The voice of cultural critics is needed more than ever. Not least in present day Scandinavia where parties with anti immigrant politics are respectively the second and third largest in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, propagating values of ethnopluralism and ethnocentrism. In cultural institutions one of the answers to the state of things is to engage in programmes focusing on diversity, inviting artists with a diverse cultural background and giving them a voice.
To me, an artist who has spent his entire adult life in Denmark, cultural programmes with a focus on diversity have been seen before. With this text I will try to shed light on what I find as being a continually challenging issue connected to this theme, offering my view on how we contribute to produce certain structures when we, both as artists and institutions, are involved in these programmes of diversity. My intension is to inspire and promote reflection and debate on the subject – in a milieu devoted to challenging on-going trends.
I will start with a short account from my personal experiences in the early 90’s. It was one of the first times I observed the Danish Red Cross staff’s lack of experience with what might have been their first time dealing professionally with people from outside their own culture. The meeting was with ex Yugoslavian refugees, and it took place in a Danish asylum centre in the town of Kolding. Over the years the Red Cross staff made an effort, with the best intensions in mind, to initiate a number of programmes that were meant to make the living conditions in the asylum centre more bearable. This was how the programme of “satellite families” was born: A concept based on the idea that families from the asylum centre should get the opportunity to meet local native Danish families. The programme was scheduled in the way that the appointed Danish and ex Yugoslavian families would visit each other alternately once a week at their respective private residences. What happened was usually that on the first visit at the asylum centre the Danish families would get a guided tour. The result was – quite expected perhaps – that almost all of them would react with compassion and sadness, confirming their new Yugoslavian friends in how distressing their conditions at the centre were. The rest of the time the families spent together was normally used tasting different national dishes while talking about each other’s cultural similarities and differences.
The interpretation of such an initiative would in today’s media – and in other forums – most likely be that of a praiseworthy act and a “win-win situation”, a model where all parties gain: The isolated asylum seeker obtained new social relations, the red-cross worker achieved to do something significant by organising the meetings, and finally the local Danish family get to show compassion for their new neighbours in need.
On the subject of poverty Oscar Wilde points, in his book “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, to the fact that: “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering, than it is to have sympathy with thought”. I will argue that Wilde’s thesis is clearly acted out and illustrated in the mentioned example of the “satellite families”. What the Danish visiting families slightly overlooked (or at least did not loudly respond to) was that their actions are part of the problem itself. By being passive consumerists of culture, they are maintaining the existing, in this case unjust, system. Apparently, it is much easier to cultivate each other’s similarities and differences over a meal, and to show compassion, than to take an active position by looking into and responding to what makes this unjust politics and system possible in the first place.
It seems that the Danish families forgot that the asylum centre is a part of the urban space, placed in their own backyard, and constructed by a certain political system executing an unjust treatment of people in need, by placing asylum seekers in a position where they are deprived of their right to demand change, not to say equality. According to Wilde: “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty (or in this case unequal treatment of refugees) will be impossible.”
This reasoning can be applied to the world of culture, even if the positions at stake in this context are slight different. Here the problem with a lack of artists with a diverse cultural background being included in cultural programmes in Scandinavia today could be said to be of an “employees versus employers” nature (i.e. the position of the Scandinavian “employer” versus the “employee” with a diverse cultural background is unquestioned). This problem is often compensated for through initiatives exclusively dedicated to represent “diversity” as a method used against inequality and unjust structures. Hence exhibitions are curated, which primarily include artists with a diverse cultural background, as a way to gain insight into their perspectives.
We also see this method applied within other professions. One such an example is an initiative of the Danish daily “Information”, who, on October 9 2015, published a special edition exclusively written by journalists with a refugee background, providing (former) refugees with the opportunity to publish their stories. This approach might be needed, but the problem of inequality goes much deeper and the solutions are way more complex than the answer provided.
The same applies to the world of culture and cultural institutions. As an artist (regardless of one’s cultural background) the relation to the art institution is inevitable. Therefore it is of great importance that the art institutions take the topics of ‘representation’, ‘equality’ and (mutual) ‘positions’ further by challenging the simple logic of “sympathy with suffering”. More visionary cultural policies, and loud activities, will help make equality within the world of culture become a reality. If the voices of the other were already an equal part of the existing and well-represented culture, the need for continuous programmes that reflect the existing unbalanced social order and allow the under-represented a voice, would no longer be there.