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Folklife at the International Level: the Roots of Intangible Cultural Heritage Part III

This series of blog posts has turned to looking more closely at the roots of the ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH) concept, laying a foundation for examining the global policy – and thereby framework – from which it draws its strength: the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For the next couple of posts, I thought it would be helpful to highlight how the ICH definition has developed as one way to trace the history of the 2003 Convention and the issues it has raised over the past several decades through to today.

Several musicians play guitars and harmonicas while one plays an end-blown flute.

Bob Rychlik (seated, second from right) played the fujara and other Slovakian overtone flutes as part of AFC’s Blues Jam, while other musicians and AFC staff members admired his technique. Photo for AFC by Stephen Winick. Slovakia’s “Fujara and its music” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.  See a video of Bob’s full lecture and performance on the fujara and other flutes at this link!

As a refresher, the current definition of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH) can be found in Article 2 of the 2003 Convention, which was adopted in 2003 and entered into force in 2006. It states:

The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.

Immediately thereafter, the Convention outlines the “domains” in which, “inter alia,” ICH is manifested:

(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
(b) performing arts;
(c) social practices, rituals and festive events;
(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
(e) traditional craftsmanship.

It is important to keep in mind that the 2003 Convention has enjoyed a steady pace of acceptance over these past twelve years, with 178 Member States becoming States Parties to it. Indeed, this widespread popularity lends significant momentum to the potential mainstreaming, or universalization, of the ICH concept, as well as to the construction of a ‘new’ category of heritage at the global level. This is particularly interesting because, in theory, ‘ICH’ represents an immense diversity of cultural beliefs, expressions, practices, and traditions from around the world, which are ‘compatible with human rights instruments’ and the ‘requirements of mutual respect and sustainable development,’ but that are nonetheless nuanced and specific, as well as deeply complex in their own right, let alone when understood as a whole.

On a similar note, the above ICH “domains” are somewhat reminiscent of early anthropological attempts at classifying cultural ‘traits’ or ‘customs’ as universal in expression across diverse cultures. For instance, anthropologist Clark Wissler’s “Universal Culture Pattern” from his 1923 book, Man and Culture, proposed as a tool for scientific analysis and substantiating certain theories at the time about the entirety of human cultural development, provides an interesting comparison, eighty years apart. According to him, all cultures – no matter when or where – possess the following “culture complexes:”

  1. Speech: Language, writing systems, etc.
  2. Material Traits: a. Food habits; b. Shelter; c. Transportation and travel; d. Dress; e. Utensils, tools, etc.; f. Weapons; g. Occupations and industries
  3. Art: Carving, painting, drawing, music, etc.
  4. Mythology and Scientific Knowledge
  5. Religious Practices: a. Ritualistic forms; b. Treatment of the sick; c. Treatment of the dead
  6. Family and Social Systems: a. The forms of marriage; b. Methods of reckoning relationship; c. Inheritance; d. Social control; e. Sports and games
  7. Property: a. Real and personal; b. Standards of value and exchange; c. Trade
  8. Government: a. Political forms; b. Judicial and legal procedures
  9. War
Six men hold up a large wooden pole with decorative carvings on it.

Raising a chapel pole made by Antanas Poskocimas in front of the Lithuanian Jesuit Fathers Youth Center, 5620 S. Claremont, Chicago, Illinois, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Part of the online Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection (AFC 1981/004). In 2008, Lithuanian “Cross-crafting and its symbolism” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Wissler contended that although this “skeleton of culture” was generalizing in effect, it brings to light basic similarities as opposed to differences in cultural beliefs, expressions, and practices, proving useful in understanding human cultural evolution. He states:

[W]hat happens in the evolution of culture is an elaboration and enrichment of these complexes, a process which we sometimes speak of as progress. We can now comprehend why it is practically impossible to draw satisfactory distinctions between primitive and higher cultures, other than that they differ in complexity, or richness of content.

