Cultural Prestige and English Art

or ignorance and filth



In the UK, art's central positioning on ideas of race, racisms, and national identity was for a long time overlooked. While many black artists have been active in this field, the work produced rarely positions itself against the aesthetic and administrative modus operandi that houses it. One consequence is that a self-image emerges in an art public among whom it is usual to assume that those participating in 'intellectual pursuits' and attending 'culturally prestigious events' are above the mundanity of racial conflict and who indeed positively cultivate the view of themselves as 'anti'- or 'post'-racist.


Giving a few black British artists the odd bit of gallery space is then used as a pretext for the careful shunting of these problems outside of the 'purified' high-cultural sphere. Racisms are thereafter located only in the vast majority of peoples not in attendance during events of cultural prestige - or, in other words, those people who live in subordinate English street cultures. Exclusion from this elevated world can thus be written off as self-inflicted. As a result, it becomes 'common sense' then that such English street cultures are racist get togethers of ignorance and filth and that to produce a work of art, in a culturally prestigious location, about race, racisms and national identity is unnecessarily preaching to the converted.


But the politics of race and culture have changed. The idea of a narrow, self-righteous, art-loving post-racism is - frankly - laughable. The self-confidence of subordinate English street cultures to deal with racial issues is demonstrable in their endemic philosophy of mixing it up and in their mongrel anthems. This is not a suggestion that racisms have declined in any measurable form, but that the ground on which they build their foundations is shifting. Artworld post-racism is made all the more comic by the self-righteous moralism of the evangelical art-cadres that espouse it.


In considering alternative technological arts practice and its relationship to cultural privilege, it is important that we think again about the principles that underlie artistic judgement. The idea of universality in art forms the basis of aesthetic judgement. It is the root onto which are grafted the principals of taste. Cultural domination is achieved by taste's acting as a measure of distance between those of us who are tasteful and those others who are not.


Universality is a convention that was itself constructed out of debates in which racial difference was a central issue. Long before scientific racism had gained an upper hand, Hegel was arguing that the central difference between black and white races was a cultural and perceptual one. Hegel wrote that blacks 'do not have the ability to appreciate the necessary mystery involved in the creation of truly symbolic art, thus placing them outside the realm of authentic aesthetic sensibility'. Critical dialogues in the English art scene between its professionals - curators and artists - and its audience clearly rely on a set of historical principles produced during Hegel's era, a period when slavery, bond servantry and forced child labour were still a large part of western civilisation. Aesthetic judgement remains a fundamentally political concept.


We need to destroy the boundaries put into place by specific arts discipline, professionalisation and the hierarchy of taste. We can start by inviting in the mongrel forms of culture with their diverse and inclusive 'filthy' social relations. We can deal with the rotting carcass of Hegel's 'truly symbolic art' by burying it.