Overcoming Cultural Inertia
by Samuel Jones
The debate focused on the relationship between cultural practice and engagement and identity in an interconnected world.
I've copied the text of my speech below:
What does New Europe mean for Artists and Cultural Policy Makers?
Artists, Arts Policy and Intercultural Dialogue
Overcoming Cultural Inertia
Check against delivery
Cultural policy and culture in general are always difficult things to talk about.
For starters, it’s not always clear what we mean by ‘culture’: it can mean anything from the habits, norms and behaviour of a given group, through to creative and artistic production or the more commercially-based definition of the kind of cultural engagements and products that people consume.
In addition, culture is also a very contentious area of policy: it’s closely associated with the individual and the personal, and often suffers from being instrumentalised in policy-making.
So, rather than trying to give definite answers, what I thought I’d do today is to introduce some ideas that will be useful in thinking about cultural policy and what it’s for, and challenge some of the assumptions and norms associated with it.
In doing so, I’m going to speak of culture very widely because by doing that, we can open new ways in which policy-makers can think of artists and other creative practitioners in relation to changes in the wider world.
At the moment, intercultural dialogue is a hot topic.
It’s the EU’s year of intercultural dialogue but, more than that culture is integral to how we are coming to terms with some very complicated issues.
In March 2007, I went to a conference on cultural diplomacy in The Hague. One of the keynote speakers said something that marks a turning point in thinking about culture at political and international levels.
‘Every day', he said ‘our lives are affected by culture and interpretations of cultural identity. Who we think we are affects how we think about others and how we behave towards them – whether in our community, our country, or at a national level’.
The really interesting thing was this was said by a man called Gijs de Vries, and he isn’t a cultural commentator, and he isn’t a cultural professional: instead, he’s a former Counter-Terrorism Co-Ordinator of the European Union.
de Vries’ comments reflect an important shift.
Policy-makers are rapidly becoming aware that culture is central to many of the challenges and developments of the world today.
In foreign policy, for instance, soft power and the increased focus on cultural diplomacy are examples of this.
But, while recognising the importance of culture, policy-makers can often miss a beat.
Culture is often thought of as a space in which values are communicated and, of course, it is.
It is important as such because people enjoy culture. This is more than demonstrated by the numbers who come to Edinburgh at Festival time, or the thousands who flocked to the British Museum to see the terracotta warriors and, more widely, the millions who upload little gobbets and videos to sites like Youtube.
But the mistake often made is assuming that the values that culture communicates can be controlled, and that it’s limited to the institutions of cultural provision, like museums, theatres, the BBC or funded cultural production.
Culture is what we make of it.
And to develop policy that can respond to this, we need to understand it in different ways.
One of the central themes of this afternoon’s discussion has been that culture is a space in which we recognise difference and commonality.
It’s central to our identity formation, and that makes it a very individual thing as well.
Of course, culture has always has fulfilled this role, but two things are making this a turning point for policy-making now and they both relate to interconnected shifts in our behaviour and our attitude to culture.
The first change is the intensity with which we encounter a far greater number of different cultures.
And the second is the change that has come about in the way that we perceive cultural forms.
Turning to the first, cultural encounter characterises our lives, and it also determines how we relate to the people around us.
It’s through culture that we form such ideas as similarity and difference or - and this is not without risk - how we get on with each other.
On the internet, on the streets, on television or when we choose to engage with culture in a formal sense, which about 90% of us do each year, we are exposed to a vast array of signs and symbols that convey the beliefs and attitudes of those around us.
Communications technologies have become more advanced and more widely accessible, bringing more and more cultural forms into our homes and, as Travel has become easier both in terms of the cost of transport and - within Europe - because border and immigration controls have been relaxed, Diaspora communities have become more prevalent and influential.
As this happens, it has become apparent that ‘cultures’ are no longer so easily defined.
Anthony Appiah and others have shown that our identities are fluid.
Increasingly, they combine lots of different cultural origins, and we can switch between these according to circumstance.
On the one hand, this piques our natural interest in cultural encounter: we like foreign foods, and we are interested in foreign art foms.
But, at the same time, it makes it harder for us to make sense of the world.
The increased frequency with which we encounter different cultures means that there is more and more with which we have to cope.
Culture has become the space in which globalisation and the confusion it causes is played out and in which we most feel it.
As was discussed in the last panel, this is already challenging existing senses of identity.
Furthermore, many of the assumptions by which we operate and around which we structure our daily lives can’t necessarily accommodate the very different values of many of our neighbours.
In an increasingly fluid and quick moving world, we can often suffer from what might be called an inertia in the face of the cultural differences we encounter.
So, our contexts shift, but our means of responding to them lag behind.
At an extreme, take the debate that rages over traditional cultural garments like headscarves: the liberal mindset champions tolerance, but at the same time, its desire for openness kicks in and we end up with uncertainty.
Such clashes are part of any society and progress comes about as we learn to manage them, but the danger comes when society ossifies around values and doesn’t allow challenge to its own assumptions.
Gordon Brown should know this only too well – he learned it first hand courtesy of Big Brother.
In the behaviour shown to Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother House, we saw cultural inertia combine with the effects of global communication and the interconnectedness of diaspora communities to spark an international incident.
