Below is my translation of *Marcelo Expósito’s contribution to the session on "Diplomazia Culturale dell’UE", as part of the meeting: “How Can We Govern Europe?” held at the Camera Dei Deputati, Rome, November 18, 2016.
(*Marcelo Expósito is a Deputy for Barcelona from En Comú Podem and is the Third Secretary of the Congress of Deputies.)
Thanks to EUnews for inviting me to this meeting on the situation in Europe and to Silvia Costa, Chair of the Culture Committee of the European Parliament, for agreeing to share this dialogue with me on the role of culture in the European Union.
This is a strange moment to talk about culture in Europe, particularly if under the very name of "culture" we refer mainly to the cultural policies of European national and supranational institutions. And it seems to me a delicate moment for several reasons that can be synthesized into two.
The first is because a slow change of direction has been taking place in recent years in the discourse of cultural administration of Europe. The second reason has to do with the general crisis situation, whose connections with one’s own uncertainty about the current role of culture are not always evident in debates like the one that now calls us.
For a long time, the jargon derived from the paradigm of cultural industries has been becoming nuanced. Fortunately, it seems difficult now to talk about the industrialization of creativity without accompanying it with reflections on how culture can contribute to social stability, the integration of the continent or the definition of a new type of European diplomacy. It even appeals to the condition of culture as a common good that citizens as a whole deserve to enjoy.
This is not a minor change, bearing in mind that policies to promote international cultural and creative industries have, over three decades, been the instrument through which an ideology has aimed at facilitating the emergence of what Richard Florida has called the "Creative Class ". This is a curious type of social "class" whose function would ultimately be to contribute their competitive cultural practices to the processes of urban regeneration. As for gentrification and real estate speculation on a large scale, in short: we can now describe it in this untidy way. When the model of cultural policies aimed at fostering creative industries took shape in the 1990s, it did so – not by chance – in the still hard years of neoliberal hegemony and the conversion of cities into brands that need to be emphasized in The Markets of Globalization. T
Theorists such as Angela McRobbie or George Yudice have analyzed in detail how the industrialization of creativity has contributed to the de-industrialization of the peripheries or the commercial devastation of urban centers and how it has thrown the sons and daughters of the middle classes into a life of precariousness labor and existential instability as they contradictorily experienced a bubble of euphoria. It is the bubble of a promise of social advancement and access to well-being through higher education, the acquisition of creative skills and the cultivation of the capacity to innovate, which has been exploded by the shockwave of austerity policies.
But this gradual paradigm change still does not seem enough to me and this leads us to the reason why many current debates about culture are impotent. I would like to put it in the form of a simple question: what are the reasons for this smooth change of paradigm? Is it possible to promote real change in culture and cultural policies in Europe without finding out exactly why it is, because we feel obliged to consider the transition to a new scenario? When it comes to reflecting on the crisis of the paradigms hitherto dominant in European cultural policies, can we afford to ignore the fact that we are in a general crisis situation?
The critical condition of Europe nowadays overruns any debate about our future, including debates about culture. But it is not always a fact to be revealed. And yet it is not possible to enter into discussing substantive details on the role of culture in the future of Europe without addressing some political and even philosophical problems about the more general relationship between the dubious state of culture, the instability across European, the breakdown of our democratic system and the reasons for the current systemic and civilian crisis.
In an essay written in 1936, Walter Benjamin explained how the soldiers returning home from the frontiers of World War I became mute, unable to relate what they had experienced. Facing mass death and destruction produced such a collective shock that it blocked any capacity for expression. Benjamin thought that this emotional shock marked a historical turning point in our ability to relate personal experience to the construction of a sense of community, because it made it impossible for the traditional figure of the narrator to be reproduced.
There is no possibility of reporting and there can be no artistic phenomenon nor can experience can be transmitted under cultural forms if the expressive capacity of human beings is blocked. After World War II and the Concentration Experience, T.W. Adorno wondered if poetry could still be possible after Auschwitz. Adorno did not question as much, as Benjamin did, about the subjective conditions for shaping a creative expression after the Holocaust. Instead we had the political problem of whether, after this civilizing cataclysm, we could still afford the production of a European story, acting as if the industrialized manufacture of mass death had not happened. And not because this moral collapse constituted a historical exception, but quite the opposite, because the dark side of European modernity had evidently emerged.
It seems to me that these are relevant questions again today, bridging the gap. Is it possible to continue talking about cultural policies after the violence triggered by neoliberal management of the crisis against European social majorities? Can we ignore that a certain change of administrative and cultural language is provoked solely by the way in which neoliberalism has collapsed, crumbling mainly onto the backs of the towns of the South?
We can no longer hide from the fact that the cultural development policies of the past decades have been closely linked to the predominance of financial capitalism through globalization and the evolution of local economies towards a centrality of real estate speculation. We have witnessed enormous growth of museum equipment; the extensive financing of cultural enterprises that has led to the hypertrophy of "creative classes" which, in a backward effect, are now hard hit by the crisis of a model of economic development from which they were fed and, in turn, contributed to oversize.
