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Cultural diversity policy: A formula for indifference?

Why “cultural diversity” arts policies are condescending and do not enlarge the understanding of other cultures

A few weeks ago I attended a talk given by English Heritage where we were lectured on “the exciting diversity of voices, that contributed to the life of Eltham Palace”. We were instructed to reflect on the experience of those who made the rugs, not the material or the pattern, and certainly not the works of art on the wall. “Think about the gossip among the weavers,” was the command. “Can you tell me about the wooden flooring?” asked a rebellious woman from the front row. Apparently not: slowly and patiently, we were asked to ignore that and instead wonder who might have carried the logs.

I doubt this is a unique experience, as cultural diversity policies are vandalising the arts. Already the orthodoxy in the US, Australia and Canada, this new approach is being embraced in the UK and is spreading with abandon. The Arts Council is running the Diversity Project from the end of 2002-2004. Re:source has created the new National Cultural Diversity Network. In a bulletin of case studies entitled “Celebrating diversity”, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded over £5 million to various projects. The tragedy is not the bureaucratic or coercive element, though both are bad enough; it is that this formula of enforced diversity closes down dialogue and prevents understanding. It stops us from appreciating cultures and engagement withers.

The essence of cultural diversity, as preached by government and these organisations is “respect” for other voices, different points of view and self-expression. The Respect Festival organised by the London Mayor promotes “respect for all cultures and faiths”. The Arts Council’s action plan states, “The principle of diversity applies more widely than ethnicity—it refers to the right, endorsed in Unesco’s ‘Our creative diversity’, to cultural self-definition and the value given to the individual voice.”

Laura Williams, cultural and outreach manager at the new Museum of Immigration in Hackney, London, echoed this language: “The museum incorporates the experiences of local people.” She says, “We are not telling their stories as it would not be appropriate—they are not our experiences; the locals are telling them.” In other words, the museum involves everyone, but takes little role in ordering or writing the displays and the interpretation.

We are exhorted to listen to other voices in every discussion on diversity but never to judge them. The rhetoric of diversity deems every cultural form of worth, not because of a quality intrinsic to it, but for the sake of it. This phoney respect is not earned, but derived from an external formula distinct from culture. All too often, the praise and endorsement of other cultures expresses itself alongside a total ignorance of them. This is why, despite much talk of diversity, champions of it tend to sound the same and the exhibits or productions seem to merge. We are being fed a formula for indifference.

There is a wealth of knowledge about artefacts from all over the world across time within the walls of the British Museum (BM). One of the widest collections in the world, it displays a great variety of cultures. The curators have immersed themselves in research to understand what is truly unique about their subject. Yet in the report “Cultural diversity” published by the MGC (now Re:source), the BM is castigated for “imposing” itself.

Cultural diversity is really about the performance of the institution and cultural commissars than the particularity of the art form. By embracing diverse voices and other peoples’ stories institutions avoid taking responsibility for the collection or deciding what to display. They dodge illustrating their views, knowledge and ideas, and therefore hope they will not be asked to account for them. Arts institutions are under siege and keen to distance themselves from a discredited past and the charge of elitism. It is no surprise many have jumped at the opportunity to abdicate responsibility. The talk at Eltham Palace was a chance for English Heritage to act and rebrand its image. I learned more about the defensive heritage organisation than the Courtauld family who made Eltham Palace the fantastic combination of Medieval and Art Deco that it is today.

While the dogma of cultural diversity is keen to avoid making artistic and intellectual judgements, it does create barriers and ghettos. At the heart of many of the ideas on different voices and interpretations is a great sense of impenetrable difference. There is no one story, only many interpretations. There is a sense of no common ground to understand and enjoy these cultures. Thus this formula of diversity reinforces and legitimises a sense of separation. We are told to respect difference, but the implication is that we can never grasp or comprehend it. We will never understand each other with this attitude and instead will reinforce fragmentation and division. It will limit people to their ascribed identities, reducing everyone to be seen apart from each other.

Every conference on diversity in the arts has the customary performance from an officially endorsed minority. The UK Federation of Chinese Schools will perform at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s next conference “Connections and disconnections”. Delegates will be able to bask in the warm glow of respecting something else and the federation will go home with the confirmation that they are different first and artists second. Their art will not be set free nor truly understood and neither will they.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A formula for indifference'