‘A great deal of confusion arises in both academic and political discourse when culture in the humanistic sense is not distinguished from “culture” in its anthropological senses, notably culture as the total and distinctive wav of life of a people or society. From the latter point of view it is meaningless to talk of “the relation between culture and the economy”, since the economy is part of a people’s culture… Indeed, the ambiguities in this phrase pose the great ideological issue confronted by the Commission: is “culture” an aspect or a means of “development”. the latter understood as material progress: or is ‘culture’ the end and aim of ‘development’, the latter understood as the flourishing of human existence in its several forms and as a whole?’
Any cultural policy being formulated at the beginning of the new millennium has to lake a number of new circumstances into account, the most important of which flow from the dominance of personal and social life by a narrow version of the economic.
It is not that we are in a post-ideological phase. It is that we are in the grip of a simple ideology that paradoxically began as an opposition to the then competing ideological systems of regulated market economies, mixed economies, welfare economies and centrally planned economies. This current ideology suggests the inevitability and desirability of an international market, a process described as ‘globalisation’. This term is used with both the awe and certainty that might have attended the idea of Creation in the medieval world. It is just as impermeable to criticism. It requires faith. It is intolerant of scepticism. It is not amenable to being questioned.
For the purposes of what I have to say, I simply want to suggest that the inability to make a critique of the unaccountable market represents a moral and intellectual failure that cannot be overstated. A particular consequence is that the cultural space is seen less as an agora of ideas, a set of discourses, a peopled street, a process of discovery, a resonance of the past, an excursion into the realms of the imagination, a manifestation of excellence. The cultural space is rather construed as a space to be ransacked in magpie fashion for what glitters – what has consumption value.
The lost alternative was to seek a recognition for culture as the repository and source of stories, past and yet to be remembered, by which we might be able to become at home in the world.
The question now is as to whether a transnational accountability can be constructed for economic interests that are concentrating in ownership, that are in a dominative position in relation to the ever increasing convergence of new technologies, whose profits are earned from private consumers in a fragmented social space.
For these increasingly international and concentrated interests culture produces commodities. It is not an instrument for social integration, for celebratory memory or renewal in the public space. The commodities are part of the entertainment industry – the fastest growing industry in the world. Culture, in the current hegemony of the market, is the source of a special ambience for speculative building in previously decaying urban centres.
The possibility of a sharing in the consumption of experience and fantasy in such spaces as a consumer is prescribed by the market and its adherents as a new form of social life not only for locals but for visitors. We consume therefore we are. Consuming together, we are, in Mrs Thatcher’s sense, becoming a nation, a new vibrant collection of individuals with a particular style, language, mode of presentation of the self. Those unwilling to identify the exclusions, the exploitations, the manipulations, involved may wish to suggest that this is a post-modern condition. I suggest it is the latest version of the inevitable alienation that accompanies a particular stage of capitalism. What is new is its structure of consumption, its uniquely new form of loneliness – the loneliness of those consumed in their consumption.
The peopled street of contemporary urban renewal is not the public space we encounter in literature – that space of anonymity and risk, where along a spectrum from curiosity to danger an alternative to the security of home was found. It is really now a set of forecourts for retailing. One needs to have spending power to experience the urban renewed street – a space more private than public and renewed for commerce rather than citizenship.
Governments, of course, in the present ideological climate, are encouraged to subsidise this infrastructure for commerce. It is sometimes called bringing new life back into dead commercial areas. However, those making such an argument are more likely to be enthralled by the music of tills rather than the sounds of buskers. Governments are happy to create a new urbanism defined by consumption. It is hard to blame the business sector who are at least being consistent in welcoming the socialisation of costs, and enduring the privatisation of profits. It is when governments subsidise or enhance the public space, fund public institutions, or extend the infrastructure of citizenship that their concern at public spending funds its most virulent expression.
The passage with which I began is by Marshall Sahlins and is quoted at the beginning of Our Creative Diversity published by UNESCO. With In From the Margins from the Council of Europe, it is one of the most important reports on culture in recent years.
