Appadurai, Hung, and Weibel: Three Sources for Viewing Global Flows and the Role of Art

In this essay I shall attempt to link the content of the following texts: Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy (1990), by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, A Chinese Dream by Wang Jin (2001), by art historian Wu Hung, and Globalization and Contemporary Art (2013), by artist and curator Peter Weibel.

A McDonald’s sign in Arabic, a sign of cultural transplantation associated with what Arjun Appadurai calls “global flows.”

Appadurai presents a way of understanding the global cultural stage, and defines a series of conflicts which exist between the different facets of the phenomenon addressed as globalization. These facets are namely: ethnoscapes (which are the landscapes comprised of the peoples of the world and their heritage), mediascapes (which refer to the informational and technologic capabilities of a society), technoscapes (which refer to the global configuration of technological infrastructure), finanscapes (a term that addresses the complex system of capital flows), and finally ideoscapes (a concept that speaks to the ideological configuration of individuals, states, or international players). All these components of global culture interact in opaque ways, and device their own tailored definitions of terms, creating what Appadurai calls an “ever new terminological kaleidoscope”. The conflict, which ensues the imminent clashes among these components of society, has exposed the underlying structures of contemporary global culture: it has drawn the curtain on the conditions under which global flows occur. These global flows are simultaneously the mechanism and the byproduct of deterritorializations, which as described by Appadurai consist of “money, commodities, and persons [who are] involved in ceaselessly chasing each other around the world.”

The concept of nation and state is central to the discussion of what global means. In many instances, there exists a tension between these two definitions, but in some they have become each other’s project .The concept of state is defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “an organized political community under one government”, and the concept of nation is defined as “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” As we can see, these two definitions can come to a head when the state seeks to monopolize ideas about nationhood, or alternatively the nation seeks to capture state power. There are many examples of such types of relationships between nation and state, however there are also instances in which both the nation and the state seek each other under a unifying mediascape and ideoscape. The latter though is more the exception than the rule.


In a very important part of his essay Appadurai speaks about instances of conflict between nation and state, and posits that “state and nation are at each other’s throat, and the hyphen that links them is now less an icon of conjuncture than an index of disjuncture.” In the international stage, this conflict between nation and state is multiplexed, as the world is reorganized and reshuffled in the wake of the shift from colonial to globalized economies, and the aftermath of world wars as well as myriad local religious and ethnic conflicts across the globe.

Peter Weibel begins his essay by reminding us that “one of the effects of globalization is that encounters between different cultures, religions, and languages, as well as between different ethnic and national identities, have intensified.” To the possibility of conflict between the notions of nation and state, presented by Appadurai, Weibel adds the mechanisms by which the conflict is waged, which is largely the manipulation of liberal democratic terms like integration or assimilation, as they relate to practices of inclusion and exclusion (relatable to the terminological kaleidoscope Appadurai introduced in his essay). Globalization according to Weibel is merely the continuation of colonization, and as proof of this he presents the fact that most countries labeled as third world were at some point in their past colonial strongholds of European imperialist states. Back then, just as much as today, the strictures of inclusionary or exclusionary discourses serve as a mask for maintain unequal relationships of power, which benefit some but leave others shafted. As Weibel describes, “globalization has merely continued the work and the process of colonization, which was based on the obliteration and exploitation of the other.”

Wu Hung presents an instance in which culture is affected by global shifts of power. As the West and capitalism infiltrate Chinese culture there have been dramatic changes in their cultural practices. An example of these changes is registered by the artist Wang Jin, who created the artwork A Chinese Dream, which is the source of the title of Hung’s essay. The work by Jin illustrates the transformation of the Chinese tradition of Peking Opera, highjacked by the state machine and turned into a spectacle for tourists. Peking Opera has been removed from its original context and transformed into a synthetic experience. Wang Jin created A Chinese Dream, a series of Peking Opera costumes made of contemporary artificial materials, and by the action he wants to address the impact the West has had on a time-honored tradition, which has been “plastified” or Disney-fied. This is an example of a contemporary art practice which unites both Appadurai’s observations and Weibel’s about the global cultural situation — about the possible urgency to maintain tradition and customs at the same time that we are pressed to export and import ideas in a global marketplace. The work by Jin is one that responds to the rapidly growing capitalist interests in China, and the work titled A Chinese Dream is part of the artist’s social critique of the general conditions of contemporary Chinese art. This is one example of the roles contemporary art takes on today, what art curator Okwui Enwezor calls “the prosecution of the colonial enterprise”, carried out mainly  through investigation and representation of its excesses, and a commitment to the diffusion of civics.

Chinese Dream (1997-Present), by Chinese artist Wang Jin
Chinese Dream (1997-Present), by Chinese artist Wang Jin

In conclusion, like Weibel points out “other cultures do not wish to subjugate themselves to the monopoly of the West – that is, to reject their own culture through mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.” One could argue that Wang Jin’s work A Chinese Dream is an effort of critique to the infiltration of values of the West, and it is a prime example of resistance to such a monopoly, a resistance based on critical analysis and evaluation of Chinese history. As Hung states in his essay “Wang Jin created the costumes to deconstruct the ‘cultural authenticity’ of contemporary Chinese art.” What Appadurai would have considered a “product of the infinitely varied mutual contest of sameness and difference on a stage characterized by radical disjunctures between different sorts of global flows, and the uncertain landscapes created in and through these disjunctures.”

To read the text Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy (1990), by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, click here.

To read the text A Chinese Dream by Wang Jin (2001), by art historian Wu Hung, click here.

To read the text Globalization and Contemporary Art (2013), by artist and curator Peter Weibel. click here.

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