July 18, 2012

Culture, politics and cultural policies at the ICCPR 2012.

The Cultural Policy Studies research community descended on Barcelona for its bi-annual conference last week. I thought I’d share some thoughts on what I saw at the event.

Firstly it was a perfect setting. This was not only because of the ample opportunities for dining, socializing and flânerie that such a city provides, but of course these were welcome. The view from the top of the Museum of the History of Catalonia at the conference dinner was spectacular, and the venue for the conference itself, around the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, made for a dynamic, vibrant space. Delegates mixing with dog walkers, skate boarders, basketball courts and the general bustle of the city meant this felt some way from a detached ivory tower. The setting was also ideal because Barcelona inhabits or reflects the over-arching theme of the conference, Culture, Politics and Cultural Policies. It is a city that has been shaped, re-generated and re-invented by culture and creativity in its various forms - and not just ‘high culture’ (this, is after all, the home of Cruyff and Guardiola as well as Gaudi or Miro.) It is global in its orientation and make-up– with all the ambiguities that come with that- but still with a distinctive identity, bound up with local, national and regional political struggles. And, as the centre of a nation within a nation, culture matters here, as the eloquent opening speech from Ferran Mascarell i Canalda, Minister of Culture in the Catalan government attested. Cultural policy is wedded to politics in Catalonia in a more pressing way than it might be, in some other Western and Northern European countries as the city, nation and region negotiates with its own past, present and future.

This relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘policy’ was also brought home to me in the papers I saw, specifically in sessions on cultural development, and in conversations with colleagues from the Latin American diaspora. George Yudice’s account of the various grass-roots forms of cultural and creative activity, often facilitated by the use of new technologies, and their relationship to local forms of political activism and engagement across Latin America reflects a particular politics of culture. Cultural ‘development’ is not, here, being imposed by the World Bank or IMF but is being struggled over through, for example, competing visions of intellectual property and alternative models of cultural organization and distribution. These seem to me to be more fundamental ideas than those which accompany the somewhat co-opted narratives of culture’s benefit to the economy, to health, or community in the UK context. Somehow, in comparison, these latter stories seem to assume that the big political controversies in our democracy are settled – so cultural policy becomes a means of tinkering around the edges of institutions which, broadly, work.

There was thoughtful reflection on the British context too of course. Philip Schlesinger’s account of the game-playing , strategizing and career trajectories of policy-oriented intellectuals in the British research context was revealing. Dave O’Brien’s re-appraisal of civil servants as ethically oriented servants of the people’s representatives rather than, as they are often imagined, audit obsessed bean-counters, is also important in reminding academics that they aren’t the only people who can and do engage in useful thinking about these issues. Discussion with colleagues from Chile, however, also revealed some frustration and surprise that politics was not more front-and-centre in debates about what is at stake in cultural policy. In Chile, as Maite de Cea Pé’s paper revealed, a coherent, structured cultural policy is being created in a way which perhaps more readily reflects the underlying tensions and divisions in a society so recently emerging from a period of dictatorship. In this light the administrative and managerial questions which animate British cultural policy might be, in that dread phrase, ‘first world problems’. The politics of culture again matter in Chile and the competing visions of how cultural production and consumption might be organized and framed from a policy point of view feel closely linked to emerging visions of the kind of society Chile wants to be. These debates are far from settled, giving these discussions an urgency which their Northern equivalents might sometimes lack.

Of course recent events, including the coalition response to the financial crisis and the various scandals affecting powerful institutions in British society reveal that political controversies are not entirely settled in the UK either – or are at least in a period of flux. It might be too ambitious to suggest that cultural policy scholars place themselves at the forefront of responses to these kinds of controversies. It seems to me desirable, though, for both scholars and policy-makers in this field to keep in mind the relationship between the kinds of policies we want for culture and the kind of place we want to live in – and to be more vocal in articulating and debating that relationship.

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