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Has something happened to the idea of nationality? As millions of refugees stream across borders and countries are torn apart from within by their own citizens, through civil wars and terror attacks in the streets or even by the preposterous French burkini ban this summer, it seems traditional notions of national identity are in shreds. Once upon a time nationality implied shared ways of thinking and being: is it no longer represented by anything more than a passport?
As a cultural clash, the burkini row was surprisingly eloquent, with implications far beyond the battleground of the beach. Since the burkini wearers were almost all French nationals — declared outlandish by their compatriots — it was a vivid display of just how much contemporary cultural values are vested in religious, ethnic or political sensibilities, rather than in ideas of nationhood.
As with women’s clothes, so with art: both express what we value, individually and collectively. The more we study the links between nationality and cultural expression in today’s world, the more tenuous they appear. Meanwhile, the influence of wider aesthetic and political beliefs on art and culture grows stronger.
Modernism, that great internationalist movement, was devoted to the dissolution of national identity — to ideas of universal sensibility, beyond depictions of reality. Originally a western aesthetic, it also took hold across the then-free world, especially through architecture.
Pre-modernist artists took a quite different view of national art. Through the 19th century painting was often used to bolster national identity, especially at times of change: think of the artists of the Hudson River School, who helped to create the romance and mythology of the American West, or Eugène Delacroix in France after 1830, or, more infamously, art in Russia after 1917.
This sort of thing could hardly be further from the minds of today’s artists. The last century saw the growing dominance of abstraction, surely the greatest antinational genre. Although every artist’s eyes are attuned by what they have seen around them — the indelible imprint of “home” — just about all are powerfully influenced by the modernist aesthetic and the ways in which it has dissolved and transcended national borders, even as it has changed its face in each cultural landscape.
Many artists today play with precisely that dynamic: the Ghanaian El Anatsui, for instance, creates giant, fluid hangings that evoke the weaving traditions of his homeland but are composed of the modern world’s detritus: tin cans, scrap and bottle caps. Those eloquent little objects, born in the 1890s at the same moment as modern art itself, embody the modernist ubiquity that makes one culture speak to another.
While most leading artists I’ve spoken to like to think of their work as supranational, many now marry the aesthetic of abstraction with “national” elements, just as El Anatsui does. Contemporary artists from Iran — Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli— often base their abstract work on the calligraphic tradition, while a host of younger Chinese practitioners are reinvestigating the long history of ink painting.
But I’d argue that this kind of involvement with past traditions, though essential to the deep life of the mind, has little to do with national boundaries. Quite apart from the enforced exile suffered by many artists, nationhood is often elective. Willem de Kooning was one of the great figures of American abstract expressionism, but that was because he left his native Holland at 23 for New York. Pablo Picasso, born in Spain, decided to spend his adult life in France; Anish Kapoor embraced Britain.
Many artists now divide their time between their homeland and another place that proves more aesthetically or politically conducive to their work. Does this prove that nationality may be a pointless concept when it comes to the creative mind — wherever its inspirations come from? Not always. Artists choose causes as well as locations. Ai Weiwei, probably the best known name in contemporary art in China, spent some years in New York, but elected to return home and his work deals powerfully and passionately with the politics of his country. Yet his art is in no sense “Chinese”: it takes its stylistic language from international conceptual and installation art. In the fine tradition of dissident artists, his nationality is definitive yet his sensibility and means of expression rise above national considerations into the universal realm to which all art aspires.
So here is another way of defining an artist’s allegiance — perhaps the only one we can point to with any certainty. To art itself, and its power. That’s why artists very often have a deeper connection with each other, and with those who love and value art, than with their countrymen — whatever the colour of their passport.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor