On the creeping deflation of culture
03/11/2020 | Written by Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal opinion of the author.
And how to counter it
The Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft Oberösterreich hosted its annual reception with the title “Courage in Culture”. The organizers did not allow themselves to be intimidated by the tightened event restrictions, but decided on a hybrid format, in which personal encounters between SPÖ politicians and artists would be possible.
In the later evening Attwenger performed. With their aging brute-folklore they suddenly symbolized the swan song of an aging cultural industry that seems to have reached its limits with the pandemic. The two musicians reacted cynically to shouts from the 30 or so listeners physically present at Central: “Great atmosphere in here!”, only to replay their set, which twenty years ago thrilled the masses. They could not have made it clearer with their performance that what was going on between the stage and the audience has no future.
The cultural industry between assertion and despair
Before that, however, the Vienna City Councilor for Culture, Veronika Kaup-Hasler, talked about her committed efforts to keep the cultural scene in Vienna going, in part with unconventional formats such as the “Kultursommer” (Cultural Summer), especially in the pre-election period, and also to conjure up the importance of artists and cultural workers for the further development of an urban society. Their unconditional commitment to “keep keeping on” was impressive, even if some of their statements such as “art and culture are essential for survival, without them we would not have made it through the Corona Summer” were well-intentioned but would probably not stand up to a reality check. Next, the managing director of IG Kultur Österreich, Yvonne Gimpel, drew a more than gloomy picture of the current situation. She reported on existential threats, especially to the independent art scene, and did not spare criticism about inadequate aid measures including unclear guidelines for the implementation of events. Provincial councilor and SPÖ regional chairman Brigitte Gersdorfer reserved the right to provide motivation in difficult times and to award an art prize to the three young Upper Austrian authors Lucia Leidenfrost, Lydia Haider and Thomas Arzt, who responded with short readings from their current works.
Hopes for a speedy “return” – But the problems started earlier
My part in the event was to reflect on possible medium and long-term effects of the pandemic on the cultural sector. My starting point for this was the all too gladly cultivated hope of a “return”, which is supposed to suggest that sooner or later we will be able to return to pre-crisis conditions. But it is precisely this “again” that is possibly the decisive reason why the cultural sector in the current situation is threatening to become more and more marginal, in order to experience how insignificant it has become in the meantime.
There is much to be said for the assumption that the pandemic has settled like a magnifying glass over problems that arose long before, which have in recent years been put on the back burner by an ignorant cultural policy. Before our eyes we witness the drama of how the crisis has overturned the dominant business model, not only of the major cultural leaders but also of the paying users, who cannot enter and have thus become an unpredictable factor. And so, it is dawning on at least parts of the cultural industry that they have relied to the very end on a 19th century business practice that they believed they could declare eternally valid, regardless of the dynamics of social development. Such rigidity would be unthinkable in all other business fields – but in the cultural sector, of all places, there was no alternative but to continue to be transported by the – admittedly magnificently equipped – stagecoach in order to keep it the only adequate mode of transport.
And suddenly – not anticipated in any contingency plans – the foundations of this business model appear to be suspended from one day to the next: while the demand side collapses, the supply side tries everything possible to somehow continue its production – even if it means using additional state funds: ideal conditions for deflation, in which an oversupply tries to keep the demanders on the line with cut-throat prices, only to find that more and more of them have completely different worries.
In addition, the long practiced relationship between supply and demand in the sense of its time of origin refers at best to pre-democratic times, in which a few were assigned an active part on the bright stage and the large remainder a passive part in the darkness of the audience. These days, the cultural industry is rudely confronted with the fact that people in all other areas are already much further along in their claims to participation.
The idea of “again” as a worst-case scenario – do we really want everything to be the way it was “again”?
Given the current disruptive conditions, we cannot avoid the question of whether we really want everything to return to the way it was. After all, even before the crisis, no other area of social production was a study of such a degree of social inequality as our profession. Other sectors can almost ideally study here how social inequality can be organized most efficiently. Nowhere else do a few privileged cultural workers face an army of precarious people as starkly as in this sector. With the growing dominance of business requirements in a competitive society, these developments have accelerated once again: With a glance at a few celebrities, one gets the impression that “The Winner takes it all”, while the rest had to fight for bare survival long before the crisis.
But this social imbalance does not only apply to the production side. On the demand side, too, the industry concentrated – often in stark contrast to many a Sunday speech – undauntedly on a specific segment of the population oriented toward the ideals of a traditionally affluent, educated middle class who perceive themselves as wanting to rise to represent the whole of society. No wonder, then, that in comparison, large sections of the population do not even feel addressed by the existing offerings. In the meantime, they fall back on highly visible palettes of other leisure activities.
Cultural policy in recent years has not found adequate answers to these problems. Its representatives continue to operate in the mode of granting, creating a climate of informality that makes a professional approach impossible (I imagine how STRABAG would react if the state offered it a third of the funds necessary for road construction, and then added that this was so important that it is assumed that employees contribute the rest, even this leads to self-exploitation).
In addition, there is a high degree of personalization of an outdated cultural policy, which is primarily oriented towards strong actors and their interests and leads to the fact that figures like Stefan Pierer “could go up there to fix it”.
In addition to the structural inequality that traditionally characterizes this sector, an antiquated organizational structure is also part of many cultural enterprises, which, with their hierarchical structures, open the door to autocratic claims to power, thus giving a wide berth to the requirements of complying with modern regulations. The victims are all too often women, who continue to experience institutional discrimination and thus find themselves on the margins of the institutions.
The structural neglect of the audience
My particular point of criticism, however, in view of the current demand disaster, is the lack of interest in those for whom the cultural industry ostensibly provides its services. In many crisis meetings, what is currently being discussed is the number of people who can participate in cultural events, where they can go and where they can be seated, exclusively with a view to quantitative aspects. However, qualitative questions remain completely ignored though listeners and viewers are not merely quantifiable vessels into which cultural content is poured. They also have skills, abilities, experience, expectations, communication needs or interests – they are more than just paying people who want to be fobbed off with cheap marketing slogans.
In recent years it is precisely in this context that I have missed an institutional curiosity that would have placed those who make culture in a contemporary relationship to those who are supposed to do something with the product (incidentally, such an increased audience orientation does not necessarily lead to a restriction of the “freedom of art” – but it does reposition art as an outstanding form of communication that integrates both sides equally into artistic processes). Exceptions such as the most recent round of the Ars Electronica Festival or the recently launched steirischer herbst confirm the rule.
The cultural sector compared to other sectors
Perhaps it makes sense, especially here in Linz, to recall the developments of nationalized industry in the 1970s and 1980s. “A few million more national debts worry me less than a few thousand unemployed people,” said the then Chancellor Bruno Kreisky; a slogan that was further developed into “whatever the cost” by the current Finance Minister Norbert Blümel after a 180-degree turnaround in his financial policy. The state interventions of the time did not prove to be sustainable in the long term: Large parts of the companies were forced to submit to a painful restructuring process with no stone left unturned. At the center of this was the renegotiation of the producer-consumer relationship and thus the end of all hopes that by investing enough in production (even to preserve jobs), sooner or later demand would kick in.
That this is not the case has apparently not yet been discussed in the cultural sector. There is still a predominant belief that the laws of the market can be arbitrarily overridden by state intervention. This became clear even in the remarks of Veronika Kaup-Hasler, who once again made a fiery plea for the concerns of the cultural workers, while the audience, for whom all this is supposedly happening (without sufficiently considering that hundreds of thousands of them are currently forced to find themselves in at least as precarious conditions as large parts of the cultural industry), is fobbed off with generalizations about the meaning of culture.
Even in the cultural sector democratic achievements require an emancipated interaction between all groups of actors
At this point I would like to call out to all those who are once again campaigning for the uninterrupted continuation of cultural production: hello, we have been living, with interruptions, for 100 years in democratic (and yes, also in market economy) conditions. And these are not limited to casting a ballot once every four years, but refer in many ways to the way we live together and interact with each other. It would be high time, therefore, if the associated demands were also reflected in the new orientation of the relationships between the producers and consumers in the cultural industry. For years we have been negotiating models of cultural participation which include involvement, co-determination, participation or interaction, on the fringes of the scene. In the executive floors of large parts of so-called leading cultural enterprises, one gets the impression that they have not heard of any of this. Their contribution has so far been limited to the acquisition of third-party funded mediation efforts on the fringes of the company. In the crisis, the first people affected by this are mostly poorly paid women who are due to be laid off.
The independent arts once set out to break with these traditions in order to negotiate culture in a way that is more true-to-life, closer to people. In this way, it knew itself, at least indirectly, in agreement with various artistic avant-gardes who, since the beginning of the 20th century (not coincidentally, at a time when democratic coexistence was being tested for the first time), had been trying to put art and life into a direct relationship.
In the course of its market-economy orientation since the 1980s, many of its cultural and political utopias have been lost. Due to insufficient attention in cultural policy, it was forced, for reasons of survival alone, to position itself in a similar way to the top dogs on the cultural markets, only under much worse starting conditions, which were discriminated against by the state. Accordingly, those in this sector, too, who were originally invited to initiate new cultural-political projects in cooperation with cultural producers, soon found themselves back in their accustomed “less expensive” role as passive consumers.
To this underexposure of all those not directly involved in production also led to the oversleeping of the digital revolution, which has meanwhile affected all other areas of people’s lives and work except the cultural industry. Accordingly, hasty attempts in the face of the crisis to transfer the programs previously offered in analog form to virtual space via streaming, with a few exceptions, proved to be acts of desperation. So far, they have neither led to a significant increase in revenues nor to an expansion of the audience.
A last insistence of the cultural citizen on his special position: Only if I behave like the ancients of the 19th century do I experience “true” culture
With the insistence on a quick return to “again”, a new litmus test is applied, which once again tries to distinguish the true culture-interested people from the rest of the world: only those who physically perceive a concert or a theater play in the rooms originally intended for it demonstrate the “true cultural attitude”. And then the selection machine can be turned on again; all those who no longer want to submit to these rituals can be disqualified as philistines.
But if the behavior of young people is considered, the “truth” could also look quite different. Whether we like it or not, most of them have long since declared the categorical separation between real and virtual obsolete. This includes the self-evident use of interactive forms of communication and interaction, which for an older cultural audience still represent an affront to the “aura of art”. Here it is worth pointing out Peter Weibel’s analysis that our behavior is always the result of cultural learning processes (and is therefore constantly changing) and that this is usually determined institutionally).
The circumstance that – at least in my perception – the first premiere “Madame Butterfly” of the Vienna State Opera under the management Roščić was experienced much more impressively via the medium of television than at the square in the 38th row left physically in the house on the Ring.
On the socio-demographic blindness of the cultural industry
Perhaps even more decisive for the current defense of the cultural industry today is the disregard for demographic developments in recent years. For a long time, this could be glossed over by concentrating on a medium-sized tourist audience, which made the tills ring. The latter broke away from one day to the next and made it obvious that the local population is structured completely differently today than it was at the time when most of these ventures originated. As late as the 1970s, progressive cultural policy could still suggest that it was contributing to the creation of a “levelled middle-class society” (Helmut Schelsky) in which a set of cultural forms of expression equally binding for all would determine the way people lived together.
Most recently, with the domination of economically liberal positions even reaching the ranks of Austrian social democracy, politics have shifted from integration to selection. In accordance with the demands of intensified competition, social dynamics should not be driven by equals, but quite the opposite, by inequalities competing with each other. Beginning in the 1990s the political course was set for social inequality, supported by the ruling social democrats and accepting of the heterogenization of labor relations and the associated life plans. To the extent that the publicly-aligned cultural sector in particular (and thus freed from consideration of the new social realities) believed it could negate these developments, it suddenly mutated once again into a social selection machine that was less and less able to fulfill the claim to cultural diversity (not only, but also in the context of migration and immigration). In its niche existence, it has long been able to disguise the fact that broad segments of the population no longer associate its offerings with any promise of advancement and therefore classify it as irrelevant to their own life choices.
Even the most loyal aficionados (traditionally around 5% of the population) have been less and less reliable since then (in this context, the author Paulus Hochgatterer recently pointed out that lifelong affiliations are a thing of the past: If people themselves make their very basic life references such as profession, life partner, or party affiliation dependent on their respective contexts, why should this be any different in the field of culture of all places?
These are just a few indications of why a new cultural self-image is overdue. If this does not happen, then we should no longer be surprised if the cultural sector, in the face of the crisis (which has not only affected the cultural sector), has to settle down somewhere on the fringes of society in the long run, only to find itself there at the end of its claim to public attention.
At the moment, cultural policy is fully occupied with launching aid programs and various bridging aids to ensure the continued existence of the cultural industry. This also includes the slogans of perseverance that dominate the discussions, which refer to a “return” soon.