This relationship of feedback between culture and neoliberalism responsible for a crisis that also affects culture must be highlighted if we really want to move towards a new paradigm of European cultural policies.
As I mentioned at the outset, "culture" is too broad a term, which is not always easy to clear up an understanding of. I propose that we now think above all of three components. Culture would be seen as the behaviors, attitudes, values or aesthetic forms – in a broad sense – through which a society expresses itself. It would also be a tradition of practices recognized by certain institutions. That is why we can talk about the history of literature, music or art: because there are institutions that over time negotiate, with changing criteria, what a society recognizes as cultural goods.
The term "culture" could also refer to policies and rules, manifestly written guidelines or customary behaviors governing the administrative, professional or economic functioning of a specialized field. If we really consider that European cultural policies should be guided by principles such as the safeguarding of the common good and the
political integration of the continent, social sustainability and global justice, what is required is a cultural revolution that more generally contributes to reversing the violence of the crisis which has been experienced by European social majorities. Cultural policies alone cannot cope with a crisis that has been brought about by neoliberalism to which they have been for decades closely linked. This cultural revolution will only be possible if we think in an interrelated way about the three dimensions that I have described. We need, simultaneously, to promote new shared values against the neoliberal culture that fragments and individualises in supposed pursuit of our own benefit. We also must recapture our creative history, taking from the petrified stories of tradition those moments that, when revived, may be more illuminating for our emancipation in the future. As well as all this, we will have to promote public cultural policies aimed not only at the improvement of specialized sectors but above all at the empowerment of citizens in a state of shock.
As is clear from the reflections of Benjamin and Adorno, which I mentioned earlier, European culture has experienced an identity crisis whenever convulsive times have emerged. Why do we have to worry about everything related to culture when the world shakes around us? This has been a question historically recurrent in Europe. And now it is again, for obvious reasons: what is the point of talking about culture when the economy, institutions and value systems disintegrate around us and people suffer? Why must we organize ourselves to deal with the disaster caused by the elites? Does culture deserve to be part of the rescue policies and emergency programs that could overcome the crisis? Can culture be a tool for social majorities to confront the crisis of political institutions?
To find a possible answer to these questions, let us turn for a moment to the figure of Friedrich Schiller writing one night by candlelight in 1793. At his residence in Jena he worries about the distant noise of the contradictions that afflict the French Revolution, while trying to concentrate on writing a letter to his patron, Prince Friedrich Christian II von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. In this letter he rightly asks: "Isn’t it reasonable to worry about the needs of the aesthetic world, when the affairs of the political world are also pressing?" Schiller answered himself in his Kallias-Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man – that "to solve a political problem through experience it must be taken by the aesthetic route, because it is through beauty that freedom is reached."
One of the guiding principles of the role of culture in modern European has been the idea that culture can be a field of experimentation where thinking about solutions to social complexity and shedding light on the problems of politics can be. Precisely when reality around us is agitated, there has been an imagining of modernity. The educational function of culture constitutes a central dynamic in the formation of citizenship. This ambivalent emancipatory conception is a persistent matrix, coming from the use of culture in some State policies for the affirmation of a national identity, as well as the conception of culture as an autonomous sphere from which to think about the world, safe from a distance. Equally there its opposite, when art or culture have committed themselves as practical tools in the combative construction of class consciousness.
Many things have changed since the moment that consciousness became enlightened, and not only because we have verified
the PIGS of Southern Europe in particular – the frightening result of any exchange with the new Prince Trichet-Draghi-Merkel von Troika. But it is still necessary to address this conception rooted not only in what the function of culture is but also in where its legitimacy lies in times of crisis. The institutional use of a progressive language as the paradigm of cultural and creative industries enters into crisis and this is inspired by an enlightened imagination. It is that close relationship between culture and education that builds an emancipated citizenship which is one of the most powerful components of the European Enlightenment tradition. But given the size and the reasons for the current crisis, it can not be recovered merely as a mere resource for the formal recomposition of political institutions still sequestered by elites. Precisely because a cultural revolution has the objective of questioning elitist control of institutions it is even forced to transform the institutions themselves.
To summarize my position: I think that culture must contribute to a more democratic exit from the crisis, spreading power to the social majorities to rescue and transform the political institutions that have been kidnapped by these very elites. Allow me to end up setting out a practical example. If culture can again constitute a place from which to think critically about the state of things, cultural policies should follow models such as the extraordinary exhibition “A really useful knowledge,” held between 2014 and 2015 at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Their curators, the WHW Croatian women’s group, conceived an articulated work plan between the museographic institution and some artistic practices that developed tentatively but in the open. The project included everything from the Abbas Kiarostami or Straub-Huillet cinema to the collaborative collective art of Iconoclasts or Chto Delat ?, through historical experiences of militant art such as Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ Minister of Culture.
It is here, in that diversity guided by the same principle of radical pedagogy for citizen emancipation, where I find examples to follow for a profound change in the cultural policies of the administrations in a state of crisis.