The Arts and Cultural Diversity

Immigrant, ethnic minority, asylum-seeker – slivers of insinuation separate
the meanings of each term in contemporary Britain. Ethnic minority, black and
Asian, cultural diversity – clouds of obfuscation have distinguished contemporary
arts in Britain over the past 30 years.

That I draw an analogy between socio-political and artistic terminology is
not incidental: socio-political concerns have determined arts-funding policy
for the past three decades. Ever since, in fact, the publication of Naseem Khan’s
seminal report for the Arts Council in 1976, ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. This
year sees the launch of yet another arts initiative, designed to heap attention
on ‘culturally diverse’ arts, aptly titled ‘decibel’ (noise). Why do we need
a showcase of ethnic arts? And what noise is decibel really making?

In the same year Naseem Khan’s report was published, the writer Amrit Wilson
published her compilation of Asian women’s stories – Finding A Voice.
It seems we ethnics are still deemed to be in need of finding a public voice.
Hence the decibel showcase, where Arts Council England aims to draw the
attention of producers nationally and internationally to work they have hitherto
ignored. This despite ‘ethnic’ artists of the first rank making noises in almost
every category of contemporary arts, from Anish Kapoor to Ben Okri, Akram Khan
to Chewitel Ejiofor, Shobana Jeyasingh to Zadie Smith.

‘Access’ and ‘opportunity’ are the current buzzwords, their roots lying in the
best of British liberal sentiments. It is laudable for any society that considers
itself civilised to seek to promote an equality of opportunity for all its citizens.
But when the wheel is having to be reinvented every 10 years or so, it is time
to question the wheel.

In 1976, it was Naseem Khan’s report that drew attention to the arts Britain
ignored. In 1983, the Arts Council sought, through its ‘Glory of the Garden’
policy, to enforce a minimum representation of ethnic arts in the arts-infrastructure
of the country. In the mid-1990s, the Arts Council adopted the promotion of
cultural diversity as a central part of its mission statement. In 2002, the
Arts Council’s Eclipse Report aimed to change the institutionally racist
face of British theatre.

Significantly, every liberal political measure undertaken so far to correct
injustices – the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry into institutional racism being only
the most recent – has proven ineffectual. Racism is not an intellectual failure
that can be corrected by a greater dose of education. It is a moral value, however
much one may abhor such a morality. It is an imaginative construct and so the
engineers of the imagination – artists – find themselves in the frontline, their
weapons being the pen or the hand or the body or the voice.

But when these troops are divided by ethnicity, it makes the prospect of victory
ever dimmer. Just as we forget that Black Africans, Caribbeans and Americans,
Indians, Chinese, Afghans and other ‘ethnics’ fought alongside the Allies in
two world wars, so by institutionalising ethnic divisions we are prone to forget
that in contemporary British arts there is an ever-present ‘ethnicity’ – and
forgetting is tantamount to devaluing.

What, if any, is the artistic significance of Bombay Dreams as a West
End musical? Is its ability to attract an Asian audience into the West End an
artistic value? Is, conversely, Jerry Springer – The Opera anything
more than a ‘pakora’ musical: say ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ enough times and you’re
guaranteed to draw in a youthful audience in droves (mirroring what goes on
in the Asian comedy scene, where the mention of ‘pakora’ is a sure-fire route
to cracking-up the audience).

A national theatre critic once admitted to me that he came to review our shows
not because of the particular play we were producing but because it was ethnic
and needed to be brought to wider attention. That was in 1989. Has much changed
since then? And will showcasing culturally diverse work – as the decibel
initiative purports to do – help that critic to drop his ethnic lens? I very
much doubt it.

Of equal concern, however, is how the critic judges: how to evaluate ‘other’
arts. And this is a real challenge. How does one judge, for example, the ‘fusion’
dance of Akram Khan, drawing as much on classical Kathak as it does on contemporary
dance vocabularies? This I take to be the artistic value of ‘cultural diversity’
– challenging our preconceptions, our imaginations.

But when a corral is created around cultural diversity we are being fed, and
we help sustain, difference; rather than be confronted to explore connections.
Merely beating the drum of culturally diverse arts – as decibel seeks
to do – will only help to marginalise these artists within the confines of ‘identity’.
Identity need not be immutable; it can be in dialogue with other identities.
It is only then that we can all participate in the quality of the artistic experience.

The contradictions in arts policies were brought home to me at the recent Asian
Women’s Achievement Awards. The title, of course, is very ghetto. But Cherie
Blair and other leading New Labour women were there to endorse it – as an instance
of the multicultural reality of Britain today. Surely a multicultural, integrated
society would honour women’s achievements, or even just achievements. So are
we in reality talking multi-culture or separate-cultures?

We in the arts world have become so dominated by marketing gurus – and their
dogma of ‘niche marketing’ – that we forget that if I don’t see you in me and
if you can’t see me in you we might as well dispense with the abiding hope of
the arts: to connect one human being with another. This fetishisation of marketing
makes the good ship Arts scythe through the waves of humanism and, like Moses,
we stand before a divided sea.

Jatinder Verma is artistic director of Tara Arts, a theatre company he co-founded
in 1977. Tara Arts is a regular client of Arts Council England, has toured extensively
in Britain and overseas, and co-produced with theatres including the Royal National
Theatre and the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Tara Arts’ latest show, A Taste
For Mangoes, about the Indo-British love affair before the Raj, will open in
London’s oldest music hall, Wilton’s, in November 2003.

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