Culture is the Attempt to Bring Paradise into the Midst of Life – a Plea for a Lively European Cultural Policy

Text and image by Corinna Heumann

Culture as an elixir of life or culture as food for thought – despite the professed appreciation, culture is often seen as an actually superfluous cost factor, as an entertaining private affair to pass the time. It is as an interesting therapeutic measure or as a playground for politicians who like to give speeches. Do we need culture?

All of this seems to be an attempt to somehow capture a controversial and complex concept in an economically pragmatic or bureaucratically applicable way. Or one instrumentalizes it politically. The question of whether we need culture remains a rhetorical one: culture is always present where people live, where rules and laws of coexistence emerge and have to be legitimized. In the creation of culture, it depends on our image of humanity and on what potential we see for our future.

Culture is always alive multifaceted and evolving

In fact, the connotations of the term culture that are common in Europe can neither be defined conclusively, nor can its products be evaluated in a permanently constant way. Culture is multifaceted, metamorphic, surprising and often misunderstood. Cultural practitioners work at the heart of social cohesion, contributing not only to diversity and tolerance, but also to Europe’s post-pandemic regenerative capacity and long-term resilience. In the cultural life of a society, its underlying image of humanity is permanently renegotiated. From Streitkultur (culture of dispute) to Leitkultur (mainstream culture) – beyond its sociopolitical identification potential, culture is the understanding and structuring of a world that is often perceived as chaos. Spending on cultural goods increased by 12% per household across the EU (2010 to 2015).

Cultural policy reflects social reality

In historical experience, cultural policy is often associated with economic exploitation, iconoclasm, and autocrats. Just recall the Roman Emperor Nero, the Cultural Revolution in China, or the cultural Gleichschaltung of the Nazi era. Attractions such as the Palace of Versailles or the pyramids in Giza could only be built by serfs or slaves. A great number of objects exposed in renowned museums were looted before they were incorporated in the collections. The political scene still lacks a clear, credible pan-European position on historical origin, provenience and consequential restitution.

Initiatives with the goal of at least symbolically redressing historical events that have left behind incurable wounds are often still being thwarted. On the other hand, a great deal of energy is devoted to justifying cost explosions for prestigious public buildings, to appointing juries and awarding prizes in a neo-feudalistic manner. The festive society keeps to itself. They enjoy their rhetoric of toothless declarations of the Western values and their supposed function as role models. At the same time, artists, musicians and actors are paid like former day laborers. Often they are cynically honored for showing their talents for free. Not only are school roofs leaking and gymnasiums unheated, but there is a lack of educators and contemporary learning materials for a serious cultural education that includes digitization.

Cultural policy as the squaring of the circle

The middle of society is shrinking, and with it the number of citizens with an affinity for culture. Culture is increasingly becoming a voluntary activity and is dependent on donations. Cultural workers in the creative economy are often working multiple jobs. There seems to be no effort to close the gender pay gap, nor to fill management positions with women, even though the percentage of women in cultural professions is significantly higher. Equality of opportunity is declining. The pandemic is amplifying this trend. Municipal budgets are empty until further notice. This ignores the fact that economic returns in the cultural sector have steadily increased in importance in recent years. With a turnover of € 643 billion and a total added value of €253 billion in 2019, the core activities of the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) represented 4.4% of EU GDP in terms of total turnover. Therefore, the economic contribution of CCIs is greater than that of telecommunications, high technology, pharmaceuticals or the automotive industry. Since 2013, total CCI revenues have increased by €93 billion and by almost 17%. At the end of 2019, CCIs employed more than 7.6 million people in the EU-28, and they have added approximately 700,000 (+10%) jobs, including authors, performers and other creative workers, since 2013. (Rebuilding Europe : the cultural and creative economy before and after the COVID-19 crisis, EY 2021)

Cultural policy as a cross-cutting task

Cultural and increasingly intercultural education are the foundations of our democratic European public sphere in all areas. All power comes from the people – shouldn’t one have heard of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his social contract, for example, in order to understand the value of the concept of the enlightened citizen and his rights to freedom? And wouldn’t one also have to know that Olympe de Gouges, a contemporary of Rousseau, was beheaded for demanding that human rights apply to women as well? Countless gifted people draw courage for their social advancement from the insights of the Enlightenment. In today’s European and global society, the boundaries between cultural and intercultural education are in fusion due to a multilingualism that is taken for granted in large parts of society. The internationality of art colleges in Germany is particularly evident in the subjects of painting and sculpture, with about 40% foreign students.

