It’s nearly five years since bank defaults burst the neoliberal economic bubble and the world – or at least the West – is still far from having found a durable response. There isn’t even much agreement on what happened, still less about what it means.
But the cultural sector does seem to agree on one thing, at least: it had nothing to do with us. Like others experiencing grant cuts, falling spending power and job losses, the cultural profession feels like a bystander in this crisis, a victim, even, of the greed of others.
There’s an inconsistency here. Either culture generally (and the arts specifically) are important or they’re not. They can’t only be responsible for the good things. I’ve always held that they are of fundamental, if complex and uncontrollable, importance to human societies, because they express what people believe (including what they aren’t aware they believe). That idea lies behind the title of this site; here’s a conference paper about that importance.
But if that’s true, perhaps we should ask what role art, writing, music, cinema, TV and the rest of our cultural life has played in the past 30 years, To what extent did they reflect and legitimise the ideology that has brought us here? If culture has no responsibility, where does that leave the claims about its value, economic, social, civilising or transcendental? If it’s innocent, it must be impotent too.
The tension came into sharper focus for me last November, when I took part in the Council of Europe’s annual Culture Watch Europe think tank in Slovenia. While artists, policy makers and philosophers discussed the future of culture on the shores of Lake Bled, protestors were on the streets in Athens, Madrid and London and politicians met in round the clock session to try to save the euro.
Both my concluding statement and my account of the meeting were shaped by the questions arising from these events. It still seems to me that, unless the cultural world is prepared to ask what it may have got wrong in recent years, it has little chance of being listened to by those fire-fighting on other fronts, More importantly, perhaps, it’s not likely to do better in future.