CULTURAL IMAGINARIES OF NEOLIBERALISM: THE PRESS COMMUNICATION OF THE ART MUSEUM OF ESTONIA 2006-2015.

Author:Saar, Johannes
  1. Introduction

    This paper succeeds the first report on a study of public legitimization strategies in the Estonian visual arts based on contemporary cultural media (Saar, 2018a). It was established in that report that Estonian visual artists, as heralded to local audiences in press communications of the Art Museum of Estonia, are credited legitimacy in the eyes of prospective visitors mostly via assimilative cross-cultural references to third parties (i.e. from other cultures). Based on the frequent occurrence of a superiority/inferiority value scale in these references, it was concluded that artist's media images stand as the epitome of a colonial subject that typical of a recipient culture is "openly hybrid and owes its legitimacy to the kaleidoscopic mosaic of stigmas of marginality once imposed by supremacist cultural policy, but now embraced by the cultural agent in positive terms..." (Saar 2018b).

    The present follow-up, however, extends beyond the implied historical supremacy of the Baltic German romanticism and the rather Francophile modernism. Instead, the cultural imaginaries of present times are addressed in the same sample, as presented by the media exposure of a globalized contemporary artworld and its agent, the contemporary artist. Like its predecessor, the paper also uses the functionalist tenets of Durkheimian cultural anthropology as a departure point--the collective cultural imaginary of the time always serves to legitimize the socio-economic order of the same era (see Durkheim 1912/1995; Bourdieu 1993; Douglas and Wildawsky 1982; Gell 1998). Yet the analytical lens is hereby biased otherwise. The images of a globalized artworld are studied with the somewhat preemptive objective of detecting the figures of speech in Estonian public cultural parlance that might affirm a neoliberal societal order. The bias has its pretexts in the reasonable doubt originating in the tenets from Durkheim. The Baltic success story of conversion to free market priorities, or what has been promoted internationally as such, has already incurred social costs, having been analysed and found guilty of implementing the austere neoliberal sink-or-swim social policies (Sommers and Woolfson 2014). It is telling that the latest studies of social transformation in Estonia also occasionally ring a warning bell about the symptoms of neoliberal failure--the gradual economic, social and cultural stratification of a once upstart liberal society has spiked and graduated into steep internal geographical segregation between a relatively wealthier metropolitan area surrounding the capital Tallinn on one hand, and the rest of Estonia on the other, sidelined, brain-drained, left behind to swim or sink on its own (Vihalemm et al. 2017, Tammaru 2017, Vihalemm et al. 2018). This stepwise societal morphing from the rather fat egalitarian nationalism of the Singing Revolution back at the beginning of the 1990s towards the hierarchical arrangement of social castes in contemporary Estonia has had its usual favourite travel companions; namely, incessant accumulation of both economic and social capital in the upper ranks of society. The velocity of the trickle-up of capital has instigated reasonable doubt pertaining the culture of the time. I will pose this doubt here as a broader research agenda to be raised--isn't it true that the successful Baltic market convergence has brought the rise of a neoliberal culture of its own, epitomized by increasing concentration of both capital and cultural authority in the hands of a select few?

    Here is how these hesitant grounds are pondered in what follows. The paper starts from David Chioni Moore's (2001) well-received appeal to subject post-Soviet heritage to postcolonial research perspectives. It also topicalizes the European/Baltic research framework instead of the Soviet/Baltic one, so prominent these days in the Baltic academic context (Krikmann and Olesk 2003, Kelertas 2006, Methis 2011, 2017, Journal of Baltic Studies 2016, Annus 2018). At variance with the dominant Soviet/Baltic research framework, it rather resumes an orthodox agenda of postcolonial studies--Western cultural hegemony in its historical provinces. To complement a passeist? range of interests bordering on Sovietology, it takes issue with ?the colonial present' under the globalized aegis? of liberal democracy, or the neocolonial empire as critical reception has it (Wallerstein 2000, 2004, Gregory 2004, Mamdani 2004, Mignolo 2011, Huggan 2013). Narrowed down to recent East-European postcolonial studies on Western cultural hegemony by the various cases of cultural self-colonization in the region (Kiossev 1999, Todorova 1997, Plath 2008, Piotrowski 2009, Stefanescu 2015, Kalnacs 2016a, 2016b et al.), the theoretical tenets are followed by an implementation of the British school of critical discourse analysis (CDA) looking at images of Estonian contemporary artists, as they are featured in the journalistic storylines of press-releases by the Art Museum of Estonia (AME) from 2006 to 2015. In the concluding discussion, imageries of the cultural agent in question are contextualized within the larger theoretical reception of neoliberal culture, as it has ascended to the titular theme in Western academic literature in the present decade. Conceptual family resemblances between the discursive evidence from the sample and the theoretical concepts of neoliberal culture are highlighted in the conclusion and finalized with a discussion of the Foucauldian entrepreneur of the self--both an elitist and egotistic cultural agent that efficiently appears to fuse the globalized skylines of the contemporary artworld with those of the global neoliberal empire.

