I was sitting in a darkened auditorium. It was a modern cinema and the chairs were big and plush and very comfortable; you could rest your head and relax in warm obscurity. Spotlights illuminated the stage on which sat four middle aged, middle class white men, much like me. They were directors of cultural institutions and they had been invited to speak, at this conference on intercultural dialogue, about what they were doing to engage ‘migrant communities’. What they had to say—and they agreed politely with one another about this—was that it was very difficult, really very difficult.
It struck me then that I’d been listening for 30 years to cultural directors say how difficult it was to involve other people. And let’s be straight, under the many euphemisms and elisions of language, the people we’re really talking about are foreigners, those who were born elsewhere, have different ideas, customs and—here’s the rub—cultures. And let’s be really straight, we’re talking about those who look foreign, the whole rainbow of people whose bodies are different to those that white Europeans think of as ‘normal’ although they are, in numbers, much more representative of humanity.
A comforting ritual was being rehearsed in that warm, somnolent conference room. By meeting to discuss how to open public cultural institutions and resources to all citizens, the participants could display their liberal credentials. The cultural world was on the right side of debates about immigration. It stood against petty nationalisms, bigotry and xenophobia. But it is just so difficult to engage those who don’t attend.
Of course it’s difficult to interest people who may have very different past experiences and present concerns in the preoccupations, rituals and values of elite cultures. But do those difficulties lie with those who refuse, or with those who offer? And who is in a position to reduce those difficulties—those who live in varying conditions of precarity or those with financial, material and cultural resources at their command? Whose trust needs to be won here, and who needs to win it?
Somewhere Tolstoy writes of being like a fat man carried on the shoulders of a thin man. The fat man asks kindly what he can do to alleviate the other’s burden, carefully avoiding offering to get down. It’s the difference between wanting to do something and wanting to want to do something, which is just a matter of polishing one’s self-image. It’s feeling good without cost. It’s just another form of sentimentality. Star Wars is not exactly Spinoza, but it does get this right:
YODA Always with you what can not be done. You do nothing that I say. You must un-learn what you have learned.
LUKE Alright, I’ll give it a try
YODA No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
George Lucas The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
There are many things you can learn in a cinema. That day I learnt wanting is not enough.
This is a powerful observation. If the propensity to wear shell suits and trainers is added to the cultural landscape, then the sense of foreigner may become more accurate and profound? This disengagement and difficulty is often described as ‘hard to reach’. Does this suggest that difficulty lies with those not involved? A parallel, and usually ignored, set of thoughts would be….what is being offered is not relevant or of interest to those not engaged….and to involve and engage them there would be a need to change what is being offered?
Thanks for the observation.
Reminds me of an image I frequently come back to. It relates to the idea that directors of cultural institutions want to encourage new or more diverse audiences to come through their doors and are puzzled when they do everything ‘right’ but no-one comes.
You can open your door to new people. But how will they know that the door is there, or how to find it, unless you place yourself in their shoes and figure out how to make that door not just apparent but welcoming from afar of who they are and what they bring?