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Folklife at the International Level: Roots of Intangible Cultural Heritage Part VIII, Masterpieces and Paradoxes

A group of men singing.

Suliko, a 10-member traditional Georgian singing ensemble, performing in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress on June 11, 2019. “Georgian polyphonic singing” was proclaimed as a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in 2001. Photo by Stephen Winick.

In Part VII, we got a feel for the strong momentum that was building during the 1990s with respect to the more concerted efforts of UNESCO in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) – and raising awareness of the need to – globally. In particular, we took a look at the Living Human Treasures model, long established in Japan and South Korea, and which was proposed – and officially endorsed in 1993 – by UNESCO as a vital way forward for keeping traditions sustained through national government intervention. Here, we will examine another milestone in the story of ICH: the Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the second, key UNESCO initiative developed in this busy decade.

Adopted as a resolution by UNESCO’s General Assembly in 1997, the Masterpieces Programme, as outlined on UNESCO’s website, focused on: “forms of popular and traditional cultural expressions; and cultural spaces, i.e., places where cultural and popular activities are concentrated and regularly take place (markets, squares, festivals, etc.).” As a whole, the Programme aimed at:

  • raising awareness of the importance of the oral and intangible heritage and the need to safeguard it;
  • evaluating and listing the world’s oral and intangible heritage;
  • encouraging countries to establish national inventories and to take legal and administrative measures for the protection of their oral and intangible heritage; and
  • promoting the participation of traditional artists and local practitioners in identifying and revitalizing their ICH.

Launched officially in 2000, the main mechanism for achieving these aims took the form of an international list dedicated solely to ICH, which represents a momentous step in the history of the UNESCO-ICH framework, laying a much firmer and clearer path towards the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and its increasingly popular Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of today.

This new global distinction, as proclaimed by UNESCO (via Member State submissions evaluated by an eighteen-member, Director-General appointed jury), was awarded to certain “masterpieces” of the “world’s oral and intangible heritage” for four years, beginning with the first proclamations in 2001. Significantly, this list served not only to carve out a new category of cultural heritage in the global heritage enterprise, but to solidify it once and for all…and, as such, it was ready to be populated (excuse the awful pun). Nonetheless, as with all categories and associated lists, parameters must follow; the criteria for masterpiece worthiness were that the “cultural expressions and spaces proposed for Proclamation had to:”

  • demonstrate their outstanding value as masterpiece of the human creative genius;
  • give wide evidence of their roots in the cultural tradition or cultural history of the community concerned;
  • be a means of affirming the cultural identity of the cultural communities concerned;
  • provide proof of excellence in the application of the skill and technical qualities displayed;
  • affirm their value as unique testimony of living cultural traditions; and
  • be at risk of degradation or of disappearing.

By 2005, ninety ICH masterpieces were proclaimed as the “oral and intangible heritage of humanity,” and in 2008, they were subsumed into today’s Representative List. They range from dances in Bhutan and Tonga, woodcrafts in Madagascar, textile traditions in Peru to Vedic chanting in India, and Kun Qu opera of southeast China, among numerous others.

A group of dancers in Cambodian traditional dress posing on stage.

Cambodian Buddhist Society Khmer classical and folk dance group performing during Khmer New Year’s Celebration, Arlington, Virginia, 2012. The group was founded by former Khmer court dancers and musicians who fled Cambodia in the 1970s. “Khmer Classical Dance” was proclaimed as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in 2003. Photo by Edwin Remsberg.

Of course, the process of nominating and selecting these masterpieces – as with any heritage designation system – can be problematic, opening up fertile ground for behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, especially at the international level. One could also consider the entire project as having an air of the absurd, as Cullen Murphy did in his 2001 piece, “Immaterial Civilization,” in The Atlantic. Questioning what the intangible equivalents are of Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal, and the Acropolis, Murphy looked over the 2001 class of masterpieces proclaimed by UNESCO and mused that “the white lie,” “the weekend,” “procrastination,” and even “irony” itself should be listed along with the officially-recognized “Carnival of Oruro of Bolivia.” Poking fun at this new global endeavor, he ends on a humorous and yet interesting note: “[UNESCO] Director General [Koïchiro] Matsuura has been urging individuals and states to begin compiling an inventory of the world’s intangible heritage, and I plan to forward my proposals to the authorities in Paris. One question about the winners: Where will they hang the plaques?”

In any case, noteworthy here, in the late 1990s, is the enhancement of “intangible cultural heritage” with particular conceptual features. First is the emphasis on “oral heritage” as constituting a substantial part of ICH, which Aikawa-Faure – the then Director of UNESCO’s ICH Section – has since stated took on greater weight in direct response to the very tangible focus of the 1972 World Heritage Convention and its World Heritage List (to which Murphy, in his piece, was comparing). In her chapter in the illuminating 2009 volume, Intangible Heritage, she writes:

[I]ncreasing frustrations were directed to the World Heritage Committee by countries from the southern hemisphere who protested that the World Heritage List hardly reflected a geographical balance as its selection criteria were not necessarily suitable for the cultural features of southern countries. Their rich cultures, it was argued, are expressed more in their living form than in their monuments and sites.

Indeed, when looking at UNESCO’s handy statistics on the World Heritage List, especially its chart, “Number of World Heritage properties inscribed each year by region,” it is strikingly clear that Europe and North America, in relation to Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, Arab States, and Africa, dominated in terms of the number of listed properties up until the early 2000s.