In the future, what will matter is people’s capacity to live in conversation with those who hold different values and form and negotiate the social bonds on which community is based and this boils down to making more widespread the means to respond to change as encountered in daily life.
This will require citizens making choices at an individual level that will contribute to the well-being and integration of the wider whole and policy responding to these accordingly by giving them recognition.
As we encounter many different cultures and many different understandings of different issues with greater and greater regularity, we will need this at the local level and at the global level too.
To manage this, we need the curiosity and approach that will allow us both to find similarity in different outlooks and accommodate difference not with hostility but as a starting point for conversation.
It is in our cultural institutions, and through engagement with cultural work that we can develop and build such curiosity.
The difficult thing, of course, is how we actually set about achieving this, and that’s where the second big shift comes in.
Our attitude to culture and cultural forms has changed to become more proactive and individualistic.
This has come about through a whole series of developments.
On the one hand, technology now allows us to shape and produce, as well as consume culture.
Take MP3 players: it is rare now that we listen to an album or other collection of music as it was designed. Rather, we have it on shuffle mode, or channel down to our preferred piece of music.
Today, iwe have a self-creating culture, in which we can download videos made not just by professionals, but by countless fellow members of a global public.
And we can use interactive technologies to upload our own opinions too.
Some galleries have adapted the way that art is presented accordingly. At MoMA in New York, for instance, young visitors can download podcasts about given works…But they can also upload their own for others to listen as well.
In other words, they can respond to artworks as conveying meaning, and upload their individual responses, all of which then become part of a discourse and conversation around the piece.
This reflects a wider change in social behaviour.
Across society, the relationship between the professional and the public has changed.
The public is becoming more assertive of its right to decide. For instance, while many scientists assure the public that GM food is safe, many of us still doubt it and so buy different sorts of food.
In the cultural sector, we see this with critics. Academics and critics alike tore the Da Vinci Code to shreds, and yet millions bought the book, saw the film and believed it.
As well as challenging the role of expert, such confidence in consuming culture brings opportunity.
It has come to influence the way that culture is provided and presented as well. In the Tate, for example, you can pick up leaflets that map paths around the galleries not just according to curatorial interpretation, but also according to moods and feelings. There’s the ‘First Date’ tour and for those coming from a less upbeat perspective the ‘I’ve just split up’ tour as well. Most interestingly of all, there’s also a blank leaflet that enables visitors to create their own tour according to their mood, and leave it for others to follow.
Such a change in approach means lots of different things. On the one hand, many curators, gallery educationalists and others have reinterpreted the role of the arts professional to move beyond the presentation of expertise and to include the outlooks that people engaging with culture bring. On the other hand, more participative engagement with the arts signals their importance in providing a space for conversation between values
So what does all this mean for cultural-policy makers and artists?
In policy-making, culture is too often thought of in its functional forms be they films, art, music, museums, theatres and so on, or the professionals who work in them.
But these are the touch points of wider behaviour and attitudes.
They are the spaces in which the cultural choice of citizens is played out.
Artists and other cultural professionals don’t just deliver culture: they also reflect and on occasion challenge it.
As our relationship with culture is renegotiated using new technologies, the role they could play in helping the public take greater ownership of building and shaping the public realm is becoming clearer.
At the moment, we’re still in the early days of coming to terms with what this means.
In part, that’s because culture itself is so difficult to get a grip on, but that is one of its great values.
Earlier, I said that the term ‘culture’ encompasses a range of definitions.
It’s the art we produce, the way we behave and the patterns of our consumption.
Well, spotting the commonalities across all these is central to realising just how important culture is, and as technology makes cultural production more widespread, and the will to participate and take ownership over meaning becomes stronger, culture is becoming the space in which we, as individuals, manage our response to the changes in the world around us.
So, where in the past cultural policy has related primarily to the functions of culture, there could be merit in adopting a new definition for the purposes of policy-making.
The everyday calculus of histories, behaviours, consumption and production that has made us - and makes us who we are - and identifies each one of us as being either different or similar to others.
It’s evident as much in the art we see in galleries and objects we see in museums as it is in the objects and food we encounter in daily life and the products we create.
What connects these as a culture is our capacity and will to read meaning and identity in them.
The challenge now is to build the approach of reading across cultures, seeing difference as a starting point for conversation, rather than as a point for closure at which similarities end.
By giving people the opportunity to see the gamut of cultural forms we encounter as being statements of value and opinion in constant dialogue with one another, we can open a new space for the intercultural dialogue that we will need to manage an interconnected world.
We will all need the means to overcome cultural intertia.
Major challenges, from global interrelation to community cohesion, will depend upon it.
The question is where we will get them.
This is why artists can bring much to a wide range of policy agenda.
They provide the spaces in which we can encounter different opinions and they can provide the means by which we can question our own values.
Not only have culture and the arts proved popular, but technology and other shifts in behaviour have prepared us to view them critically and from our own standpoint.
Policy-makers must now support artists and other cultural professionals because our response to the values that their work encapsulates can help us come to terms with many of the changes we encounter in the world
This is not an argument about instrumentalising cultural production, but about shifting the terms in which it is seen
Culture is not a tool for politics … but it is a space to which we are increasingly likely to turn to come to terms with the world around us.