Twenty years ago, I would have hesitantly signed something like this: we need culture to cultivate the public space, to promote democracy and civilization. The purpose of culture is to create and defend the values of society, to co-shape democracy, to educate, and so on, and in a similar way I would argue why we need more money for cultural projects, institutions, and the work of artists. The problems with this ideal of culture are many. In this essay, I will mention only two. The first is simply called the problem of the definition of culture, the second is the problem of culture and democracy. My remarks will be sketchy. However, their aim is clear – to remind us that cultural policy is about politics in the first place.
What is culture?
Culture represents learned and acquired behavioural patterns and beliefs common to a social, ethnic or other group. It can also be a culture specific to humanity in general or a part of it, developed, for example, at a specific time, which we call, for example, a civilization. We practice, acknowledge and recognize culture as symbols, language, norms, values and human creations of material form. This is culture in the most general sense. It is the product of great social changes, even evolution, and is manifested in everyday life.
However, we usually understand the culture, which we usually refer to as the culture that it cultivates and educates, in a narrower sense, as an art of a few, mediated towards a large part of other members of culture or society. We believe that the development of this cultivated culture over time brings social and economic benefits. By developing such culture as an exceptional human production in such an ideal spirit, we are helping to increase tolerance for diversity and the quality of life of individuals and communities.
While twenty or thirty years ago it was clear that we needed the support of culture that has this civilizational mission, ten or fifteen years ago we began to add that not every formally high culture fulfils this ideal civilizational mission. For example, like Marxist dogmatists, some free-market successors of Marxist materialism once forced us, by their ignorance, to defend culture as an alternative to debilitating the impact of the market. We have forgotten a bit that even a national theatre or schools after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic were not established in order to be effective in terms of value for money, but for the creation and cultivation of citizens.
In other words, our culture was not quite prepared for the effects of a culture of economic calculations in terms of weighting costs and profits, but held firm to a number of community relationships and ideas, including the nation, village, and religion. Thus, our general culture has parameters that we are often prone to overlook from the elitist heights of a narrowly understood culture. In addition to the definition of everyday and high culture, there is also a second problem, which concerns the democratic parameter of culture.
A few weeks ago, my friend of many years, a prominent social science analyst, confessed in a company to his love for the popular television show “The Earth Sings”. Even my almost seven-year-old son, so far little burdened by his parents’ values, likes to watch it. However, two weeks ago – I assume it was under the influence of a wider movement to return to the roots – they had an annual photo shoot in the kindergarten. Some of the parents – well-to-do middle-class inhabitants of Bratislava satellites, managers and educated women – demanded photographs in folk costumes, although no one had come up with such an idea during almost four years of going to the kindergarten.
It is not intellectual arrogance to admit that folklore in such a post-agrarian television concept is a small-town (beware, not a village!) kitsch. Nevertheless, it reflects the general taste of the natives. Its commercial use, as observed in the massive popularity of rustic patterns in the Internet generation, is certainly beyond the aesthetics of culture as a tool for cultivating and civilizing masses. Many proponents of the massive movement for authentic folklore probably agree with this – that folklore they practice for peace of mind in the local environment, and which risks losing its authenticity every time it appears on stage. What does cultural policy have to do with this?
The readers of this magazine maintain the prevailing opinion is that culture is associated with high art, civilization or uniqueness, and therefore that it is scarce in our society. It has the pedagogical view that culture is good when it is recognized by cultural officials, experts and scholars in the same way in mass democracy as, for example, market choice or national kitch?
In our latitudes, we have so far developed two models of the relationship between broader “folk” (small town) culture and politics. The first is a romantic and nationally inspired defence of everything related to a purposefully selected agrarian tradition. The second model – also created and fed by intellectuals – sees in Slovak rustics a manifestation of idiotism and parochialism, which, due to complicated modernization, we cannot get rid of even in the twenty-first century.
Therefore, if we can admit that culture is elitist and privileged and that cultural policy is not democratic in relation to popular taste and seeks assimilation into concrete (simply put) middle-class to elitist ideas about culture, get to work! But let us be aware that “the others” are not idle. It is not as we thought until recently that we have a civilization and an opinion of what culture is and the people will adapt to it. Culture is once again, most of all, an ideological, political struggle.
Juraj Buzalka, social anthropologist