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  • Introduction to Focus:Little India—The Provincial Life of Cosmopolitanism
  • Saikat Majumdar (bio)

Great art is provincial. Let’s not temper that with the softer, politically neutered word, “regional.” “Cosmopolitan,” much like the glossy magazine that carries its name, and the shiny airplane lounges it adorns, has dominated well-meaning conversations about culture for as long as we can remember, donning ambassadorial goodwill and gaining academic momentum. It has become to culture what multiculturalism has become to affairs of the state (and college admissions). It is so much nicer to be cosmopolitan, no? To be provincial is not only to be narrow and mean-spirited, but also, almost certainly to be reactionary in the bargain, a religious nut perhaps, backward and excluded from the intergalactic flight of modernity.

What a curious transfer of values this is. In terms of rhetoric, a pathetic fallacy. Where the weeping night ends up containing the tears of the suffering lover—the weeping human being who trades her identity with that of the night incapable of shedding human tears. Cosmopolitanism is what we expect of the sensibility that engages with the art-object, the reader/viewer/listener. It is the magical, sylphlike spirit that can contain multiple “aliennesses” at the same time that can step beyond mere markers of the foreign, such as headgear or veganism and genuinely engage with the alien values that uphold them, indeed, that which have no visible markers at all. There exists no particular burden on the work of art that it be cosmopolitan; human perhaps, but not cosmopolitan in any sense of the term. Its artistic power hangs on its ability to embed itself as deeply as it can within its cultural milieu, not leave it behind in gay abandon and adorn the moving, vacuumed space of transnational flights. Asking a work of art to be cosmopolitan is essentially the same as asking it to be moral; for cosmopolitanism is the goodwill of the nations, the moral impulse of its embassies. In a world where embassies often sponsor the dissemination, indeed, the creation of artwork rapidly commandeered by global capitalism, culture that can lay the curious claim to cosmopolitanism has, behind it, the fatally effective combination of national goodwill and global marketability joined together.

How did this happen? This great historic pathetic fallacy? The version of cosmopolitanism that circulates in the realm of culture today is essentially a creation of Western modernity. Arguably, there are other forms of cosmopolitanism, but that is discussion for another day. If the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century gave us the modern notion of aesthetic, its sense of interiority and artistic originality, it was the intense flowering of this modernity, aesthetic modernism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, that turned cosmopolitanism into the most desired whorl of not only the art-object, but of the life of the artist as well. Urban “bohemiana,” cafes and art-galleries, the hip art-district, artistic and intellectual migrancy—in most cases to live and soak in the atmosphere of the Left Bank, Bloomsbury or Greenwich Village—owe their birth to the emerging cityscape of nineteenth century Europe, especially Paris. Much of what we take for granted about artistic life goes back to aesthetic modernism—that to create art you must live the dull backwater where you were born, move to the hip art district in the hip happening city where on and around December 1910, human nature changed (or a couple of other cities like it, across the Channel and the Pond). And once you are there, you must lead an angst-ridden, hard-drinking, chain-smoking life and trade sexual partners as often as you shed your goth-hipster outfit. And this is where the world gathers, the world that matters anyway, and fine art emerges, winged by the blithe spirit of the cosmopolitan. James Joyce and Katharine Mansfield trekked this path of artistic migration from their provincial hometowns, as did T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; Gertrude Stein not only did it herself but became a sponsor of all who aspired to do so; Virginia Woolf, of course, was already there and deepened the definition of the cosmopolitan through the fantastic assemblage...


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