted with a seemingly endless variety. Whiteness, it seems, can be anything in general and need be nothing in particular; it is “individuated, multifarious and graded”. Whiteness can encompass difference, non-conformity, multiplicity, without being compromised by it.
Indeed, this capacity to be different is generally experienced not so much as a cultural compromise but as an expansion of individual horizons. Take the example of (white western) modern art. Some of its principles are based on this individual right to be different: it disrupts tradition, it encourages exploration, discovery, breaking new ground, opening new horizons.
Historically, one impetus for this has been the encounter of those artists with “other” cultures from around the world. Examples are well known, or at least well documented – Picasso inspired by African masks, Debussy entranced by the Javanese gamelan, Ruth St Denis’s “nautch dances” and so on – and it is not my intention here to rehearse the evidence that modern art is not simply white and western, but hybrid and “mixed-race”. My point is that this encounter was a tremendous source of creative energy, a vital inspiration for artistic vision, an opportunity to transcend convention – challenging, even liberating.
Modern art is based on a metaphor of travel: journeying into the unknown, expanding one’s horizons. And it is at this juncture that it intersects with ideas of empire.
Modern art is based on a metaphor of travel: journeying into the unknown, expanding one’s horizons. And it is at this juncture that it intersects with ideas of empire; after all, those words I’ve used – exploration, discovery, new ground, new horizons – apply equally well both to the values of modern art and to those of imperialism. Furthermore, as Richard Dyer argues, they are also part of the discourse of whiteness, with its capacity to incorporate difference and change.
But imperialism and travel are not just associated with whiteness, for the legacy of empire has also produced another direction of travel: the migration of non-whites into the west. A very different picture emerges here, as Dyer also notes, a discourse in which non-white people are frequently defined by, confined and often reduced to their race. From within these terms, to be different from what is seen as racially appropriate is not to expand one’s horizons, but to betray one’s culture, to “become westernised”, to lose one’s roots. The metaphor of travel here gives rise to ideas of separation, marginality, alienation, straying from home, being cast adrift. From this side, the cultural encounter is often experienced not as an expansion of opportunity, but as a threat to identity, a loss of authenticity, or a dilution, a weakening of cultural tradition.
the cultural encounter is often experienced not as an expansion of opportunity, but as a threat to identity, a loss of authenticity
Of course there are very real reasons for this, not simply metaphorical ones – not least the context of institutional racism and cultural marginalisation. One response to these, an important and a strategic one, has been the valuation of heritage as an affirmation of self, a sense of belonging gained through pride in cultural, religious, social or artistic traditions.
On one level, this is a positive step in asserting the right to be different, not to conform: to claim the validity of being, for example, culturally Indian, but nationally British. But on another level, to rely solely on cultural traditions for one’s sense of self is itself a form of conformity – hidebound, bound by skin – for its flip side is a defensive, exclusionist conservatism which defines ‘culturally Indian’ within the narrow terms of tradition.
Yet travel is an integral part of the experience of diaspora. The expanded opportunities that travel can afford – opening new horizons, breaking new ground, discovery, multiplicity, diversity – need to be incorporated into that experience as fundamental to it, not as a compromise of identity but as a source of creative energy and inspiration.
All too often, though, it seems that the creation of modern art by diaspora artists, with all the experimentation, exploration, and disruption of tradition that involves, produces anxieties over identity, is felt as a dilution, a loss, a betrayal, a westernisation, a whitening. We – white, non-white and all shades between – need to expand our horizons of cultural identity to be more inclusive, so that it is not just whiteness which we privilege with the right not to conform, to be different and get away with it, to be individuated, multifarious and graded.