Σε μια από τις πρώτες-πρώτες αναρτήσεις μου σας είχα μιλήσει για το καταπληκτικό συνέδριο στο University of Massachussetts, Amherst, που είχε θέμα "Why Does the Past Matter?". Η δική μου εισήγηση είναι η κατωτέρω. Η ελληνική μετάφραση, που είχε αποτελέσει και τη βάση για εισήγησή μου στο Νομικό Συμβούλιο του Κράτους, τον Μάρτιο του 2012, αναρτήθηκε τον Αύγουστο.
Lodz, Πολωνία - Σεπτέμβριος 2010
Αρχαιολογικός χώρος Φιλίππων, Καβάλα - Απρίλιος 1993
Lodz, Πολωνία - Σεπτέμβριος 2010
Αρχαιολογικός χώρος Φιλίππων, Καβάλα - Απρίλιος 1993
Επιτρέψτε μου!: Του έχω μεγάλη αδυναμία! Ο μέγιστος Albert Camus. Αλγερία - Γαλλία: Δύο χώρες, δύο πολιτισμοί που συνέβαλαν σημαντικά, νομίζω, στη διαμόρφωση του χαρακτήρα του. Έζησε σύμφωνα ακριβώς με όσα πίστευε και υποστήριζε. Σπάνιο, πολύ σπάνιο...
Cultural Objects and Identity*
Elina N. Moustaira
Because what I am is what I was.
I. One may speak about identity of people, identity of cultural objects cultural identity of people and objects.
The concept of the historic continuity or the sense of the tradition, on which we must rely and of which, of course, not only the monuments as cultural creations of people are manifestations, can constitute a sort of moral justification for the defense of our identity’s particularities. A human being is a historic being, to his/her creation myriads of partial elements are contributing, which elements, visibly or invisibly, either are recorded in his/her ancestors’ cells or compose his/her daily life, carrying with them traces of many previous daily lives.
Cultural objects are prints of memory, tracks of journey, sometimes strong, sometimes thin. Cultural objects, material or immaterial, have their origin, the reason of their existence, in the life conditions of a society, even in case they originate from certain persons, even in case they are created as a reaction to those life conditions. Besides, according to Homi Bhabha, it is the signs of resistance that constitute a fundamental testimony of “our encounter with identity”.
Cultural objects’ biography shows us the various folds of the shaped with time identity of people, either individually, as persons, or wholly, as community. During their life, they accumulate meanings, mainly deduced from the relations developed between them and the people, by whom or/and for whom they were created. And it is extremely interesting the fact that, thinking comparatively, we see that meanings vary, since relations between people and objects also vary, according to the cultural context. Thus, cultural objects’ biography can contribute to the revelation of this variety.
Cultural objects determine peoples’ history and are determined by it. They are not accidental creations of an era, no identical copies of them could be created in whatever historical period by whatever people. Pebbles, therefore, of the historic path of various cultures, of various nations, they occupy a singular place in history; and exactly due to this singularity and to their importance they are often object of exploitation by certain others whose aim is the alteration of this historic path. It is rightly pointed out that individual asymmetries and the particular characteristics of the various cultures are elements necessary for their life’s continuation. Besides, it is exactly the different, particular characteristics of the compared objects the ones that compose the identity of each one of them, since “an identity can only be limited, defined, and bordered by what it is not”.
II. Stressing the singularity of the cultural objects and focusing on their culture-origin, does not mean indifference to the conceivable influences that this culture and its expressions have received by other cultures. “No culture exists in isolation”, says Edward Said, insisting that by studying a culture, we must be ready to locate and study the appearing during that study characteristics of other cultures, of other traditions.
Studying, for example, the Islamic aesthetic theory, it is observed that it was deeply influenced by the Neoplatonic theory – which also influenced the architecture of Renaissance but even, through the Theosophy movement, some of the pioneers of Modernism in art.
Said claims that talking about a “single overmastering identity” constitutes a deprivation, that “the world we live in is made up of numerous identities interacting, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes antithetically”. But the fact that numerous identities are tracked down, does not mean that an overmastering identity is not created by them [too], which identity assimilates in some way, discernible or not, the other identities.
Besides, as a most important contemporary Greek painter says, social evolution was never static, therefore neither the cultural particularities of peoples or social groups were. “There were always transformations and readjustments of the cultural identity and, even more, they were constituent elements for its preservation or its survival”.
III. Identity is a highly complex value. At the same time, it is highly important to the determination of persons, either as personal or as group identity. Are differences illusory, as the Enlightenment was suggesting, or are they really existing? And why would differences be considered as an obstacle to the true understanding between the various cultures?
Is identity being transformed? Would that be an argument of those who are opposed to the repatriation of cultural objects? If there is no “patria”, then – they say – where would the cultural objects return to? But can we doubt the identity of people, the identity of their creations? Is it possible to transform identity just by changing the way to describe it? What would be the reason, the expediency for that? Can we change the way certain people look at life? But exactly that look is at the origin of the creation of cultural objects – even when they seem neutral. And the way to look at life influences everything concerning life itself; and of course it influences everything that is being created inside any living culture, which in turn is the continuation and the reminder of some previous culture, even in case the contemporary culture destroyed the previous one.