Cultural policy is concerned with the quality of life and thought beyond the current events of the day. Its impact unfolds to full bloom only in the future. With a view of the past and the future, culture is social cohesion at work. Here, the peaceful exchange of all parts of society takes place. Older people discuss with immigrants, realists exchange ideas with utopians, physicists, poets with programmers and dock workers, company bosses, Uber drivers and isolated ‘lost souls’ from the algorithmized echo chambers of their egos come into contact with the heads of major projects, media houses or waste management and many more.

In 2019, the German Council of Culture analyzed the cultural and creative industries in rural areas; in 2018, the cultural and creative industries were analyzed as driving forces of the overall economy. In previous years, the following key topics were addressed in this context: Labor and Skills (2017), Internationalization (2016), Innovations (2015), Digitalization (2013), and Europe (2012).

The cultural advancement of the European public sphere requires a visionary climate-neutral democratic architecture with the appropriate equipment for hybrid event formats for multi-perspective, heterogeneous and multicultural exchange about a common future. For example, dilapidated industrial or office buildings, aging theater buildings in need of renovation in the centers of cities would lend themselves to conversion into multifunctional, culturally forward-looking spaces for all parts of urban society that can be used at all times of the day. Initiatives and themes that transparently deal with the socio-political and economic effects of non-transparent algorithms, hybrid cultural events, copyright laws, climate neutrality and tax justice should be emphasized.

Art has a cathartic power that can accompany a post-pandemic society on the road to resilience. Art is not an accessory; it is a viaticum. Art is not “political”; it is “poetic” – a creative force that animates us and allows us to live together, to survive, individually and collectively. – David Sassoli (President European Parliament)

European Soft Power

Soft power refers to the intangible values of a society based on cultural attractiveness, which are shared voluntarily (Joseph Nye). As a community of values, the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for its peaceful unification process. Its cultural heritage is considered the main pillar of its further development into the world’s first supranational organization. In 2017, the EU achieved a foreign trade surplus in the export of cultural goods. It exported goods for 28.1 billion euros, in contrast to imports worth 19.5 billion euros.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the majority of EU states lead in the area of media freedom despite toxic developments in some Eastern European countries. A modern European cultural policy must insist on the enforcement of human rights and the rule of law in its member states and at its borders. The European music scene is also exceptionally successful internationally. In architecture, European architects have been awarded the Pritzker Prize a total of 19 times during the 42 years of its existence. 

According to the Global Soft Power Index 2021, two EU member states Germany (1) and France (7) are among the top 10 countries. However, there are concerns that the impact of European cultural soft power will diminish as a result of a global decline as a technological leader in the next decade.

The future is in our hands

The raised forefinger of a Lehrer Lämpel, morally insensitive lectures and doomsday incantations as a permanent form of entertainment have become untrustworthy. It used to work as long as the ignorance of the addressees could be assumed. Today, technological progress makes it possible to access the missing information in fractions of a second. 

Therefore, a forward-looking European cultural policy must first and foremost ensure that individual economic interests, which oppose to the democratic opinion-forming processes of a knowledge society and destroy them in the long term, are consistently prevented at all levels of European society. Especially during and after a crisis cultural and creative industries must be empowered to make their aesthetic and ethical contribution to innovation and the further development of a lively European public sphere. New technologies should not only be examined by experts, but also discussed by a wider public with regard to their underlying concept of humanity before they are implemented. 

The Conference on the Future of Europe should therefore be particularly promoted in each individual municipality. The respective local governments should develop interdisciplinary formats in cooperation with local cultural and creative workers. The partaking active and enlightened European public could thus make alive a piece of paradise in their midst.

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