Stop blabbing about the “cultural nation Austria” – you are running the business of reaction
In this context, I would like to warn against relying too much on appeals to the “cultural nation” once again (as can currently be observed in other European countries), especially from a progressive point of view. I would like to remind all their apologists once again that this concept was the result of the refusal of political participation in the outgoing monarchy. Precisely because the bourgeoisie was not granted access to political participation, it sought a substitute field which would at least provide symbolic representation. After both the First and Second World Wars, on the other hand, nations were forced to use the idea of a “cultural nation” to establish a national identity that had been shaken by devastating historical events. Cultural policy thus succeeded in laying the foundation for a conservative basic mood in Austria, which could not be shaken off sustainably even during the glorious phase of social democratic optimism in the 1970s. Today, no one needs to worry about the Austrian nation anymore; the cultural industry has fulfilled its task in this regard, and the rest has been done by populists who want to gain political capital once again with the fight to maintain the “cultural nation” and yet have nothing else in mind but to divide society.
Contrary to those who are trying to bring about a “return” soon, I plead for the need to adjust to new circumstances. Similar positions are now coming from the heart of the industry. Whining will not be enough in the long run. Almost everything suggests that we will have to learn to live with this (or a coming) virus for a long time to come – and this will have lasting effects on the cultural sector as well.
There are already initial attempts to rethink the cultural sector, to test new settings and formats and in the process to establish new relationships between cultural workers and their audiences. Even such renowned institutions as the styriarte Festival or musikprotokoll are in the process of repositioning themselves, at least in some areas. But we are still at the very beginning.
Cooperation as a decisive ability to overcome the current crisis
If until to now the often-desperate attempt to give the actors in the cultural sector an individual profile has been in the foreground, then a more cooperation-oriented approach seems to me to be the only possible forward strategy at the moment. This concerns the overcoming of hitherto iron barriers between the entrenched institutional and the independent sector, the coming together of institutions and initiatives of different artistic genres, as well as the interaction of the cultural sector with other social sectors, especially the nonprofit sector. Models of peer-group learning and even temporary exchanges of individual colleagues between workforces of different groups of companies could be a starting point for this.
The future of the cultural industry from the ruins of the (wage) labor society
A special concern of mine is to rethink the relationship between producers and users in connection with the growing demand for cooperation. This seems all the more necessary to me as the current crisis suggests that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their previously secure position in the working world in the medium term. In addition to this, there are intensified rationalization strategies, which the Federation of Austrian Industry has already estimated will lead to more than 800,000 unemployed people (not including people on short-time work). But this means that more and more people outside the cultural sector share the fate of the cultural precariat. The only appropriate short-term response to this seems to me to be the solidarity-based unification of all those who are being driven out of society in the current crisis.
In the medium term, however, this could be the starting signal for a broad public discussion about the development of new value concepts and endowments of meaning within the framework of an “activity society” that points beyond the ruins of the working society as we know it. To this end, however, the cultural sector is forced to move out of its – as is painfully evident these days, less and less protected – bubble and to test new alliances in experimental settings. This should be all the more successful because more and more employees in the cultural sector are themselves suffering from this development, also because no coalitions beyond their own initiative have been sought and thus not found.
Of course, this also has to do with the fact that the “Party of Labor” and the trade union movement have overslept developments in the labor society, not only in the cultural sector (but especially there): this was the only way that new, atypical employment relationships could become prevalent, leading to a permanent alternation between dependent and free, project-related employment in the cultural sector. Apropos of this: The fact that the SPÖ, on the occasion of the publication of the study on the social situation of artists, speaks of a median annual income from artistic activity in the amount of 5.000.-, I still consider it a scandal (and one of the deeper reasons why so many cultural workers have come to a critical distance from the SPÖ).
Yes, after years of state negation (including by SPÖ cultural politicians) the independent sector is tired and exhausted. And yet, its participants could recall once again that at the beginning of the scene there was exactly this intention to overcome the strict separation between (wage-) work and leisure time in order to come closer to a meaningful existence of a “whole human being”. In cooperation with bright minds from the institutional sector, who know that it cannot go on like this, new forms of implementation could be tested. We need them like we need air to breathe!
