Arts Education in times of socio-political upheaval
29/06/2016 | By Michael Wimmer
Between economization, globalization and separation
This text was produced in a state of shock. The results of the British referendum had just been announced: a majority of the population voted in favour of leaving the European Union. This signifies the greatest change in the co-existence of countries in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain; the consequences of which can’t immediately be estimated in its entirety. In any case, it is a slap in the face for an elite project, which has proven largely incapable of solving the central problems of increasing parts of the national populations. Its decision makers have condoned the impoverishment of entire countries, mass unemployment and also lack of perspective and prospects, particularly among young people. Furthermore, leaders have appeared largely incapable of managing the current movement of refugees to Europe, which became a major issue of domestic and external political conflict. As a democratic political ruin, the construct of the European Union has now been rejected by a majority of frustrated British citizens in direct vote, knowing that they would likely have to suffer economic drawbacks, but hoping to regain what they view as full political sovereignty.
And how is this connected to arts education, you may ask. Very strongly, I would like to respond, and I would like to illustrate this in a brief historical sketch ? especially from an Austrian perspective.
Since the 1970s, I have been working in the field of cultural policy and thus of arts education. At that time, the political idea was born that sooner or later wide parts of the population would rise up to a middle class milieu. In the context of a comprehensive reform agenda the leaders ? so the political message ? would significantly improve the working and living standards of disadvantaged people and thus enable them to overcome existing barriers of class.
The leading figure of the bourgeois age has left the socio-political arena
The well-educated citizen (“Bildungsbürger”) was seen as a leading figure who not only embodies the idea of political sovereignty, but should also be equipped with cultural capital to represent his or her identity in the midst of society. The then acting Austrian Minister for Education and Arts Fred Sinowatz spoke of "cultural policy as a continuation of social policy” to express that the policies of the then ruling Social Democrats should not only be restricted to a redistribution of material, but also incorporate ideational and thus cultural resources.
Arts Education was envisaged to significantly contribute to this comprehensive reform agenda. The opportunities offered should support young people in particular, and provide them with the necessary knowledge and experience when entering the centre of society.
At the centre of the political efforts was the culturally educated citizen, who represented the centre of society and was put in position as a guiding reference for all members of society. The specific reach of art and cultural institutions was envisaged to include not only the traditional bourgeois clientele, but also increasingly those who were not traditionally drawn to the arts and culture, who should develop an interest in these areas, also with the hope to thereby increase their social standing.
Associated cultural policy measures were embedded in a political claim for comprehensive participation, as well as social justice. The objective was to improve the living and working conditions of ordinary people, to make them co-bearers of common values and to welcome them in the centre of society.
Yes, there was also a minority which denounced the bourgeois character of the traditional cultural institutions and expressed doubts about the willingness to participate in a programme of comprehensive societal integration. Its exponents opted for a culture "of one’s own", especially for those who were not or could not participate in the general social advancement. The aim of a respective cultural policy was to stimulate critical awareness by cultural means to fight the existing social differences.
The representatives of such "counterculture" regarded the traditional cultural institutions as an expression of a bourgeois supremacy, which need to be overcome. Accordingly, they campaigned for an early form of cultural diversity, which should allow their supporters to fight the prevailing unjust economic and political conditions. Art and life should form a new alliance, so that measures of arts education – which were regarded as promoting existing realities in a missionary manner – would become largely unnecessary.
If nowadays around 90% of government funding are still dedicated to the promotion of a few big “cultural tanks”, and free initiatives are still fobbed off with crumbs, the defeat of this alternative can be read off easily.
Cultural policy is losing its bourgeois basis – the basis has other concerns
It is my argument that 40 years later, the situation has changed fundamentally. The societal centre as the decisive power in the political arena seems to be in a deep crisis. Although empirically collected data about the current state of the Middle Class diverges, there is obviously an increasing uncertainty at the heart of society: Solidarity is gone, everyone is fighting everyone; the losers are threatened with social descent; the hitherto dependable idea of good performance seems largely discredited and superseded by the primacy of success. The function of the bourgeois as a natural carrier of the cultural sector is going to fade away.
