Towards a Polycentric Aesthetic
By Ella Shohat & Rober Stam
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Questions of modernism and postmodernism are usually ‘centred’ within the limited and ultimately provincial frame of European art. The emerging field of ‘visual culture’, for us, potentially represents a break with the Eurocentrism not only of conservative ‘good eye’ art history but also with presumably radical, high-modernist avant-gardism, which perhaps explains the apoplectic reactions that ‘visual culture’ has sometimes provoked. In our view, ‘visual culture’ as a field interrogates the ways both art history and visual culture have been narrativized so as to privilege certain locations and geographies of art over others, often within a stagiest and ‘progressive’ history where realism, modernism and postmodernism are thought to supersede one another in a neat and orderly linear succession. Such a narrative, we would suggest, provides an impoverished framework even for European art, and it collapses completely if we take non-European art into account.
[…] As diplomatic synonyms for ‘childlike,’ terms like ‘underdevelopment’ project the infantilizing trope on a global scale. The Third World toddler, even when the product of a millennial civilization, is not yet in control of his body/psyche and therefore needs the help of the more ‘adult’ and ‘advanced’ societies […] the aesthetics of modernism (and of postmodernism) often covertly assume a telos toward which Third World cultural practices are presumed to be evolving. […] Jameson speaks of the ‘belated emergence of a kind of modernism in the modernizing Third World, at a moment when the so-called advanced countries are themselves sinking into full postmodernity.’ Thus the Thirld World always seems to lag behind, not only economically but also culturally, condemned to a perpetual game of catch-up, in which it can only repeat on another register the history of the ‘advanced’ world. This perspective ignores the ‘systems theory’ that sees all the ‘worlds’ as coeval, interlinked, living the same historical moment (but under diverse modalities of subordination or domination). […]
A more adequate formulation, in our view, would see temporality as scrambled and palimpsestic in all the worlds, with the pre-modern, the modern, the postmodern coexisting globally, although the ‘dominant’ might vary from region to region. […] Thus all cultures, and the texts generated by these cultures, we assume, are multiple, hybrid, heteroglossic, unevenly developed, characterized by multiple historical trajectories, rhythms and temporalities.
As seen through this grid, visual culture manifests what Canclini calls ‘multi-temporal heterogeneity,’ i.e. the simultaneous, superimposed spatio-temporalities which characterize the contemporary social text. […]
Our specific goal here is to interrogate the conventional sequenceing of realism/modernism/postmodernism by looking at some of the alternative aesthetics offered by Third World, postcolonial, and minoritarian cultural practices. […] While much recent writing has been devoted to exposing the exclusions and blindness of Eurocentric representations and discourses, the actual cultural productions of non-Europeans have been ignored.