The question posed in the quotation is a choice that cannot be ignored – is the future of culture to be an integrating force for tolerance of diversity, for the vindication of the freedom of the imagination, for enabling us to be at home in the world, or is it to be as an exotic ingredient in a material version of progress defined by consumption?
We will return to this choice, but it is well to remember that this stark choice is ideologically and culturally specific. The unaccountable market is an achievement of the New Right. They will defend it. Who will oppose them? It seems to me at times that the extraordinary amount of effort that a significant section of the public puts into being apolitical serves the New Right very well. It unfortunately is a fact that some politics values the critical role of the arts in society. Other politics of the extreme would abuse the power of the arts. Some politics wins by attrition. It allows people to sleep walk into their new, unfree and dependant condition.
We live in times when the solidarities are out of fashion, when the discourse of egalitarianism is in exile as it were. Our new vocabulary eschews certain words perceived as soft – kindness, sadness, friendship.
We are discarding some aspects of community for a calculated reciprocity. Even in the arts field activities betray a mark of rationality rather than spontaneity. The various realms to which the supremacy of the technical is being extended grows daily. The technical has driven out the normative. It has made the ethical, the aesthetic, marginal, obscure, passé, even a source of despair.
We are losing the energy of the shared moment in a public space that is no longer free of the mark of possession. Public spectacle is frequently so circumscribed that it lacks most of what carnival, in the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense, meant. It is licensed. It is controlled. It is more likely to be of the character of an anodyne pageant than a hidden transcript from the oppressed.
Culture is coming to be defined as commodity within a global market, within an ideology of control.
There was a time when the arts were not a specialist, separate activity, but the possession of every man and woman who partook of a culture – its stories, poems, carpentry, pots, utensils and so on. When the American anthropologist Margaret Mead began her study of the Balinese, she attempted to explain to them the Western view of art as a ‘heightened’ representation of life. At first, they could not understand, for they had no frames to put around their pictures. Eventually they followed her explanation, and, as soon as they did, told her: ‘We have no art. We just do everything as well as we can.’
That world is now lost, but one of the aims of a comprehensive arts policy might be to combat the growing compartmentalisation of the modern economic systems and to restore expressive freedom to the individual, so that every man and woman can again be in some sense an artist. The arts administrator, like any true professional, moves to that ideal, if impossible, situation where his or her skills would no longer be necessary, because the arts would have returned to the wider practices of a fulfilled life. But how do we combat the detachment of the arts from the disciplines of economics, politics and philosophy? And how, in doing so, might we reconnect the conduct of economic policy to the ethical vision? How can we restore the will to want to be that which we have not yet managed to be?
The world economy is ravaged by unemployment, especially among the young, many of whom are educated to unprecedented levels of knowledge that can find no outlet in salaried activity. This is an appalling waste of human potential and creativity – and this to satisfy the economic mechanism that seems to operate with complete indifference to the needs of the person. But economics was not always a dismal science. Its founders believed that it had a moral imperative: to eliminate material insecurity and thus enhance the expressive freedom of peoples. For Adam Smith and Maynard Keynes, for example, economics was the discipline which would protect that right. It may not be an accident that, through the quality of their prose, both men also have a claim to be considered as artists.
For too long, however, financial institutions have used their hegemony to set limits to policy in other areas, constantly diminishing the cultural space in which so much radical or innovative thinking is possible. One result was been a dire impoverishment of social philosophy: we no longer seem to be living in countries but in economies. It is not inappropriate to use the concept ‘the depeopled economy’ for such a development.
