Art and the Global

J. P. Singh

J.P. Singh is Chair and Professor of Culture and Political Economy, and Director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh.  Singh has published widely. His latest book is:  Sweet Talk:  Paternalism and Collective Action in North-South Trade Negotiations (Stanford, 2017).  His book Globalized Arts: The Entertainment Economy and Cultural Identity (Columbia, 2011) won the American Political Science Association’s award for best book in information technology and politics in 2012.  His current book project is Development 2.0:  How Technologies Can Foster Inclusivity in the Developing World (Oxford, forthcoming).  He has advised international organizations such as UNESCO, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.  He has also played a leadership role in several professional organizations. He is founding Editor of the journal Arts and International Affairs. Previously he was Editor of Review of Policy Research, the journal specializing in the politics and policy of science and technology.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.39

Does art speak a universal language? The longing for a secular universality—an ethical idea or a covenant shared across the world—has informed many of humanity’s aspirations since the modern era. The Declaration of the Rights of Man from France in 1789 and the rise of global histories since the early nineteenth century attest to these modern European ideals.

In the present, art continues to inform our humanity, the normative condition of being ourselves.1 Art has fostered intercultural exchanges and dialogues across divided communities; literally, monumental art has brought the world together in instances such as the World Heritage Program; and art has evoked awe from our contemporaries as they beheld before them prehistoric cave drawings. Every part of the world can feature a song, a story, or a picture on the wall. In the interactive spaces of the Internet, signals from hundreds of satellites, and images from millions of television screens, the same songs and stories can be heard or seen the world over. Art, one might say, has always spoken a universal language.

Universality, though, is bigger than common experiences: it unites us as human beings toward a common endeavor or an aspiration. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the parallel evolving notions of global citizenship—come to mind. The ubiquity of art in the world and the globally found notions of the aesthetic, from ancient days to the present, certainly point toward a universality. If universality means common experiences, then art like language is universal. If universality means a human covenant informed with a collectively shared ethos, then art does not deliver automatically. Importantly, art should not deliver on universalist aspirations that may be tainted with existing dogmas.

The year 2017 demands a deeper probe into ideas that art can carry us toward universally shared values. This essay discusses the historical language that facilitates or prohibits art to speak in universal ways, the localized confrontations that have revised the concept over time, and the need for further participatory dialogues to provide an ethic for universal values in the twenty-first century. The political shocks in recent years that have led to the rise of local populism the world over have rubbished and challenged globalisms and universalities. Cosmopolitanism, close cousin to universality, is under attack. Both reactionary and progressive forces in the world question cosmopolitan notions that come from the mouths and minds of elites and intellectuals and exclude groups, be they the white working classes of Philadelphia or the inner city black youth in that same city a few miles away. Nevertheless, the longing for art to unite us lurks from museum curations to graffiti-laden walls, along with the desire for artistic dialogues to reflect our human conditions, or what Charles Taylor (1994) would call the “politics of recognition.”

The Language of Art

The fact that all human beings eat, speak, and breathe does not necessarily attest to a global humanity or a universal language. Speaking a language is different from the notion of a universal language. We speak many languages; they unite us as communicative beings but divide us into tribes and groups. Speaking a language or finding art everywhere cannot be sufficient conditions for a universal language.

There is something else about art. The power of art is literally that it speaks a different language and, even when controversial, it can evoke some humanity in us. Art can be variously evocative, provocative, sentimental, humanizing, empathic, divisive, controversial, spectacular, entertaining, destructive, or constructive. Ideologically, art can be conservative, progressive, or radical.

Many an artist has catered to power. Equally, many have challenged it. The artist Ad Reinhardt noted in his essay “art is art” in 1962 that art has its own evolution and dynamics and must not have to be justified with any ism or idea (Reinhardt 2003). “Art-as-art is nothing but art” (p. 821).2

There is also no doubt that art can move us beyond divided experiences. Foreign words that we may not understand can make us dance to a samba rhythm or empathize with a soprano’s pathos. The idea of an intercultural exchange rests on this relational notion, but it has its limits. When Conductor Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic through a rendition of the Korean folk song Arirang at its concert in Pyongyang in February 2008, a standing ovation followed (Wakin 2008). The audience and the orchestra members themselves, including six of Korean origin, were deeply moved. The controversial tour came amid Six-party multilateral talks to arrest North Korea’s nuclear program. The negotiations broke down in 2009 and North Korea has continued its nuclear efforts. New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang can be interpreted as one of the few moments when divided people connected—through art. Or it can be dismissed as a sentimental exercise, manipulated with propaganda, that did nothing to mitigate the underlying conflict. Clearly, art cannot be its own arbiter.

Even destroyed or stolen art evokes humanity to communicate across national and cultural borders. The Taliban’s destruction of the Bemiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 or Al Qaeda aligned Ansar Dine’s 2012 destruction of the medieval Islamic mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, evoked horror across the world. But there’s global spectatorship for pillages from times past: the Parthenon marbles taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the Kohinoor taken from Punjab in 1849 can be curated in a distant land for strangers to behold at the British Museum and the Tower of London, respectively. The ‘power’ of art also often necessitates its destruction, therefore (tragically) stating another universality. If intercultural dialogues are the first to open doors, the flip side is that culture is the first to be threatened when doors are closing. One of President Donald Trump’s first actions in office was to try to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts. Reactionary political leaders often complain that art does not obey society.