It goes without saying that for a long while now in anthropology and related fields, the notion of cultural evolution has been viewed as useless (and, most importantly, flat-out discriminatory, to put it lightly) in its attempt to chronologically order cultures, from ‘primitive’/ ‘simple’ to ‘civilized’ / ‘complex.’ Even just a couple of decades later, another well-known anthropologist, A. L. Kroeber, dismissed Wissler’s list as futile since “it is evident that the greater range of cultures considered, and the more diverse these are, the more will the universal elements or common denominators shrink or become vague […] Thereby the most characteristic features of each culture get blurred out.” In 1948, Kroeber pointed out that “[n]o one seems to have developed this idea since it was first set forth in 1923, or to have made serious use of it toward deeper understanding.” In the end, he acknowledged that this universal pattern “boils down to a rough plan of convenience for a preliminary ordering of facts awaiting description or interpretation.” It seems that Wissler would have agreed; although, with the added qualification:

The simplicity of the classification invites objection from those who are fond of contemplating the complexity and largeness of human affairs, for they will say that no such simple scheme can in any way serve as a statement of culture. But such assertions merely dodge the issue, for in everyday affairs we ourselves deal with problems of the hour in similar broad concepts and do it effectively.

More than anything, I bring this up to underscore what an enormous task it is to shape a singular definition for living cultural expressions, practices, and traditions – particularly what is meant by “ICH.” While the inclusion of the above “domains” was the subject of debate during the drafting of the 2003 Convention text, a topic to which I will return later, these long-ago attempts at categorizing cultural ‘domains’ – some overlapping with the above-mentioned ‘ICH’ ones and some not – highlight a possible tendency to universalize culture; that is, to emphasize ‘common denominators’ across cultures and downplay, or potentially neglect, their rich complexities and distinctions. ICH expressions derive their lifeblood from the nuanced knowledges, skills, and meanings embodied by those who keep them vitalized (and ever-changing). It is, therefore, likely that the keys to effectively safeguarding ICH for the future can be found in this rich complexity, through the expertise of their practitioners and on a case-by-case basis. It is safe to say that this should be reflected in safeguarding approaches, including those promoted at the international level, and in the definitions that ground them.

Over more recent decades, in documents tracing the various expert committee meetings and discussions on shaping the ICH definition (and its ‘folklore’ and ‘non-physical heritage’ precursor terms), it was often mentioned just how impossible reaching a consensus on the concept can prove to be. In one working document from 1984 entitled, Consultation of Experts to Define Non-Physical Heritage (CLT-84/CONF.603/COL.1), it is admitted that “[d]efining the non-physical heritage is as complex (and perhaps as frustrating) as any search for a universal definition of human character and culture,” and that in its broadest sense, “non-physical heritage includes virtually all culture.” Yet, UNESCO pushed on, since “[n]o program can begin operations, however, without a working definition…” So, let us see how this rather concise, 21st century definition was shaped (as briefly as possible)!

Tracing the ICH definition takes us back to the 1970s and into the 1980s, when UNESCO and WIPO worked together on proposing ways in which folklore could be safeguarded through IP protections, as previously discussed. In particular, the 1976 Tunis Model Law on Copyright for Developing Countries used the following definition, which alludes to the importance of people in transmitting folklore over time: “[F]olklore” means all literary, artistic and scientific works created on national territory by authors presumed to be nationals of such countries or by ethnic communities, passed from generation to generation and constituting one of the basic elements of the traditional cultural heritage […]”

Later, the 1982 WIPO-UNESCO Model Provisions was strictly concerned with protecting “expressions of folklore” understood as “productions consisting of characteristic elements of the traditional artistic heritage developed and maintained by a community of [name of the country] or by individuals reflecting the traditional artistic expectations of such a community.” The expressions are listed as follows:

(i) verbal expressions, such as folk tales, folk poetry and riddles;

(ii) musical expressions, such as folk songs and instrumental music;

(iii) expressions by action, such as folk dances, plays and artistic forms or rituals; whether or not reduced to a material form; and

(iv) tangible expressions, such as: (a) productions of folk art, in particular, drawings, paintings, carvings, sculptures, pottery, terracotta, mosaic, woodwork, metalware, jewellery, basket weaving, needlework, textiles, carpets, costumes; (b) musical instruments; [(c) architectural forms.]