Another consequence of the fracturing of intellectual life has been the devaluation of play as a creative activity, for a consumer society is so goal oriented that it has little use for any goal-free activity. Homo economicus feels justified by his products, whereas play is concerned with means rather than ends, with the quality of an action rather than its results. Hence the major contradiction of our economic arrangements: that a society based on the negation of the play element presents itself as uniquely able to deliver play but only as an experience of consumption. In the process play has been placed in the service of something that is not at all playful, being narrowed, some would say degraded, to the level of specialised work. This degradation is only possible in a society that has lost an ancient wisdom, which taught that play, far from being a deviation from the workaday norm, is the basis of all culture, that everything is learned first by play and that man is most human when playing; a society that has lost a powerful symmetry with nature and allowed itself to become a receiving space for the consequences of science and technology and society rather than moulding them in the service of humanity. Again and again in recent years, I have found myself quoting Raymond Williams, and particularly the title of his last paper: ‘Be the Arrow not the Target’.
We need to recover that wisdom and that symmetry, to reverse the cultural process, to show that as soon as people assume their own freedom and seize it, their work takes on the aspect of play. Such an infusion of creativity into the economic space could not just transform the meaning of work, but also help to renovate the conduct of economics, restoring its humanist dimension. This will have to be done with the aid of the new technologies and in the context of a global network of services, markets and commodities: a simplistic call for a folk revival will not suffice.
The technology that is now available can deliver a capacity to communicate in a wider and deeper way than we ever imagined. That, however, presumes a universality of access. It assumes that the new capacity of the technology will be delivered within a model of citizenship rather than of consumption. It is exciting to envisage also what the new technology might make possible within a model of democratic cognitive aesthetics. What matters is the model of the connection between science, technology and society that is accepted. This will also define the quality and range of the discourse of technology. It will define the distinction between function and understanding in relation to the capacity of the technology.
Let me give some practical examples from the world of economics as we know it. One of the scandals of applied economics is the unpreparedness of middle management for change. Minds that for decades have ceased to ask why they do what they do have doomed themselves to mere systems maintenance. Now, that very lack of creativity, which seemed to insulate them from controversy or painful debate, has been exposed in all its inadequacy by the challenge of the new technology and the information super highway. System adaptation in a system in crisis is markedly insufficient.
Such a scenario is never wholly surprising. After all, the sheer volume of facts to be digested by the students of so many professional disciplines leaves little time for a deeper interrogation of their moral worth. The result, however, has been a generation of technicians rather than visionaries, each one taking a career rather than an idea seriously. The lack of imagination in much middle management is one symptom. The answer must be reform in our educational methods so that students are encouraged to ask about know-why as well as know-how.
Once the arts are restored to a more central role in educational institutions, the long-postponed debate about the ethics of economic systems might begin and there could be a tremendous unleashing of creative energy in other disciplines too. It’s no secret that the heroic period of productive capitalism is over: the enterprise economy is somewhat stalled, to judge by the millions for whom it has no immediate use. It is also painfully clear that we are all caught in a reactive relationship with the economic cycle – not masters of it, but mastered by it. A new source of ethical authority is needed. In the medium term we need to accept creativity as one of the factors of production in economics.
Most great advances in knowledge have come from acts of initial dissidence, made by someone brave enough to question the prevailing code. That act of dissent, even in the fields of science and technology, can often be rather artistic in nature: a hunch, an instinct, which may take years of hackwork to confirm. But the great scientific inventors of our modem world, Copernicus and Kepler, as well as Smith and Keynes, were in that deepest sense artists, and they were productive. One is almost led to think that the brilliance of these contributions was made possible by the fact that a distance had been established between them and the prevailing paradigms of knowledge. It is as if the regular experience of artists – of being a community in exile – bore fruit in creative innovation at the heart of science itself. It is exciting to envisage what a theory of knowledge might have been constructed if we had not made a sole reliance on a Western model that emphasised the rational to the exclusion of the aesthetic. The beauty of explanation rather than its empirical test is something that still survives in some cultures. For example, is the Chinese approach to mathematical explanation not a crucial part of the informing philosophy of its culture in general?
The trite old mercantile image of the artist as a parasite, living off the surplus of more developed societies, needs to be rejected. Every artist, however humble, is a useful producer, and many great artists help to create the environments in which men and women of the future will live. A figure such as W.B. Yeats did not define creativity in solely personal terms: his project was a search for a unified culture, offering a ‘fit’ between socially defined goals and the expressive freedom on the individual. Now that information technology has become more calibrated to personal and domestic use, this ideal may seem more feasible. The solitary thinker at the keyboard may be able to launch counter-initiatives unthinkable to the worker who once stood on the production line.
