Cultural Rights and "Masterpieces" of Local and Translocal Actors: A Study of Italian and Spanish Cases

By Giguere, Helene | Ethnologies, Spring-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Cultural Rights and "Masterpieces" of Local and Translocal Actors: A Study of Italian and Spanish Cases


Giguere, Helene, Ethnologies


This paper is about European experiences of intangible cultural heritage, proclaimed as "Masterpieces" by UNESCO (1). The comparative study of these cultural traditions questions the value of customary law versus freedom of expression and creation. It reveals the tensions between the "purity" and "impurity" of cultural practices and actors, as well as exclusions related to ethnicity, race, sex or territory. These tensions create new social divisions and remodel the identification with cultural practices. A consideration of gender sheds light on the marginality of women in public space.

The "masterpiecization process"--and in a wider sense the process of cultural "patrimonialization"--raises ethical questions common in the discourse of human rights: what do social actors legitimately 'own'? How is this ownership recognized and legitimized? When does institutional appropriation (justified by legal and political necessity) take precedence over the actor's voice and space? Why and when is tourist development the only way to "save" economic and cultural vitality? While multimedia museology is often conceived as the best way to address all these questions, it can easily exclude human and intangible dimensions, the experiences of performance and transmission by living actors. The use of multimedia follows the theory of interpretation (Tilden, 1977), presenting attractive material to simulate more interest. In our cases, its use is either encyclopedic or impressionistic.

In this paper, I will first establish the institutional context of the masterpieces within the framework of reflections on cultural rights. Then, I will very briefly present four European masterpieces in the Mediterranean area. A comparative analysis will follow which will precisely focus on the multiplication of practitioners and on translocality; on the overlapping between institutions and artisans; on the use of intangible cultural heritage as a driver for local development via cultural tourism; and on the multimedia "museification" of the intangible.

Masterpiece context and cultural rights

Since 1999 when the "Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" program was implemented by UNESCO, 90 forms of expression and cultural spaces have received official recognition. There were three phases to the Proclamations (2001, 2003, 2005). In each, the number of proclamations and candidature files increased successively (UNESCO 2006). Special prizes, from 3,000 to 70,000 American dollars, were awarded to certain "masterpieces" in the developing world in order to help safeguard them. In 2008, as agreed among member states, the 90 masterpieces proclaimed have been recorded on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity, modeled on the World Heritage List. Since then, new elements have been added every year by the Committee evaluating nominations proposed by States Parties to the 2003 Convention. There is also a second List for Cultural Heritage elements in need of urgent safeguard measures to insure their transmission. Various criticisms, but also the intensity of participation in the program, justify the interest in a comparative study on the consequences of the proclamations made thus far.

In an effort to understand the impacts of "materpiecization" in the political, tourist, aesthetic, and social sectors, I will limit my study to the Italian and Spanish cases: the Opera dei Pupi (2001, Sicily, Italy), the Canto a tenore (2005, Sardinia, Italy), the Misteri Play of Elche (2001, Valencia, Spain), and the Patum of Berga (2005, Catalonia, Spain). As they are located in Europe, they have not received any special funding from UNESCO. Instead, their management has been integrated into existing regional and municipal political structures. These models of integrated management of intangible heritage are therefore somewhat of a case study.

The cultural rights--we could also speak of customary law--of these Spanish and Italian cases cannot be compared with the now highly publicized cases of more basic human rights violations such as female genital mutilation or the destruction of Buddhist art in Afghanistan. …

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