Dealing with the Past | Questions from Cultural Studies

By Andrei Nae

In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death and the ensuing protests, an older unresolved debate has once again entered the limelight: how to deal with the troubled past? To an unprecedented degree, a significant part of Western society calls not only for a reassessment of our contemporary values, institutions, and practices, but also for a recalibration of our relation to our past. But how can such a recalibration be achieved? Since cultural studies, as a field of research, has been chiefly concerned with the way in which history relates to the present, we might consider its position in this period of cultural upheaval that we are experiencing.

Not one, but multiple histories

Whether we are aware of it or not, the way we retell history says more about the present than it does about the past. When looking back at what happened before, the way we select the events we consider relevant and, most importantly, the way we interpret them is determined by our present-day cultural values. Because these values change, so does the manner in which we tell history. Consequently, the same historical event can have multiple readings during subsequent historical eras. The way Victorians regarded the 18th century differs immensely from, say, the vantage point of late 20th-century British society. What was deemed relevant and valuable for the former may not have been the same for the latter.

In addressing history, it also has to be acknowledged that the ‘we’ of a particular historical period is not a homogeneous one. Not all contemporary social groups share the same cultural values, which leads to contending views of history. In Britain today, for instance, people have vastly different views on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy depending on their in-group identity and political orientation. Because there is no one ‘true’ history, but many, a functional society would be one that manages to accommodate the different perspectives on the past and makes various social groups aware of the existence of different, often contending, versions of history. By the same token, what should be avoided is giving privileged status to one version of history to the detriment of others.

Art (and) History: Not Censorship, but Diversity and Interrogation

Like history in general, art history is not exempt from the above-mentioned dynamics. Artistic canons have been revised and will continue to be revised for what is considered of artistic value will always depend on the ideological vantage point of the social group that assigns value to art. While some cultural institutions choose to maintain a partisan position and adopt the vantage point of one social group, others try to offer adequate representations to multiple canons, traditions, and histories. In the latter case, I am always surprised by the indignation with which changes in ‘the cultural offer’ of museums or other cultural/educational institutions are met. I have been recently made aware of three such cases.

Recently the Manchester Art Gallery has removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, a canonic pre-Raphaelite painting, from its exhibition and replaced it with a notice asking for the public’s opinion on how to deal with representations of gender stereotypes. The attempt to encourage a critical onlook onto art has been summarily referred to by the more sensationalist British press as the result of politically correct tyranny. While such an approach is, in my view, rather disingenuous as it is clearly tailored as clickbait, i.e. the purpose is not so much that of informing the reader, but that of scandalising internet users in hope of more clicks, it is also problematic from the point of view expressed above. The museum does not attempt to discard the existence of the painting, it does not want to erase it from memory, it only seeks to challenge its canonic interpretation. If at one point the Manchester Art Gallery does consider that it is no longer compatible with its agenda, this should also be accepted as such as it is the freedom of cultural institutions to construct their own art history discourse. To equate this with censorship is false, since any exhibition requires a selection of artefacts to be put on display in accordance with the overall purpose of the exhibition. Moreover, in this particular case, the removal is temporary. The museum has not said anything about censoring the painting as, indeed, it would be detrimental to our knowledge of history to ignore a work of art of such a vast influence.  

But on top of this, by claiming that canonic works can never be removed or negotiated, the canon receives an aura of transcendence. It suggests that its value is a natural outgrowth of its undisputed natural aesthetic qualities, not the product of the discourse of one social group that has benefited from a dominant position in British society. Privileging one social group’s onlook onto art history is tantamount to regarding that particular group as hierarchically superior, an idea which, taken to the extreme, has justified some of the worst crimes in history.

A similar case of ‘outrage’ has been the recent attempt by students of SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) to change the institution’s curriculum so as to include fewer works by Western philosophers and more works authored by philosophers of Asian and African origin. That such an attempt has been framed as an excess of political correctness is strange since it is the very purpose of the SOAS University to train experts in non-Western philosophy. I am not implying that there actually is a problem with the respective curriculum (in fact, the request has apparently been rejected by the university). Nor do I wish to deny the importance of the Western philosophical tradition. But, at the same time, I do believe that we should acknowledge that there are other philosophical traditions, as well, and that it is a student’s right to want to be educated in these latter traditions. Equating philosophy solely with Western philosophy is, again, an act whereby one social group is given hierarchical privilege.

Finally, the most controversial event on the cultural arena has been HBO’s recent decision to temporarily remove Gone with the Wind from its programme and make it available after including a disclaimer which clarifies that the film’s racist views are not shared by the company. As in the case of the Manchester Art Gallery, it is up to the company to decide what it streams and when, according to the cultural values that it adopts. Although HBO’s decision is very unlikely to affect anyone who wants to watch the film (which is readily available on the internet on multiple other sites and platforms), some reactions have gone as far as equating it to Communist censorship and Nazi book burning. Not only are such comparisons blown out of proportion, but they are also ethically questionable. Being the author of a censored book in the former Communist bloc or Nazi Germany had dire consequences for the author, ranging from exile to death. 

If we try to look beyond the sensationalist manner in which these three recent cases have been presented and understand that the intentions behind them are by no means reductive, it seems that the controversy surrounding them stems from a continuing failure to fully acknowledge the existence and equal validity of other histories whose claims to truth are rooted in the ideological position of the social groups which produced them and which are just as valid as the dominant one. The dominant position is not to be erased. But we can add to it, interrogate it or momentarily bracket it to invite space for reflection and plurality.

A Critical Understanding of the Past

So, to conclude, what does cultural studies have to say about the past? Should we erase the works of art which are sexist, racist, classist, homophobic, transphobic and so on, from our inheritance and start off with a clean slate? Clearly, no. The point is precisely to keep them in view and acknowledge what is problematic about them from the point of view of the present and to constantly educate ourselves on such issues. And, by doing so, to acknowledge a multiplicity of voices and positions, past and present, even as they contend with one another. But in this process, a series of other questions arise: Are all histories legitimate, and if not, on what grounds can some histories be condemned? Can diversity itself be accused of being simply another grand narrative seeking hegemonic status? Is there an essentialist pitfall that diversity can sometime fall prey to? And how should we account for the pluralist, complex phenomenon of reception? Is enjoyment of Gone with the Wind actually incompatible with sensitivity to its racist undertones? These questions are yet to receive comprehensive answers and are recurrent topics of inquiry in the field of cultural studies.

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