Understanding the foreign through art

Michael Brater

The first requirement points to a fundamental dilemma: if a person is to become familiar with something that is foreign, unknown, they will try to give it a name, interpret it, in order to make it part of their world. In the case of the intercultural encounter that can indeed apply in both directions. When we interpret something we fall back on everything we can mobilise from our own experience and culture. But once we have formed an idea about someone or something, we no longer perceive our counterpart but merely judge the degree to which there is a correspondence with our own ideas. My counterpart only exists to the extent that I interpret him or her against the background of my cultural prerequisites and thus “create” him or her – without him or her having any opportunity to be involved in and influencing this construction. Some see this process as a kind of “symbolic violence” which can easily tip over into physical violence. 

Acquisition without destruction

We cannot do without the “acquisition” and interpretation of what is foreign. But how can we manage not to impose our interpretation on it but to allow it to express itself in and help shape this process?

The encounter with people from foreign cultures is unsettling because, by being different, they call our cultural coordinates into question without wanting to do so or even being aware of it. The otherness of the other person points to the relativity and limits of our own world and the things in our culture we take for granted, even though we should not do so: the intercultural encounter always reveals the character of culture as being a “construct”, one possibility among many. Now we can either experience the foreign as calling me and my culture – and thus my identity – into question, in which case we reject it, fight against it and find it strange, absurd and impossible. Or we become curious about the alternative solutions and interpretations offered by the foreign – then our horizon widens. Joy in diversity arises, enthusiasm about the creative power of the human spirit, interest in the nature, the idiosyncrasies of the foreign. We get an idea that people, above all, manage to do this who are secure in their own culture and are therefore in a position to let themselves get involved in the other without thereby losing themselves – who, as Picasso said, “know themselves to be secure in insecurity”.

The different nature of the foreign allows us to recognise hidden, untapped possibilities of our existence. The intercultural encounter with cultures foreign to us always permits us to discover the person behind his or her cultural character and role play. Intercultural encounters in particular can “uncover” this person who is “common to all of us”. Turkish hunger is no different to Greek hunger, the pain of a Palestinian child about a loss is just the same as the pain of an Israeli one. Happiness is expressed culturally in many different ways but the feeling is the same everywhere. People reflect on the riddles of their existence in very different languages and may also formulate different answers from the depths of their culture through which they can learn from one another – but they are the same riddles and the same cognitive intent is at work in all of them.

In a subtle dialectical process, the encounter between people from different cultures makes precisely that accessible which people, as people, have in common; which characterises them as human beings beyond any cultural differences and makes them open to the word “you” (Martin Buber).

Interculturality and transculturality refer reciprocally to one another. Interculturality prepares for the concrete reality of what is universally human which never manifests itself in what is uniform but always in the diversity of cultural phenomena – in the creative and original power of cultural creation.

Artists and intercultural models

The way in which artists deal with the world can in many respects serve as a model for the intercultural encounter. Artists encounter the “material” they want to form – their at that point still unknown “counterpart”– at most with questions, preliminary motifs or curiosity. But never with specific aims and intentions of what they want to “do” with it. The virtue of the artistic encounter is “unencumberedness”. The painter Gerhard Richter puts it like this: “I ... would like to end up with a painting which I did not plan ... I would like to have something more interesting than what I can think up.” Could that not also be a guideline for the intercultural encounter – starting with an open mind and without preconceived ideas?

Clearly a creative (and social) encounter is only possible if we accept our counterpart with great openness and without particular intentions, plans or purposes. Neither can the encounter with the (culturally) foreign really be planned – just as little as artists plan everything out who simply start without too much consideration or calculation and create a basic situation with their material. Such an active beginning is experimental. It challenges a response in which our material reveals something of itself. And when artists in turn respond to that answer they discover more and more about their material. Artists themselves refer to a dialogue with the work as it is being created: “I have a very intimate relationship with my painting. I speak with it and have a dialogue with it. It is a to and fro which escalates until there is a result.” (Matthias Weischer, painter). The artistic process with all its surprising discoveries and many different manifestations arises from the interchange of action and perception of the consequence, doing and observing, proximity and distance, grasping and stepping back.

Here it is not just facts which are perceived – colours, shapes, sounds – but much more: expression, feeling, emotion, “character”, “atmosphere”, as the philosopher Gernot Böhme says.

This process is not, of course, a smooth one but leads into crises in which artists no longer know where to go next, lack understanding, feel helpless, alien, blocked, disappointed. The musician Sergiu Celibidache put this process into the following words: “There are 99 noes and one yes – and that is what you have to find!” It is particularly in crises that it is decisive not to give up, retrench, but to remain open for what is revealed in the other: “No matter how powerful you are, nothing can truly be played by force. On the contrary, where there is violence and force every free to and fro, every playful communication between forces breaks down” (Thomas Lehnerer, painter). The work of art is created “back to front” into the future. Its law is that of open development from what is given, guided and steered by the feeling, perceiving artist. If one can succeed in doing that, one can touch on something objective, non-arbitrary, something of general meaning. If we trust in those forces also in intercultural contact, a new, human world can arise beyond those things that separate us. Successful social, and most certainly successful intercultural encounters are artistic by their nature, are, indeed, “social art”. Every intercultural encounter contains artistically sculpting forces. Such encounters are “social sculptures” (Shelly Sacks following on from Beuys) which are based on the principles and procedures of artistic activity.

The three requirements for successful interculturality set out at the beginning are also requirements of the artistic process. The latter can serve as a general principle for intercultural dialogue and its creative possibilities. That is why artistic action and exercise can contribute to the success of interculturality.