What we can observe is a trend of the downfall of a hitherto hegemonic middle class. This also means that its political commitment to socially disadvantaged groups and to provide for their integration has massively lost its credibility. Fewer socially disadvantaged young people believe in the great promise and try to settle in precarious living conditions – even if they are highly qualified and trained. The mere fact that more than 30% of young people in Austria leave school without being able to read and comprehend texts to an adequate level without perceiving this as an existential loss of abilities, banishes the leading figure of an educated citizen in the dustbin of history.
The result is an even scientifically hard to describe differentiation of social milieus which live very different values ? and make use of very different cultural expressions. What unites them is no longer the hope of a common "better society", but an increasing hate against a middle class based elite, which has managed to secure their sinecures recklessly without willing to participate the struggle of the large rest of society. Thus, the decision to vote in favour of "Brexit" can also be seen as a response of the many disillusioned people who stood up against the predominance of a privileged elite whose social commitment in the end was narrowed to promising something it didn’t think to redeem.
Cultural policy is going to respond to the growing de-legitimization of the middle class with concepts of cultural diversity. Originally emerged from the discussion on the global cultural inequality, respective concepts, also in European societies, are becoming increasingly important, in case they are also characterized by growing social inequality. The problem of implementation so far can be mainly seen in the fact that the respective political project that would make cultural diversity a means for political emancipation is largely missing.
Cultural Education in times of fundamental social change
After all, we can see "post-centrist" are accompanied by "post-political" developments that suggest to the people that in the current global economic regime there are no alternatives, accordingly there is nothing to choose. In the analyses of sociologists such as Colin Crouch an international economic and financial industry has taken the political reins in its hand, while the remaining political elites are reduced to the assisting job. They are increasingly limited in their actions driven by the hope that at least they will be able to obtain themselves their privileged position. At the same time growing segments of society are robbed of their political claims, more they are stigmatized as supposedly disinterested in politics.
As a result, post-democratic conditions become evident as they are exemplified in the current structure of the European Union. With the advent right-wing populist movements in most European countries, which – as in Hungary, Poland and, most recently, in Austria – nowadays have the potential to assemble majorities of national populations, the profound violations of democratic principles in the EU finds its ugly grimace. It seems that the only remaining possible reaction for those who feel disadvantaged and full of anger – because in their point of view the EU is not going to apply to them the principles of political and civil equality – is to fight for the reinstallation of the national state. Although this political construct is objectively less and less able to solve the existing transnational problems, it allows an aggressive fight against the EU-savvy elites and gives a feeling of collective strength.
By refusing sustained structural changes in the political structure, the leaders of the EU are going to ruin the political attainments of the continent and by that the hegemonial position of the social centre. In the article "The defeat of the political centre", Ulrike Guérot proved compelling evidence of the disastrous consequences of the political weakness of the European project. According to her, it is mainly the refusal or inability of the European elites to further develop the European Union towards a transnational democracy, which produces the hate of those who can no longer express themselves publicly against an establishment that has lost any political vision. Facing the anti-migration grimace it would flee in moral arrogance while maintaining the anti-democratic conditions.
The result is a growing gap between a shrinking, uncertain middle class trying to maintain the status quo, and the growing rest of society, for which almost anything is better than the continuation of the prevailing lack of alternatives.
A cultural policy that has been isolated from its political basis, won’t find convincing arguments to bridge this growing societal gap. On one side there are the remaining cohorts of the middle class maintaining cultural diversity. They are ready to live diversity within their circles and experience it as an asset; at the same time they seem to have largely lost touch with the world of socially disadvantaged people who in turn remain in the mercy of cultural policy slogans of right-wing populists.
On the other hand, there are aggressive exponents of a programme willing to restore a homogeneous national culture (as their guardians, the respective national right-wing elite sets the scene). They promise their electorate their protection from further alienation. For them, the current refugee movements provide an ideal projection screen. In the fight against the political correctness of a civic discourse they are going to stimulate a climate of growing radicalization (especially in the social networks); their affective persuasion is following the argument that their voters would be "marginalized" and would find no open ears in the arenas of decision makers; the political centre would have excluded and abandoned them, and now it was up to them to take revenge for that.