  2. Daily practices of the colonial present

    It stands nothing short of truism in postcolonial studies that anything east of Western 'core cultures' has fallen prey to certain imaginative geographies. References to Edward Said's (1978/2003) "Orientalism" abound. Moreover, his observations on the discursive invention of the Orient as overseas cultural exotica have been augmented as an analytical tool in East-European studies; that is, to the continental vicinity of the European edition of a likewise imaginary global West (Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997, Kelertas 2006, Plath 2008). Authors argue that in the respectively culture-saturated sense of geography, areas labelled as 'Eastern' are subjected to a certain evaluative mental distance, the spatialization between metropolis and periphery, with the latter making an appearance as a cultural aberration from civilized Western normality; inferiority, tribal manners and a general lag in progress are implied. This colonial edition of the world map is alleged to constitute the darker, colonialist flip side of modernity and comes accompanied by a like-minded temporal framework that under the aegis of cultural developmentalism leads inevitably to cultural racism and paternalism in varying degrees (Mignolo 2011 and Quijano 2010).

    Yet Western Europe does not stand charged alone. Neither is the missing evolutionary link between the East and West always foregrounded in political agendas. The United States and its Washingtonian vista of the rest of the world is caught in the kindred critical loop on entirely different grounds--original sins of essentialism. Both British geographer Derek Gregory (2004) and Ugandan postcolonialist scholar Mahmood Mamdani (2004) elaborate on the explicit derogatory vogue in the public 'culture talk' in North America that has ever since the aftermath of 9/11 legitimized a certain persistent 'colonial present', where the 'war on terror' by means of terror has invented its own moral pretexts, or as official presidential talk would maybe have it--a moral calling to redeem the civilized world from the essentially bad to the bone muslims of mostly Middle-Eastern origin. Needless to say, in these politics-driven cultural scripts images of the enemy feature as the conclusive evidence of the hopeless cultural otherness of ?them', let alone the life-threatening hazard to 'us'".

    At odds with this soothingly simple binary code, there is an imagined Eastern Europe, dangling somewhere in the fuss about the baby and the bathwater. Not exactly an insinuated radical cultural difference, but definitely paternalized and supervised for the charitable reasons of moral tutelage, say, for the fringe fellow on the brink of Western ecumene (historical accounts from Wolff 1994, Todorova 1997, Plath 2008). Ever since the outbreak of the Christian crusades in the 12th century, but even more so since the Enlightenment, the populace around here has been subject to consecutive or simultaneous projects of cultural salvation. The recent comparativist shift in East-European postcolonial studies has, however, established that this colonial history has nowadays resulted in the more or less steady colonial present, with culture weaponized as a means of positional warfare. Common courtesies aside, the bottom lines in this vein of research tend to gravitate towards the shared acknowledgement that typical of the recipient culture, which has been 'liberated' countless times on various messianic grounds over the centuries, the region's cultural self-image is nowadays prone to a postcolonial self-induced victimization and builds its self-assessments upon the internalized stigmas inflicted via erstwhile external acculturation some time in the colonial past. Yet more to the point in regard to the ongoing colonialism in present-day capitalist liberalism, discussed in the comparativist shift, the region can nowadays be judged, roughly speaking again, for its particular receptiveness to (imagined or not) top-down glances from West-European cultural hubs and a propensity for self-intimidation that results in a sense of inferiority and the compensatory cultural mimicry driven by this. These particular forms of self-categorization have been earmarked in the case of Eastern...

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