The ‘fit’ between personal and social fulfilment is never easily achieved. Keynes wisely observed that a reliance on market forces would never, of itself, have guaranteed the development of roads, street lighting, and so on. Some government intervention is needed in areas of public utility. This is also true of the arts, especially in smaller countries whose private industries are never wealthy enough to offer major subsidies. Even in the massive United State, this can be so: American drama, even when written by radicals like Arthur Miller, remained old-fashioned in form because it was at the mercy of market forces.
Yet, if government subventions become pervasive, they can smother creativity and compromise independence, something that happened in the countries of the Eastern Bloc before 1989. The need is for an arm’s length relationship between ‘the state of the arts’ and ‘the arts of the state’; otherwise, self-censorship may ensue, the avoidance by artists of political topics that could embarrass the authorities, and the alternative pursuit of purely private themes.
The balancing of these forces must include a separation of realms, and a recognition that that which seems audacious today may appear commonplace very soon. As Scott Fitzgerald sadly joked: ‘An artist writes for the youth of today, the critics of tomorrow and the schoolmasters of ever after.’
The State’s role is neither neutral or residual, but, if it is to be interventionist, that intervention should be in a manner that confers freedom with responsibility. The vital importance of youth in all this is obvious. Subventions are often helpful in launching careers that, later on, acquire a momentum and self-sufficiency of their own. This is precisely the reverse of the ‘learned dependency’ that critics of government spending repeatedly claim to find among the chronic unemployed. And this is why Yeats was right to describe artists as producers, making a huge impact on their communities.
If I might summarise then:
• We need to assert the difference between work defined by commodity exchange value and work more widely defined as activity validated in part, but not solely, by its economic significance;
• We need to develop new alterative models of co-operation and creativity between the economy and society;
• We need to address the implications of the distinction between the modes of production of commodity and art;
• We need to defeat the anti-intellectualism which has become endemic in popularized versions of the economy;
• We need to restore the moral, ethical and philosophical context from which the prescriptions of social and economic policies derive:
• We need to unambiguously accept the social basis of creativity and use that creativity to enrich the cultural space and reconstitute economics;
• We need to respond to the failure of management theories as adjustment strategies within a system that is failing and in decline in human terms;
• In the new forms of the economy that will emerge we will have to recognise, in the medium term, creativity as a factor of production;
• If the State, that cannot be neutral and should not be residual, is to be interventionist, it should be on the basis of autonomy with responsibility allowed to arts and culture institutions;
• The issues with which we deal are not abstract but arise now as issues of survival in the cultural sectors of many of the Eastern European countries;
• If we re-orient the debate, we will not simply re-integrate economics and culture in a new way, we will also be able to incorporate the rich insights of feminism, ecology and the North-South debates; we will also be able to define the basis of the application of science, technology and society’s interconnection in a non- militaristic, non aggressive, non-patriarchal way.
Finally, we will be able to see that a society empowering itself through the release of creativity facilitates personal excellence, that we do not have to commit ourselves to the words, works, and dreams of a narrow elite to achieve excellence. Excellence, always worthy of pursuit, surely, receives its finest expression in the celebration of our common humanity.
There is a discourse of the arts that will always be full of debate and contention. Perhaps that is necessary and certainly the distance from the State is crucial. Autonomy with responsibility might be the aim. The problem, however, is that the discourse of the arts is excluded from the dominant discourse of power, which is economic. The last great battle of ideas and organisational power will be in the cultural space. Those who yearn for authenticity must abandon the fashionably apolitical. Far from surrendering, to live in critical reflexivity, to be at home in our world, a world with which, as the poet Rilke wrote, we are far less than happy in the way it has been mediated for us, it is required that we struggle and celebrate our solidarity in that struggle in the name of the humanity that has yet to be fully achieved.
Published on 1 January 2001