No wonder, then, that recently the demand for a “basic income without conditions” from the cultural sector has become increasingly loud. As a sign of solidarity, it cannot be emphasized enough that – at least according to the majority of those involved in the cultural sector – this should not be limited to them alone, but is formulated as a claim for the whole of society. If such models have already been successfully tested elsewhere, both positive and negative socio-political consequences can be identified. This makes it all the more important to have a broad public discourse on this issue.
We have to think and talk more about cultural policy again! – We need reliable foundations for this – and we have to try out new things in practice
In these turbulent times, there is little that speaks in favor of discovering a cultural policy response that solves all problems, but one can certainly borrow from programs that were implemented many years ago, the most prominent of which is probably the “Federal Arts Program” within the framework of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt is (German curator and gallery director Hans Ulrich Obrist has tried to apply this to the current situation in the form of a “New New Deal“).
Everything that can be assessed, at least in a generalizing way, indicates that, in addition to the aid programs, a new quality of public cultural-political conversation is needed. This includes the provision of reliable data through sound cultural policy research, which can help to at least relativize the rampant informality and personalization through more evidence-based policy. Perhaps most important, however, is the opening of diverse fields of experimentation by government cultural policy, in which new settings and formats can be tested largely without preconditions (the program “dive in” of the German Federal Cultural Foundation is a good example of this).
To go into fear – so that the fear goes away
But for the cultural sector, I recommend – crisis or no crisis – a more courageous look into the future (a look at the seven pillars for the reorganization of a more audience-oriented cultural sector by Michael McIntyre could be helpful). Any kind of future orientation, however, can only work in a self-determined attitude, in which the actors do not limit themselves to waiting for a “return”, but understand themselves as comprehensive learners and direct their curiosity towards a “not-yet” as the central resource of their actions, even if dangers threaten the path of permanent change. In this context, I have recently again taken up the autobiography of Marina Abramovic with the evocative title “Walking through Walls“, which lays out her artistic principle in which she has always undertaken a new way not to repeat what we already know, but to place ourselves in situations that we do not yet know, that make us fear, in order to make new experiences possible. Her advice to the cultural industry is her motto: “Only when we go through fear can we overcome it and come to ourselves!”
This seems all the more plausible in this day and age when we consider the schizophrenia in which we find ourselves, in which on the one hand it is suggested to us that we can eliminate all danger with ever new safety measures, and which on the other hand shows us how more and more people – as in these days in Moria – are exposed to existential dangers.
I hope that it has become clear that this contribution is a plea to enter new territory, to renew the claim of shaping the future, to dare to experiment and thus to participate in the reinvention of the future, in which we are able to win the unpredictable from life again.
We finally need a policy that stands out with convincing future prospects
Such an “open-minded” attitude on the part of the cultural sector also has something to do with the state of political lobbying. Yes, it is true that many cultural workers like to turn up their noses at the passing of a policy that has been ignorant of their activities in recent years. But even they must acknowledge that the cultural industry does not take place in a political-free space and that its actors are not able to close themselves off from socio-political developments at will. A look into the past shows that the sector has repeatedly experienced permanent innovation thrusts through alliances with progressive forces that were not satisfied with maintaining the status quo.
Conversely, however, this means that the cultural sector is dependent on the formulation of politically mediated perspectives. Therefore, the current crisis of the cultural sector also represents a failure – especially of progressive politics – to develop convincing plans for the future of the cultural sector (even if populists like to speak of “state artists” in this context, such alliances, which include mutual criticism, have not resulted in the instrumentalization of the cultural sector, including its claims to autonomy, by politics, but have led to disputes on equal terms, from which both sides have emerged enriched).
This seems all the more important because the cultural industry on its own tends to be conservative, and finds its deepest, no longer comprehensible in words, roots in the past orientation of Austrian cultural history. In the administration of cultural heritage, we know our way around, nothing can happen. And yet we unexpectedly end up in a museum that tells a story that, of course, has never existed before.
After all, we work with culture – so let us delete “again” from our vocabulary
My final recommendation to the cultural industry is to delete the word “again”. We would then get a sense of why the cultural sector, which goes beyond its existing interests, is needed in a phase of a comprehensive social transformation process. What is needed is a culturally based future scenario, the design of which is worth working on together and on which we can orient ourselves. Nostalgically poking around in a supposedly better past, which never existed in this way, that is not art.
A positive side effect: Attwenger would then no longer need to endlessly repeat their song “Wama Liaba” from the 1990s.