Identity is always historically and culturally specific – or, at least, that is how we should see it. Ethnicity, undoubtedly, “forms an integral part of personal identity, contributes to determining a place in an increasingly complicated world”.
IV. The art objects produce significance, not only at the time at which they were created. If they last, their meaning also flow and becomes itself an active factor of culture. The surrounding social conditions contribute to their creation but also the art objects themselves contribute in some way to the modeling of the cultural environment.
Human dignity and societies’ identity do not “have” to be expressed through art, but art really does express them. Heritage, that is the natural and immaterial elements that are related to a human community and that are created and pass from generation to generation, or, according to another opinion, the “natural and human world that society wishes to pass on to future generations”, gives material reality to identity. Claiming repatriation of cultural objects, is a means to the restoration of the “old” identity [of objects and peoples] and at the same time of the formation of a new identity, based on the “old” one.
Particular historic products, besides, are the countries’ laws in general and of course the specific regulations “that envision cultural properties and the social identities imagined to pertain to them”, according to an opinion.
Accordingly, it is important to have a clear image of how the idea of cultural property (patrimonio cultural) has been evaluated during many centuries from a particular point of view, focused in private property and individual enjoyment, to an augmenting tendency of showing monuments and art objects as model examples of the national culture and symbols of the collective identity. If, according to this opinion, we can really see this evolution, we shall be able, on the one hand to understand the historic and artistic criteria that each time period and each society uses in order to measure the value of the cultural objects, and on the other hand to explain the whereabouts of the laws enacted to guarantee the preservation of the cultural objects, or to justify the educative intentions whenever certain cultural objects are presented as symbols of a certain identity and a certain civilization.
V. What is the role of the museums in all this?
Museums can be seen as manifestations of identity or sites for the contestation of identities.
Some museums, and the big ones even more, insist on the majesty of the “universal museum”, in which, they say, cultural objects are being protected and preserved and at the same time exhibited to the public. Thus, the “universal”, “encyclopedic” museum becomes educator of the “world cultures”, hoping to “format” a sort of cosmopolitan visitors, viewers. Is there, can there be, should there be a uniform mentality, a uniform, cosmopolitan law? Would such a thing guarantee the peaceful, rich coexistence of peoples and the mutual admiration of their creations? But, would there be, in such a case, various creations or would such a uniformity mean the death of richness, the death of creativity? Besides the fact that cosmopolitanism is a theory, an idea embedded in the Western intellectual tradition, is there not a big risk, by supporting the idea of universal, cosmopolitan museums, to destroy the resources of the reification of this very idea, that is, the variety of cultural objects, since variety presupposes different creators, different identities?
These objects, which are being exposed in the modern museum, representing “the Art”, previously were often sacred objects, being found in churches, or objects, belonging, either to the aristocrats or to the rich merchants, decorating their palaces or residences. Thus, “the reunification in one sole place of paintings, originally destined to assume the most diverse functions in churches, palaces or private residences, reserves them now for a unique usage: to be contemplated and appreciated for their sole aesthetic value”. This way, sacred objects become differently neutral and sacred in the museum. Their presence in the museum signifies their absence in reality. They are art, because they are not any more used in the reality.
VI. Preservation of the historic or traditional identity means a continuous evolution of this identity, by means of a dialogue between the various socio-cultural ideologies of each time. Thus, cultural objects too, become determinative “moments” of the human life, defining its identity.
An excellent contemporary Greek author, in a recently published interview of his, was declaring: “Hellenicity is this atmosphere emitted by the lives of the people whom I describe, and exactly that is my inspiration. … I grapple with people who live in this nature, under this light, they themselves, their occupations and their traditions are adapted to this climate, they speak making their daily life literature, they themselves are art objects, as they live, despite their human smallness”.
Monuments, they say, represent something from the past to the people of the present and future. Memory, collective and individual, is the element that renders obvious (clear) the connection of cultural objects and identity. Perhaps they are not wrong whoever believe (assume) that our past and therefore our memory too do not have a clearly defined borderline, formed by a tradition which had local and national roots and precise borders. Nevertheless, no one can seriously doubt that cultural objects constitute an expression of the time period in which they were created, at the same time though, they define directly or indirectly, each posterior time, since on the one side they are a connecting ring with the past and on the other side they form consciences (even at a minimum degree), thus participating in each present. Elements, therefore, of the “then” identity [of their creator and their spectators] – through their own cultural identity – they define (even being transformed as concepts) the subsequent in time identities (pursuers – heirs of the prior identities), constituting at the same time elements of those posterior identities.
* Paper presented at the International Conference “Why Does the Past Matter?”, May 4-7, 2011, UMass Amherst.
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 H.K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge Classics, London & New York, 1994 (reprinted 2010), 71.
 See I. Kopytoff, The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process, in: The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (ed. A. Appadurai), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986, 64. He was the first who has ever talked about the “cultural biography” of things.
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