The Question in Art

The question cannot be if art speaks a universal language. Contemporary arts tend to be secular and cosmopolitan, which endows their universality. Rather, the lingering question needs to be about the conditions and the context of the universal language art speaks. The evolving conception of universal heritage has instructed the conditions and context of these values.

The idea of heritage conservation originates in the nineteenth century. Art critic and poet John Ruskin noted in 1880 that preserving historical architecture was a necessity during the industrial revolution: “We have no right whatsoever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all generations of mankind who are to follow” (Quoted in Klamer and Throsby 2000:138–139). While our current conceptions of universal value in world heritage may be traced to these ideas, we can equally detect here traces of linear, imperial, and expert-led thinking that would form the basis of critiques of these heritage ideas. The British, for example, not only impressed these ideas upon the world but also appropriated for themselves the mantle of curation. They carried away, and continue to hold, treasures from around the world in the name of conservation. The case of the marbles taken by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon noted above is perhaps the best-known example and continues to cause strife. The New Acropolis Museum in Athens features blank spots in the exhibit for these marbles to be returned from Britain. Further afield in the colonies, the British ideas of conservation removed agency from the people. Cultural artifacts were preserved in various sites, while their designs, photographs, replicas, and samples were taken to England: “Such photographs of ruins and remote monuments are paradigmatic of the ‘museumizing imagination,’ a Western development that assigned the colonized states a sense of ‘tradition,’ while protecting their cultural heritage” (Pelizzari 2003:37).

The prioritization of heritage through UNESCO’s signature World Heritage Program remains a subjective and, usually, an expert driven process.3  Who decides what these values should be and what do they mean for the communities who partake in these sites daily? Frequent complaints are heard in the developing world that UNESCO heritage listing can amount to a cleansing process that alienates the local communities from these sites. Heritage is an evolving concept and predicated on a subjective evaluation. A cultural property may be seen as possessing a little value when constructed but a few generations later, it might garner immense symbolic significance.

The political economy of UNESCO’s program further circumscribes universality. The World Heritage Convention only lists properties of “outstanding universal value.” Getting listed then becomes a badge of honor and prompts the international community and governments to prioritize the site. Economists have shown that countries featuring large inventories of heritage have a low marginal value for specific items (Benhamou 2003). Singling out a few sites for the World Heritage List may further reduce the value of sites not listed while boosting the reputation of sites that are listed.

Nevertheless, the UNESCO program has created a global consciousness around the heritage of humankind and its monuments and landscapes. While there is local alienation, there is also pride and connection with the people of the world. Even developing countries, often vocal critics of the World Heritage Program, subscribe and contribute to its basic tenets.

The top-down World Heritage program has also led to the intangible cultural heritage program from a 2003 UNESCO Convention where communities participate in enshrining what is of value to them. This value is about processes rather than monuments leading to a listing of intangible heritage that includes Tango from Argentina and Vedic chants in India.5 East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa led the movement for intangible cultural heritage, arguing in part that monumental preservation was Eurocentric.

The brief history of cultural heritage, with its movement through universality, reveals a European worldview that gets challenged with another, but both are eventually contained in the universal. This suggests universalism to be a protean concept.

The Universal and the Particular

The tension and resolution between the universal and the particular shape the role of art in the contemporary world. The dialectic is often resolved through an implicit preference among cultural institutions and their elite for cosmopolitan art and universal ideals. The two UNESCO conventions on tangible and intangible cultural heritage were resolved through universal instruments.

Exterior of Tate Modern. Source: Christine Matthews [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Tate Modern is the exemplar of the contemporary global art museum. It has been critiqued for catering to corporate forces and building a monumental cathedral out of an old industrial space. While acknowledging this critique, the 2008 Tate Modern: The Handbook asserts: “as compared to the agreed stories and hierarchies of Christianity or Islam, Tate Modern offers puzzles, questions and dilemmas” (Marr 2008:14). A paragraph later, the author notes: “So this is a bogus cathedral whose worshippers disagree about basic tenets of the faith.”

Tate Modern “performance” is self-assertively global and secular if not universal, even if it contains puzzles, questions, and dilemmas. The latter often include a display of the unique which, in the last 30 years, has celebrated cultural identities. Julian Stallabrass (2004) locates the tension between the universal and the particular in the evolving march of cosmopolitanism in sites such as the many arts biennales around the world: “The general art-world view of this development is sanguine: the linear, singular, white, and masculine principles of modernism have finally fallen, to be replaced by a multiple, diverse, rainbow-hued, fractally complex proliferation of practices and discourses” (p. 23). Nevertheless, these biennales “address the cosmopolitan art audience rather than the local population” (p. 28).