Bob Rychlik played the fujara and other Slovakian overtone flutes as part of AFC’s Blues Jam. Photo for AFC by Stephen Winick. Slovakia’s “Fujara and its music” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.  See a video of Bob’s full lecture and performance on the fujara and other flutes at this link!

Here, it is evident that while the range of folklore is both specific and relatively wide, broader expressions, such as language and traditional knowledge, can fall outside of its scope. The Model Provisions did acknowledge the dynamic and evolving nature of folklore (it is not a “mere souvenir of the past”), as well as the importance of communities in its expression, but often folklore was conceptually tied to the country within which it is practiced (for obvious reasons), such as in this statement on the importance of protecting it:

Folklore is an important cultural heritage of every nation and is still developing – albeit frequently in contemporary forms – even in modern communities all over the world. It is of particular importance to developing countries which more and more recognize folklore as a basis of their cultural identity and as a most important means of self-expression of their peoples both within their own communities and in their relationship to the world around them. Folklore is to these countries increasingly important from the point of view of their social identity, too […]

As the 1980s progressed, questions of protecting folklore from a broader, more interdisciplinary perspective became the focus of UNESCO alone. In the same year that the Model Provisions was adopted, a new program devoted to “Non-Physical Heritage” was created within the organization as a “comprehensive attempt to define, identify, collect, interpret, preserve and promote nonmaterial aspects of culture worldwide,” as stated in the aforementioned 1984 UNESCO working document (the term ‘folklore’ is used interchangeably in this document).

These efforts overlapped with meetings of the newly established Committee of Governmental Experts on the Safeguarding of Folklore throughout the 1980s. First organized in 1982, this UNESCO Committee aimed to study “the possible range and scope of general regulations concerning the safeguarding folklore” and “analyze the various aspects involved with safeguarding folklore” with a view towards proposing solutions, as discussed a little later. They comprised delegations of Member and non-Member States, representatives of related NGOs, and others. During discussions on defining folklore, it was noted that the “range and scope of the folklore to be covered by possible provisions should […] be extremely broad and flexible, since folklore comprised a great many manifestations that were both extremely various and constantly evolving.” As such, their efforts helped to shape the following definition:

Folklore (in a broader-sense, traditional and popular folk culture) is a group-oriented and tradition based creation of groups or individuals reflecting the expectations of the community as an adequate expression of its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means. Its forms include, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts.

It is clear that the definition was widened significantly to include a more loosely-categorized array of forms, and the example category headings – softly echoing Wissler’s scheme – remain. However, most striking is the even stronger emphasis placed on the people – “groups or individuals” – who “create” and ‘transmit’ folklore, and express their “cultural and social identity” through it. This acknowledgement of the fundamental role that people play in ICH creation and ‘recreation’ has certainly been retained in the present ICH definition. Indeed, the 2003 Convention’s recognition of the importance of “communities, groups and individuals” (“CGIs” in UNESCO-speak) with respect to their cultural heritage has been heralded as a significant step forward in centralizing CGIs in international cultural heritage policy.

Moving forward, the Committees were also concerned with proposing ways in which folklore can be safeguarded for the future. Ultimately, it was decided that an international instrument in the form of a recommendation to Member States could be useful in promoting a more widespread protection of folklore. This eventually led to the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, which was adopted at the 25th UNESCO General Conference in 1989. The definition for ‘traditional culture and folklore’ presented in the 1989 Recommendation is rather similar to the 1987 one above. Nonetheless, in the next post, we will look more closely at its development into the 1990s, an important decade of great ICH activity, leading to the 2003 Convention.

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