“Truth is concrete“(Bert Brecht)
12/03/2013 | by Michael Wimmer
Why it is getting harder to generate interest in “culture and development” – even among the ones that are interested in arts and culture
A few days ago I was invited to a workshop on „Culture work in an international context“ at the University of Music and Performing Arts/Institute for Cultural Management and Cultural Theory (IKM). A few students and almost as many speakers were present. Again (just as on the conference on Cultural Diplomacy in November 2012 ), the impression emerged that the interest in reflecting on international cultural projects is limited.
I was assigned with the task to make some critical remarks following a series of rather impressive good practices in “Arts and culture in development work”.
Confronted with the few participants I felt like a goldfish in a bowl invited to discuss the state of the world. So I started by asking why only very few people are interested in the topic.
Very enlightening in this respect was the presentation of the theatre project “Slobodija Odysseia mon amour“ by the director and actor Thomas Groß. The project deals with the travel experiences of present Roma compared with the Odyssey. It will be presented both in Vienna and in the European Capitals of Culture 2013 Marseille-Provence and Košice.
Groß did not reflect in depth on the role of culture in development processes. His report focused on the organisational aspects: when he talked to whom, how he found partners for his project, how he found resources, what he asked from his team etc. Consequently, he concluded his report by asking the audience: “Where else could I apply for funding?”
Quite similarly I felt during the symposium celebrating the “UNESCO Chair Cultural Policy for the Arts” at the Institute for Cultural Policy at the University of Hildesheim (see my blog post – in German). The two artists who were invited to the discussion, Monika Gintersdorfer and Knut Klassen acted like Thomas Groß. When the dean of Hildesheim University asked them what they would expect from the new UNESCO chair, they commented: “Who we need is someone on the spot, whom we can talk to. We need reliable information on how we can organise the equipment, or on how we can invite our African co-performers to events in Europe.”
In preparing the meeting in Vienna, I found a text by the cultural philosopher Thomas Macho titled “Hope for Culture?” (Hoffnung auf Kultur?) who tries to explain the disinterest in discussion.
In the article he analyses the contradiction within our notion of “Culture”. Firstly, the conservative dimension defining culture as everything one “has” (language, religion, architecture, history, art, state, celebrations, manners, habits…). This dimension belongs to us by coincidence, by constraint, and there are many signs that we relate to this dimension especially in times of crisis and insecurity.
Secondly and in contrast to this dimension we find a dynamic, evolutionary definition. In this perspective, “Culture” is everything one does not have yet, but is encouraged by some we-meaning representatives of the 21st century world society to strive for (multilingualism, mobility, social competence, motivation for life-long learning, a tolerant and liberal attitude, an anti-totalitarian mind-set or sexual, ethnic, political and professional flexibility, to name but a few).
Does “culture” still rhyme with future?
In this irresolvable tension, Macho asks if “Culture” as a diverse and diffuse idea can still be negotiated, respectively if “culture” is still an adequate idea for social hope production. One could make things easy, at least for Austria, and answer by referring to the prioritising of the cultural heritage through public funding.
One could also look into the question more generally and find that political decision-making in most places in Europe got rid of its cultural charge (see e.g. the interpretation of World War I as a culture war by the German Professor Claus Leggewie in his impressive analysis „Kultur und Politik“.
Not to mention the famous dictum by Niklas Luhmann that “Culture” is one of the most horrible words ever created. It is enough to assess that specific cultural issues are less and less present in transnational political decision-making to substantiate the thesis that the term is regarded as washed-out. In any case, as it is more and more arbitrary, it does not generate any energy.
Cultural charge versus the rationalizing of politics
One might regret that. Or interpret it as social progress, as societal interests can be negotiated in a more concrete and transparent way (liberated from the almighty and diffuse burden of culture). Especially in the context of right-wing politicians who are still playing the culture card in order to “culturalise” social conflicts and complicate political negotiations.
Anyways, there are many hints that even in times of crisis European policies avoid charging their arguments with an emphatic notion of culture. What is on stake is the negotiation of economic and social interests that should not fail because of the presumed cultural characteristics of those involved (and if it happens, e.g. by the media-hyped confrontation of the cultural differences between Germany and Greece, it weakens the political problem-solving competences).
What remains is the idea of “Culture” as a neutralising utopic relic, which can be used to celebrate the nostalgic farewell to the great hopes and dreams of a better society.
There is development, more than ever
From this decline of the term “Culture” we cannot conclude an end of social “development”. On the contrary, there is more “development” than ever and not a single day passes without new, unexpected changes, sometimes shocking us, but in their overwhelming intensity degrading our ability to critically reflect and assess them.
A major contribution on the creation of future perspectives is generated by the research and development departments of transnational companies that dispose of more resources than any well-equipped cultural institution. For their employees, intercultural dialogue and global learning are a normal prerequisite to maintain production. They define which development scenarios will be enforced.
The interest of the cultural area in these developments is rather limited, although they influence the material and immaterial conditions of our society. Therefore, artists and cultural producers only play a minor role in creating the technological, economic, social and political conditions (and if so, like Beppe Grillo, only after swapping the roles from artist to politician, nolens volens).
One might also regret that. Or remind oneself of the specific European attainment, namely the freedom of artistic creation.
Freedom of artistic creation as attainment of European development
Maybe it is the specific strength of the arts that one cannot use them for this or that purpose but that they insist on their own value. In this, they facilitate unexpected events that do not correspond with our belief in planning but rather with the unpredictability of life.
In this context, the final discussion focused on the question of the morality of artistic production – that according to one participant should per definitonem be targeted at the improvement and development of society. He did not get much support. On the contrary, most shared the view that the quality of arts is to show the world as it is and not as it should be. The demand for morality is not expressed by the producer, but by the recipient, who can make his or her own decisions as a consequence of the artistic experience.
I liked this conclusion, as it was setting the autonomy of the artists and their passion to do what they think is right and necessary in relationship with the members of a society whose task is it to strive for development (and be inspired in this, if they want, by the arts).