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Appropriation, contacts between cultures and globalisation

Arnd Schneider

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1In current debates about globalisation, the question of what kind of contacts between different cultural systems take place remains still insufficiently theorised1. Whilst on the one hand, the profuseness of the  boundaries of identities (relating, for instance, to ethnicity, gender, and class) has been recognised for a long time (since Barth 1969), and migration studies have come a long way to refine concepts of Diaspora (e.g. Lavie 1996), a theory of the changing nature of the ‘stuff’ that is actually transported across such imagined borders remains yet to be written.

2In Latin America, concepts of transculturation (Ortiz 1940), syncretism, creolisation, ‘cultural miscegenation’ (mestizaje cultural), and cultural hybridity (García-Canclini 1989), have been used to understand the processes of cultural interpenetration since colonial times. It is becoming clearer now that one of the fallacies of early studies of acculturation and culture change was.

3To conceive of cultures as bounded entities, across which a selected number of cultural elements would migrate. Rather we might think of cultures - if the Term should still be used at all - as open systems where individual actors Negotiate access to and traffic in symbolical elements which have no fixed meaning.

4It is a this junction, the individual interpretation of symbolically Meaningful elements, and their socially wider diffusion that  contemporary artists are located in Latin American metropolises. For instance, in  Buenos Aires or Mexico City, and even in smaller national capitals, such as Montevideo or Quito, artists find themselves working with and against powerful dominant discourses legitimising national identity, such as mestizaje (‘miscegenation’, in Ecuador), indigenismo (‘indigenism’, in Mexico), and crisol de razas (‘melting pot of  races’, in Argentina and Uruguay). At the same time, artists participate in the international art circuit, and therefore in a global network of communication of international art forms.

5Research on artists would then have to focus on their precise role in a process of conversion, that is how presumed local forms are imported into an international framework. How is this international system symbolically legitimised by the gallery and museum circuit, as well as by art schools; in sum, the places where artists acquire their specific ‘cultural capital’? How does appropriation actually work, and what does its processual character tell us more generally about phenomena of cultural change and culture contact? Arguably this terminology is now out-of-date, but what has been suggested in its place,  Appadurai’s (1996) ‘-scapes’, for example,  does not solve the problem of cultural difference either, it merely lifts it onto another plane. For instance, it would be a step forward, if we could establish a certain logic to the process of appropriation, and selection from supposedly ‘infinite’ cultural material. Which are the points where cultures meet in a global world? Possibly, appropriative strategies of artists are positioned at nodal points in a global network of cultural flows, where specific indigenous discourses are converted into an international idiom.

6Research is then located at the intersection between the anthropology of art, and urban or rather metropolitan anthropology. In the anthropology of art, the preoccupation with contemporary art is a relatively recent phenomenon, as is for urban anthropology the study of cultural production in the metropolitan centres of global networks cross-cultural communication (for a recent example, see García-Canclini 1998).

7The empirical field of study, Buenos Aires currently displays a multiplicity of identity discourses among its population of European, Creole and Indian descent.

8Whilst the nation-builders of 19th century Argentina, favoured North European immigration, and the rich Argentina till the early 1950s advocated a melting Pot of ‘races’ (crisol de razas), in the present, after the political failure of authoritarian regimes and economic relegation to ‘Third World’ status, discourses on national identity are presented in more heterogeneous ways. There is both a repositioning in the Latin American context, and a reinvention of European identities among descendants of immigrants. On the other hand, in the cultural arena, artists are beginning to reinvent ‘Latin American roots’, by appropriating of past and present indigenous cultures (not necessarily form Argentina).

9The main objective of the planned research is to investigate the underlying ideological framework of art production and reception. More specifically, the idea is to explore the processes of cultural appropriation of indigenous cultures.

10Howard Becker (1982) introduced the useful concept ‘art world’ to the sociology of art, which understands art as a co-operative, multiply layered process, between a number of individuals, not just the result of a creative act by a single individual, ‘the artist’. In Buenos Aires, this art world is structured by a gallery and museum circuit, art schools, art critics (reception), and individual artists. Empirically, fieldwork will try to map out the social networks between these constituent elements of the art world. The aim is to arrive at a working definition (through inside and outside ascriptions) of how one becomes an artist, and what it means to be a visual artist in contemporary Buenos Aires.

11A second part of the research is more specifically concerned with the appropriative process of indigenous cultures amongst artists. What are the criteria for selection, how is the ‘indigenous’ defined, and how are appropriative strategies deployed, such as the taking of motifs/symbols from secondary sources (e.g. from books and other previous researches by anthropologists and archaeologists), and through direct contact with the members of indigenous cultures, perhaps less systematised, but similar in principle to anthropological fieldwork?

12More fundamentally, the planned research aims to explore the underlying rationale of category formations, that is how definitional categories (often based on binary oppositions of exclusion/inclusion) are formed and dissolved in the process of globalisation. Arguably, one of the most important areas for research is, how in a process of reconversion (adaptation to local contexts) and conversion (import into global networks) symbols can change both their forms and meanings.

13Another important issue to be explored, is the degree to which artists assume a mediating role  in the process of cultural globalisation. Some of our previous research in Uruguay, Ecuador, and Mexico suggests that that they might be conceived of as brokers between local cultural practices (themselves affected by globalisation), and global circuits of information (increasingly interconnected, and impregnated with local practices) of the international art world (Schneider 1998). The question then is whether any emerging patterns in this process are influenced by access to economic resources, communication, and power (in the gallery circuit, on international art fairs and auctions, the making of reputations in journals and newspapers).

14This research project, whilst initially centred on one South American metropolis, should also yield data for comparison with similar processes of local-global reconversions - conversions, not only in Latin America but also in  other parts of the world (for some recent work, see Jameson/Miyoshi 1998). By local-global reconversion we mean a process by which not only the local elements become  more global, but through which the global flow of cultural elements is also interspersed with local elements, that is refashioned as the particular, and eventually ‘localised’. Therefore, it is not sufficient for globalisation theory to  think of global connections just in terms of abstract cultural and economic flows, but it also has to consider the individual actors who create this process on multiple levels.

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Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Barth, F., "Introduction", Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, ed. F.Barth, Bergen/Oslo:Universitets, 1969.

Forlaget.Becker, Howard, Art Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

García-Canclini, Néstor, (English edition 1995). Culturas híbridas. Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1989.

------------------------ (ed.),. Cultura y comunicación en la ciudad de México. (2 vols.). Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric, Masao, Miyoshi (eds.),. The Cutures of Globalization. Durham, North Carolina:Duke University Press, 1988.

Lavie, Smadar, Displacement, Diaspora and Geographies of Identity, Durham, North Carolina:Duke University Press, 1996.

Ortiz, Fernando, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar. Havana: J.Montero, 1940 (English edition 1947)..

Schneider, Arnd, “Rooting Hybridity: Contemporary Arts and Anthropology in Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador”, paper given at the Latin American Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford University, 16 October 1998.

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1 First published in Ethnoscripts’ 1/1999, University of Hamburg.
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Arnd Schneider, « Appropriation, contacts between cultures and globalisation », Amérique Latine Histoire et Mémoire. Les Cahiers ALHIM [En línea], 1 | 2000, Publicado el 22 diciembre 2004, consultado el 30 marzo 2017. URL :

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Arnd Schneider

University of East London

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Amérique latine Histoire et Mémoire está distribuido bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivar 4.0 Internacional.

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