Tate Modern and the biennales with their resolution through universal cosmopolitan values leave open possibilities for violence from the very identities they represent. They are, in fact, not resolved. They remain puzzles, questions, and dilemmas. Similarly, the Edinburgh International Festival welcomes the world and has over time accommodated many tensions in favor of a universal cosmopolitanism, which is now threatened by many local rebellions. An important moment in the art world after the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit vote came from Martin Roth, the German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who resigned. In an interview, Roth explained: “What happened to tolerance, solidarity and charity? And I’m not a dreamer. I’m just talking about basic values—manners that are part of our upbringing and connect us. Where are they now?” (Brown 2016).

Despite the accommodations and internal critiques, universal values are confronted with local and particular ones—from new and old identities such as working class whites in the Western world, or fundamentalist religious ideologies the world over. This “miniaturization of human beings,” as Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (2006) terms the emerging identities, is rife for violence that “[turns] multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures.” The way to move forward is with an alternative ethos that accords human beings a status beyond being miniature identities. An ethic that is based on performative sentiment—tying human beings with emotional connections—is important but insufficient to ensure impartiality and justice. Sharon Krause (2008) brings in reason to arbitrate our sentiment toward each other as human beings. To move forward with a sentimentality informed with reason, debate and deliberation are the necessary next steps.

Deliberation in a democratic sense involves the giving of public reasons for one’s actions that does not preclude an emotional performance. The provocations of modern art to foster debate may be in the right direction, but often remain limited to the cosmopolitan elite, although both Tate Modern and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, symbolic of our universal values, boast that they attract millions of visitors every year. As do the Edinburgh festivals, often touted as the largest annual secular cultural festival in the world. Clearly, the current universalist aspiration is in search of a participatory and dialogic ethic.

The universal ethics of public performance have puzzled us for centuries from Platonic dialogues to Vedic texts. The ancient Indian Sanskrit dramaturgy Natya Shastra (figuratively, treatise on performance), sometimes termed the fifth Veda, both prescribes and proscribes rules for performers and audiences. A dramatic performance fosters rasa, or an ethical awareness of one’s consciousness and existence in relation to the story. One of Natya Shastra’s rules asks spectators to keep their eyes open while striving for rasa. It is a metaphor for not letting the sentiment goes so far that the mind and body are dulled. Natya Shastra is a theory of communication. It can be interpreted as a treatise on performative dialogues, albeit one that strives to produce spiritual bliss.

Performance, dialogues, and deliberations are communicative processes, not outcomes. The values and consequences of universal ideas and covenants are unresolved and cannot be resolved through further assertions. Art can foster dialogues. Whether these dialogues will engender universal ideals remains a question—in search of a twenty-first century participatory ethic.


Benhamou, Francoise. (2003) Heritage. In A Handbook of Cultural Economics, ed. Ruth Towse. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Brown, Mark. (2016) V&A Director’s Decision to Quite Hastened by Brexit Vote. The Guardian, September 5. (Accessed 23 June 2017).

Foucault, Michel. (1984) What is an Author? In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, 101–19. New York: Pantheon.

Klamer, Arjo, and David Throsby. (2000) Paying for the Past: The Economics of Cultural Heritage. In World Culture Report 2000: Cultural Diversity, Conflict and Pluralism, 138–9. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Krause, Sharon R. (2008) Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marr, Andrew. (2008) The Magic Box. In Tate Modern: The Handbook, ed. Frances Morris, 13–8. London: Tate Publishing.

Norris, Christopher. (1994) What is Enlightenment? Kant According to Foucault. In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, ed. Gary Gutting, 159–96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pelizzari, Maria Antonella. (2003) From Stone to Paper: Photographs of Architecture and the Traces of History. In Traces of India: Photographs, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850–1900, ed. Maria Antonella Pelizzari. New Haven, CT: Canadian Center for Architecture and Yale Center for British Art.

Reinhardt, Ad. (2003) Art as Art. In Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 820–4. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Sen, Amartya. (2006) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. London: Penguin.

Stallabrass, Julian. (2004) Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Charles. (1994) The Politics of Recognition. In Multiculturalism: Recognizing the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann, 25–73. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wakin, Daniel J. (2008). North Korea Welcomes New York Philharmonic. The New York Times, February 28. (Accessed 22 June 2017).


  1. Art here refers to fine and performing arts, creative industries such as film and music, and cultural tourism that includes heritage industries.

  2. Others deny the artist or the author any agency or volition to stand outside the structures of surveillance and power (Foucault 1984; Norris 1994).

  3. The Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, signed by 193 states by 2017, came into effect in December 1975 after ratification from the requisite 40 signatories at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The convention puts forward a framework for prioritizing, selecting, and governing a program of heritage with universal importance. As of June 2017, there were 1052 World Heritage sites.

  4. However, the opposite is also true. There are positive externalities from these lists. As governments gear up their resources for heritage conservation of a few sites, they may now have capacity to attend to other sites. Tourists coming to Edinburgh for its festivals will also undertake other forms of cultural tourism including its UNESCO heritage sites.

  5. The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage entered force in 2006. By June 2017, it was signed by 1974 states and lists 429 elements.