A counter strategy, however, which advocates refusing to participate in the political process and instead offers cultural crumbs in form of arts education will in my opinion not be able to work in the long run.
What will / what can cultural education provide in this situation?
There are quite uneven responses to these dramatic social developments. In my estimation, up to now large parts of the arts and cultural institutions are following an (erroneous) assumption that they could go on as usual.
They are driven by the self-referential interest in an undisturbed continuation of its operations: After all, it is about maintaining the traditional infrastructure, it is about jobs and it is about (public) financing. As tradition representing institutions they keep the main argument of the protection of cultural heritage. Yes, they know that their survival is based on the cultural interest of a middle class, but to a certain extend they articulate their possibilities to better take care of new, previously socially neglected social groups (especially when it is useful for legitimating the continuation of being privileged by the state).
However, they could lose traditional customers in the advent of a "post-bourgeois" era and face the hate of the social margins as preservers of the existing conditions, this fact still seems to be outside of the imagination within the culture sector.
Arts education as a deception project?
So it is no wonder that insecurity also finds its way to cultural institutions in view of the current trends of growing social inequality. After all, especially government-funded arts and cultural businesses are increasingly confronted with expectations to better reflect the living conditions of those who had been excluded. But unlike in the past, respective cultural participation won’t lead to a social position which is inherited in the staff of the institution.
In the currently changing hegemonic order, the concerned measures of arts education can easily be be regarded as a ploy. Under political auspices they can be read as activities mainly to prevent the participants from fighting against the traditional power differential which would be the inescapable condition for the implementation of better social and therefore cultural equivalence.
This is also connected to an increasing inability of communication when dealing with marginalized groups and thus with the inability to develop a convincing way of dealing with each other, based on mutual trust. Such could be directed to the arts educators to forget about their destiny as missionaries in mediating common values ??but assign them with the task as a credible broker interior between different worlds (and different cultures).
This is probably the biggest challenge for the cultural sector, while big parts of it still act as guardians of idealistic charged and commonly binding values, which don’t meet the realities of those outside the culture sector. There is a varied, sometimes contrarian set of values ??ruling which is mainly negotiated in (usually commercially operated) social media. They offer a completely new concept of culture which attractively allows to influence cultural behaviour much more sustainably than any arts education program. The social philosopher Thomas Metzinger said in a recent interview on the basis of some arguments from the empirical cognitive science that we are going to face a completely new dynamic of individual, but also collective manipulation in the near future and with severe consequences for what we up to now have negotiated under the term "culture".
Whoever has the solution should get on stage
Perhaps the most devastating consequence of the neoliberal, undemocratic EU project is the massive rate of youth unemployment, and many millions of young people who have to cope every day with a climate without any perspectives.
At the end of my cursory considerations, I have to admit that I myself as a privileged observer of current social developments am with them in at least one point: Given the daily flow of bad news, I have no idea how this story can or should continue. Wherever we look, no socio-political analysis exists which would again be able to create compelling visions for which it would be worthwhile to restart the cultural and political struggle, or encourage this lost generation to participate.
So far I have seen arts education as an outstanding opportunity to situate myself with all my senses in the world, and to become aware of my position in society in a playful way as a prerequisite for the possibility to overcome its inherent constraints by training one’s own abilities.
In the current situation, it seems to be appropriate to avoid beautiful phrases in case we do not manage to put them into concrete practice, rallying for the recovery of the political also in the field of arts education (including the related criticism), we might produce the opposite effects, which they intend. For now, we could confine ourselves to putting ourselves in the position of young people who have nothing to lose, and to admit the fact that we also have no solution to their problems.
Yes, we're in a very deep crisis and as contributors to the overall development so far, we have tolerated that development. And we have no convincing solution.
What remains is the knowledge of life that is unfathomable. Hardly anyone could properly foresee all the significant socio-political developments in recent years, good and bad. At least one positive argument for the sheer pleasure of living life with an open end; a life that offers new areas of existential experimentation to every single one of us – and above all, all of us – and always leads us to somewhere unexpected or planned.
In trying to find our way and navigate in this new quality of living insecurity, “regardless” or “now more than ever” could be a worthwhile role and motto for arts education these days.