Among other factors, Aikawa-Faure also recounts that the 1990s was a time when the protection of the cultural knowledges, expressions, and practices of the world’s Indigenous peoples (from misappropriation and economic exploitation) was also gaining even more urgency as an international concern. Thus, we see that one, influential strand of motivation behind the Masterpieces Programme relates to correcting an imbalance in the global concept and uses of “cultural heritage” as promoted by UNESCO through its most important heritage instrument at the time: the 1972 World Heritage Convention. This idea brings us back to earlier discussions in this series, where it was pointed out that having two separate tracks for cultural heritage awareness-raising and protection – tangible, World Heritage and ICH – may perpetuate a false dichotomy of Western (tangible) vs. non-Western (intangible) cultural heritage.

Another conceptual feature that the Masterpieces Programme brought to our current understanding of ICH is its all-important relationship with place – that is, “cultural spaces, i.e., places where cultural and popular activities are concentrated and regularly take place (markets, squares, festivals, etc.),” in UNESCO’s words. The inclusion of “cultural spaces” in the ICH definition remains currently in tact and can be traced to one of the key meetings for establishing the Masterpieces Programme: the June, 1997 “International consultation on the preservation of popular cultural spaces – Declaration of the oral heritage of mankind.” Held in Marrakesh, Morocco, the small meeting convened scholars, actors, writers, poets, and governmental representatives as a means for drawing attention to the potential destruction – via gentrification – of the market square, Jemaa el-Fna, and, thereby, the living cultural traditions, such as storytelling, that have developed and function within it. On this, UNESCO states:

The Jemaa el-Fna Square is a major place of cultural exchange and has enjoyed protection as part of Morocco’s artistic heritage since 1922. However, urbanization, in particular real estate speculation and the development of the road infrastructure, are seen as serious threats to the cultural space itself. While Jemaa el-Fna Square enjoys great popularity, the cultural practices may suffer acculturation, also caused by widespread tourism.

Long story short: the meeting was successful; the “Cultural space of Jemaa el-Fna Square” was proclaimed in 2001 as a “masterpiece,” and, thus, “ICH.” The Masterpieces Programme, and the international spotlight it can bring, helped to rescue the cultural space and, indeed, the square, and its many cultural expressions can be enjoyed on a visit today.

However, heritage scholar Valdimar Hafstein provides a critical examination of this meeting and its outcomes, complicating the fairytale ending with the (ironic) reality that the square became heavily bureaucratized and ordered as a result of global heritage designation. He writes: “With a ten-year plan, a local commission, weekly storytelling sessions, competitions, funds, and inventories of performers, Marrakeshi authorities have left no stone unturned in their effort to orchestrate difference, to organize Jemaa el-Fna as a safe cultural space characterized by harmony and a pleasant distribution of colors and sounds and products and services.” And to put a final nail in the fairytale coffin, Hafstein reminds us of other activities associated with the square, ones that are less savory and tourism-ready, such as the 2010 story of two student activists tortured in the notorious police prison below.

While places and spaces are absolutely integral to the development and expression of living cultural traditions, and it is significant that they are being recognized as such, they are also living and ever-changing, as well. The relationships between culture and place are fluid and not partitioned off from broader economic, political, environmental, and socio-cultural forces. To try and institute some sort of preservationist scheme, tying traditions to places and readying them for acceptable consumption (however that is defined), may render all that was complex and living as static and less-than-living – a paradox of safeguarding living heritage.

Examined previously, the notion of death – as a result of globalization and cultural homogenization – is embedded in the ICH concept. And in the selection criteria for the Masterpieces Programme, it rears its ugly head again: candidates must “be at risk of degradation or of disappearing.” At the same time, though, they must also be of “outstanding value,” which, as the anthropologist Peter J. M. Nas astutely pointed out in 2002, is rather contradictory: “Some cases are of high quality but therefore not endangered…Other cases may be very vulnerable and have therefore lost some of their quality.”

Dancers in Cambodian traditional dress on stage with musicians in the background.

Cambodian Buddhist Society Khmer classical and folk dance group performing during Khmer New Year’s Celebration, Arlington, Virginia, 2018. Master Khmer classical and folk musician, Chum Ngek, a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow can be seen playing the kong. The group was founded by former Khmer court dancers and musicians who fled Cambodia in the 1970s. “Khmer Classical Dance” was proclaimed as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in 2003. Photo by Edwin Remsberg.

In terms of combating these threats of destruction, Aikawa-Faure summarizes UNESCO’s efforts at the time as the following: “[T]he proclamation programme started as a small-scale prize project applying the mechanism of the World Heritage List in a simplified manner. Its principle purpose was to honour or distinguish certain oral heritage in order to prevent outside forces undermining their existence.” On this, I will end with Nas’ observation of what may be the most fundamental paradox of all – that is, the overarching aim of “protecting the local by interference of the global.” In other words, he contends:

The UNESCO program is based on the conviction that urbanization, modernization, and globalization constitute a great danger for the variety of human culture. These processes endanger the complexity of the cultural inventory and collective memory of peoples. This leads to a tremendous loss of oral and cultural repertoires, traditional social identities, and skills. According to the UNESCO rationale the protection, promotion, and revitalization of cultural configurations will make it possible to conserve these elements for future generations, providing opportunities to exploit them and create new forms of community identification. Although protection may lead to their alienation from the folk source and dependence on national and international governmental organizations, they are nevertheless supposed to be able to play a creative function in the development of humankind. In fact, the paradox is clear; the globalization of these phenomena is being employed to counteract that same globalization.

These paradoxes are important to keep in mind when thinking about effective safeguarding approaches as they point to potential limitations of this strengthening global infrastructure focused on ICH. In subsequent posts, we will continue our journey towards the 2003 Convention, remaining mindful of these issues and their impacts at the local level, where living cultural traditions, practices, and expressions live.

Click here to catch up on the Folklife at the International Level series.

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