Ekow Eshun made the remarks during a debate at the University of Sussex, part of a series of ‘Sussex conversations’, bringing together academics and leading figures in the world of culture and heritage.
“Pretty much every nation is always in crisis,” Mr Eshun said. “The arts are good at embracing dissonance and acknowledging the awkwardness of our national culture. All true art is controversial and raises hackles.”
Also speaking at the event on 19 January were Sir Neil Coussins, former chairman of English Heritage, and Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, who spoke about the preservation of Britain’s industrial heritage and a “mixed economy” approach which had led to “a democratization of heritage and the validation of non-expert views”.
Peter Boxall, professor of English at Sussex, raised questions about “whether the nation as an organizing framework is losing some of its power”.
“Some of us think of ourselves as living in Brighton and in Europe”, he explained, with the national dimension much less important.
Dr Boxall was also sceptical about Mr Eshun’s argument: “If the purpose of art is dissonance and difference, it is hard to imagine a government framework to achieve that,” he said.
A member of the audience raised questions about restitution and the “dark history” of National Trust houses built on the profits of slavery.
Another challenged the speakers to say more about reconciling the tensions between the preservation and progress, and the difficulties of talking about “the national heritage” and “our culture”.
Mr Eshun responded that, as someone from a Ghanaian background, “I deliberately use the phrase ‘our culture’ to stake a claim to where I want to live, against those who want to exclude me. There’s nothing passive about the phrase – it’s a statement of intent.”