October 2, 2017
Sustainability versus Resilience
About the role of arts education in the hopes for sustainable development
By Michael Wimmer
“Even in the camp of those believing in continual progress, one begins to understand that chaos is the rule of which the order is the most unlikely of the exceptions.” (Peter Sloterdijk)
In 2015 Heads of State, Government leaders, UN High Level Representatives and civil society adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in total. They reach from fighting hunger and poverty to equality and partnerships. As up to now cultural development is not mentioned explicitly, the newly established European network on arts education research ENO, which is based on a number of UNESCO observatories throughout the world, recently met in Porto/Portugal and discussed if and in which way arts education can contribute to the idea of global sustainable development.
As there were a number of contributions who each emphasized the positive impact of arts education on sustainability I tried to play the role of an agent provocateur to bring in some doubts in the current advocacy driven discussion.
Of course, I do understand all representatives of the arts education sector who seek to improve the basis of respective activities in a more sustainable way. At the same time, we should dare to raise the question if each kind of sustainability is seen as something positive (i.e. the fascist Salazar regime in Portugal had been quite sustainable compared to the Nazi-regime, which did not last a thousand years even though it ended with consequences affecting Europe to this day).
As the former UK-chancellor Margaret Thatcher based her politics on “There is no such thing as society” I would like to oppose the current mainstream to make arts education a thriving force for sustainability by arguing that – in the current historic phase – “there is no such thing as sustainability”. The reasons are deeply rooted in our ideas of life itself, as it is about permanent change. What we experience is life as a cycle between a beginning and an ending, in the meantime the richness of individual as well as collective life lies in permanent, often unexpected transformations in a world of endless unpredictabilities. In other words: Life cannot be streamlined, today more than ever and there is no secure path-way which would allow us to enter an Elysium of sustainability. Yes, in the intention to make life easier we produce hopes that may be based on the idea of modernity as a one-way-road of permanent progress. But Hegel’s “world spirit” (Weltgeist) is gone; nobody knows what the future will bring and even the next few years are hidden in an impenetrable fog.
Searching for (necessarily) a wrong simplification of what life is about
Instead of a straightforwardness of societal development we experience the incalculable complexity of the conditions we are living in. This gives free way for an apocalyptic rhetoric, mainly used by a new generation of authoritarian right-wing populists stating to have simple answers for the current confusion. Trying to stand this kind of insecurity we are all searching for “competence for compensating incompetence” which would allow us adequate orientation in the current dynamics. But up to now we have not found convincing hints which would make our complicated lives simpler (I hope there is a common sense that the current offers coming from political and religious fundamentalists or an increasing number of esoteric movements won’t be seen as possible solutions).
When I try to reopen our future horizons in a way that cannot be predetermined in a sustainable way I do not want to argue against careful handling of natural resources or respectful human togetherness but my argument in the current hype favouring sustainability would be: You never know what the result might be. Even more: In the intention to keep our future perspectives open we should learn to appreciate that future will be different from our expectations.
As a number of speakers during the ENO conference favoured the inclusion of “culture” in the UNESCO catalogue of sustainable development goals I tried to find arguments not to do so: When I grew up there was a common sense about the rational stating that more culture (as it looked like anyway) would lead to a better world. Maybe it is one of the disastrous disappointments of our days that this short circuit is not true. Instead of that we experience an ambiguous Janus-face of culture (and so of arts education) which confronts us with aspects of culture, we haven’t yet taken a closer look at. Otherwise we would have seen that at least some of them are directed straight against any kind of hard struggled civic attainments leading us back in a past, in which we do not want to get back at any price.
This kind of irritations also effects attainments like “cultural diversity” originally justified as a mean to fight cultural homogenization in a market driven global society. When we now experience the maintenance of traditional manners with all its catastrophic stereotypes as a weapon for the justification for fighting attainments of an emancipated civic society we have to admit, that at least some of our hopes concerning a “culture” that will lead to a better world (in a sustainable way) have been naïve and have to be revised.
At this stage it is important to point out that doubting “culture” as a major mean for civic development does not particularly focus so-called “developing countries” with no or weak traditions of civic society. In these days the arguments directly refer to well-established western democracies which are actually confronted with powerful efforts of ethnic re-purification and by cultural homogenization polarizing national societies in a more and more globalized world between the “us” and the “others”. These old/new cultural-political strategies, we thought to have overcome once and for all, lays bare a disastrous function of “culture” which declares the supremacy of what is seen as the “own” against the “foreign” (most of them in socially deprived circumstances).
As a result of this kind of “culturalisation of social conflicts” we experience the increasing fragmentation of different cultures rising one against the other which reminds of the dictum of the main figure of British cultural studies Stuart Hall, that “culture would be a permanent battle-field” (and by that the opposite of a reliable ingredient of sustainable development).
The times of cultural “de-learning” has come
Taking into account the actual fragmentation of modern societies alongside cultural borders, there could be a new task for arts education alongside the necessity of relativizing “culture” in the heads and the hearts of global citizens and by that safeguarding global (and by that not culturally determined) civic attainments. It was the Indian-British professor for literature Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who confronted us in her considerations presented in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and others with the term of “de-learning” which means to get rid of culturally trained colonial attitudes which in her interpretation would avoid the process of emancipation to become a sovereign personality.
In our increasingly interfering global societies it seems quite logical to make use of these ideas not only in terms of decolonialisation but equally in the countries of the former colonialists in which “liquefaction” and hybridization of different, seemingly natural cultural dispositions seem to be indispensable.
As a first of my considerations I would like to recommend a rethinking of the relation between arts education and civic education. When cosmopolitism in the shape of global citizenship has become the only prospective way to allow peaceful human existence in the longer run, we all – whatever cultural background we are equipped with – have to agree in a number of principles which are mainly about human rights, rule of law, equality of sex, age or origin and division of state and religion, all to be learned as core issues of civic education. On the contrary, arts education would allow finding a new place for “culture” in increasingly heterogeneous and globalized societies which would make the arts an outstanding instrument for a comprehensive personal development for people of all ages prepared and willing to experience the richness of the world with all their senses.
In one of EDUCULT’s research activities one of the interviewed youngsters raised the question: “How can one behave in relation to something unexpected when one only learns what is expected?” Reflecting this question, it came into my mind that the most important reason of introducing the arts in learning processes would be to confront the learners with the unexpected. In school and other educational institutions, there are no other means that are able to serve the curiosity towards what the world is about in an equally playful and serious way than the arts. Thus, we can make use of the arts as an outstanding tool to stand and overcome the strangeness of the outer world but also of what we experience as foreign in our inner world.
Good arts education as producer of obstinacy
The result would be arts education as a method of producing obstinacy (“Eigensinn”) which does not blindly follow collective cultural requirements but consists of a rich experience based on personal intuition. Such an obstinate personality has learned to stand wrong collective seductions requesting to stand “on the right side” of the gap between the “own” and the “foreign”. Against these wrong collective attributions there is a lot of evidence from experiences of individual learners that it was the confrontation with the arts in particular, which made the feeling of “uniqueness” possible. This attitude seems to be the main prerequisite for cathartic moments which allow an immediate experience of life, which is not the same as it was before the confrontation with the arts.
When – as mentioned above – life is experienced as increasingly complex and thus complicated, the first and foremost reaction will be fear. No wonder we are – in a first reaction – searching for a grab rail, allowing us the maintenance of hope and orientation for future actions. In this context the current boom on delivering good arguments for sustainability is understandable. Personally, I prefer the provision of arts education which allows the development of self-esteem and basic trust in the own personality in order to stand and even to make use of this kind of unavoidable fear. Anyway, if there is a future perspective, it is about the ability to expect the unexpected as something that is enrolled in our lives and which we may unfold in our inexhaustible curiosity towards the world in its immeasurable diversity.
At the end of my considerations I would like to find the last and maybe deepest reason explaining our desire for sustainability. Maybe it is just the fear to die, and by that to be forgotten. Anyway, the sheer fact of a limited live-span of human existence has equipped us with a narcissistic frustration, which we try to avoid by assuming that there will be something existing after us. But presumably that won’t be the case (at least what we can experience).
In these days leading players of the Silicon Valley are involved in the search for human immortality. For example, the large-scale investor Peter Thiel – who is by the way deeply concerned about the compatibility of freedom and democracy – supports the bio-informatics researcher and head of the methusalem project Aubrey de Grey in his efforts to overcome the aging process of humans with millions of Dollars. For me, it is the outmost perversion of the idea of sustainability in the current power relations, when the search for immortality of some rich few coincides with millions of others which could be supported comparably easy just to survive the next day here and now. In terms of sustainability a larger cynicism is actually not conceivable.
Opposing our expectations in sustainability one last time from a cultural point of view I would like to repeat my expectations on life which are not about what will last but what will – unexpectedly – change. What really counts in life is what we do not expect, by that keeping open what we call future. To stand this way of life is not easy and has to be learned. A good provision of arts education (remember Anne Bamford in the “Wow”-Factor, when she stated that bad arts education is worse than no arts education) can be seen as a decisive means to stand this fundamental life challenge – and it can immunize us against all kinds of (culturally grounded) wrong securities.
“The end of being, the end of fear” (Ludger Lütgehaus)
Not later than at the end of our lives we will experience that all these terms like “values”, “culture”, and also “sustainability” are just big words, meaning nothing when it comes to the hard facts of live which necessarily has a beginning and an ending. In between instead of “sustainability” the term “resilience” would much better fit for the ability to live a rich life in times of unprecedented change.
Personally, I am convinced that at the end there will be just “nothing” and the assumption of my whole life will be dependent on my willingness to agree in this “nothing”. Arts education, as I understand it, seems to be an outstanding tool to understand and to accept this kind of limitations of each life-span which seems to me as the only way of making life meaningful.
At the end there will be the insight that there is not sustainability but “nothing”. And in remembering a rich life full of unsolvable contradictions my biggest hope is that finally I will agree in this “nothing”.
The probability that UNESCO will take over the ability to agree in this “nothing” as one of the sustainable development goals is small.