Illustration: Two people are walking up a bridge. The steps behind them are grey, the steps in front of them are in rainbow colours.

Engine of Transformation

Art, culture and communication were all badly hit by the pandemic. And now, faced with fresh challenges, the need for culture policy has become clearer still. Culture should act as an anchor in the transformation processes that lie ahead.

The influence of culture

An anthology published by Falter Verlag in Vienna on the Hungarian/Austrian economic historian and social anthroposophist Karl Polanyi (1886 to 1964) examines his concept of the Great Transformation in today’s context and the authors reveal a little of their – and our – bewilderment in the face of globalisation, digitalisation, neo-liberalisation and climate change. The volume was published in 2019, so today we would have to add the consequences of the pandemic and, in our context, the crisis of Europe.

Culture is a regular, prominent feature of the political debate, for example when there is talk of an integrated approach to solutions and a ‘cultural economy’. Or when Uwe Schneidewind, President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, writes of ‘sustainability as a cultural project’ in his book Die Große Transformation [The Great Transformation]. My aim here is to look back and ahead and, with a little objectivity, argue for a modest optimism of differentiation, in terms of the roles played by both Europe and culture.

Ten years ago, people across the country were complaining about the lack of a common public space, especially in the debate on Europe. This has changed significantly in terms of content and media: ‘thanks’ to Trump, thanks to Wir schaffen das, Covid and Fridays for Future it has become more audible, sometimes blaring from enormously successful (market-shaped!) virtual platforms, sometimes shrilly populist.

The debate has certainly not passed the EU by, initially with black pessimism but then gradually moving towards the usual black and white; forward-looking ambivalence has become the norm, contradictions in legitimacy and agency not only create scepticism among citizens but also a new, more differentiated view of what could be and what is needed: greater realism and the will to change are linked to a new broad understanding of complexity; the confusing state of the world that has brought things like the migrant crises, the new mega-narratives (climate) and the fragility of our hitherto unchallenged market society are responsible for an increased readiness to take a more differentiated view.

Above all, however, the rediscovery of the unavailable, the evening of a society with a mania for availability, as German sociologist Hartmut de Rosa puts it, seems paradoxically to have sharpened the senses for joint action to find sustainable, fair solutions – before it is too late.

Not that the longing for simple formulas and miracle cures has completely disappeared; the disappointment is deep-seated, as is the fear; but in more and more cases trust is being withdrawn from the extreme fringes. This is true of nation-states; in Germany, for example, the desire for change coupled with a desire for the continuity of appropriate seriousness has led to very high voter turnout and a mandate for transformation; in Italy and even Austria populism is apparently on the retreat; but it also applies to the EU: today, many people view complaints about failures or delayed action as a mandate to become stronger.

A new territory

We have entered new demographic and political territory. The young are back, well informed and positioned, and ready for inter-generational alliances, despite objective reasons for structural conflict (Covid, pensions, climate). They are contributing to the fact that ‘society’ exists once again, an obituary to Mrs Thatcher. Civil, free and responsible, also and precisely because of the celebration of the individual and the society of singularities spoken of by Berlin sociologist Andreas Reckwitz; it seems politics and respect, justice and freedom go together once again, local, European, cosmopolitan, and gifted with a sense of reality.

Empty square in front of the Louvre in Paris at night.
During the lockdowns many people realized that art was essential, photo: Edi Nugraha via pixabay

The lockdowns have led many people, not just the young, to become more aware of the essential nature of art, culture and communication. Leading voices, including experts, stress the essential role of culture in the upcoming transformation processes. A culture of transformation is in the making, and its rhizomes are densely and deeply infiltrating every area, including culture in the narrower sense, free and institutional, socio-cultural and classical, and the ‘market’, which was quick to sense the way our lives are changing.

At the same time, it is true that exclusion, lack of prospects, precarity and lack of respect continue to scream injustice; at the same time, garbled voices and threatening atmospheres are still too often feared and ignored rather than seeking answers.

This transformation can often be recognised at first glance, sometimes at the second or third, as long as we do not allow ourselves to be permanently blinded by horrendous media simplifications and generalisations. At the same time, it is true that exclusion, lack of prospects, precarity and lack of respect continue to scream injustice; at the same time, garbled voices and threatening atmospheres are still too often feared and ignored rather than seeking answers.

To a certain extent, sobriety is part of the new culture of differentiation. There are no solutions for everything and anything, nor can the human factor be ideologically subtracted. But the new scepticism towards old ideologies comes with a ‘burning patience’ (the novel by Portuguese author Antonio Skármeta comes to mind here) that ponders and changes political and institutional action as much as civil society and alliance-oriented action. Today, anyone who tells the truth does not have to instantly blush, as long as questioning and reflecting, arguing and searching create the agora for climate and resource strategies, for nature-and people-friendly management, creativity and fair distribution, and for human dignity. Values have a new place in the game of preserving and overcoming, in the arena of contentiousness and democratic determination.

The burden of failure

In practice, however, it has already had to endure a great deal, the new culture of transformation. The world has not only become more complex and confusing, the burden of past mistakes, of failure on a grand scale, can seem overwhelming; power relations have shifted dramatically, between states and blocs as well as from the state power monopoly to private lords, and from politics into the sphere of economics; the differences between the super-rich and super-powerful and small public and private actors have never been so stark. All attempts at global governance have met with little success or have been distorted beyond recognition in tactical and strategic battles. We are almost at the point of no return, a difficult legacy to pass on to a new generation.

Europe is once again and critically a place of hope and not (just) part of the problem.

Even more serious is the gap between recognising the right content and goals and how they are actually put into practice. All the primary challenges are listed in the mental maps and public logbooks, with the culture of sustainability at the top, next to the twin summit of a new business culture. This massive mountain range spans the entire world, it is totally interconnected. The search for appropriate global instruments can be intimidatingly difficult, the uncertainty demoralising.

This is precisely where the culture of differentiation and pleasurable transformation comes in. It makes zero sense not to attempt it, or even to give up; there is only one direction: working together to change systems, acknowledging the complexities and paradoxes, working to rebuild for the common good. Without delusions of grandeur, without pettiness. Europe is once again and critically a place of hope and not (just) part of the problem.

At present, an interim assessment can only be encouraging. All the signs are pointing to change. We are the personnel. This requires us to endure a great deal of uncertainty. Art and culture are THE genuine spaces of ‘endurance’ – of the diversity of feelings, of the never-ending creative reflection and conversation about boundaries, of experimentation. They can help to freely refute the end of the sense of the common good, as noted by philosopher Michael J. Sandel.

A kind interim assessment, in the narrower sense of culture too, allows us to draw encouraging conclusions with a related pathos of differentiation. Where to start?

With artists.

Artists today

It is German Unity Day in Duisburg. There are long queues in the rain in front of the newly expanded Küppersmühle Museum, people staring open-mouthed at the architectural wonders, and at the very top Anselm Kiefer’s Klingsor’s Garden, a space of man’s destroyed dwelling, nature and culture teetering on the brink. Igor Levit making music from home during the pandemic, and his commitment to changing the system; Oliver Ressler’s project on permafrost; Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen on climate change; Olafur Eliasson melting blocks of Greenland ice in front of the Tate Modern. Jérôme Bel now only travels by train. Pierre Huyghe intervenes. Hito Steyerl ventures into the heart of algorithms. The photographer Ashem Shakeri creates ‘pictures not of this world’, to quote the heading in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

Well-made documentaries on upcoming paradigm shifts prove popular with the public. The series of great committed art of transformation could be continued endlessly, as well as the theoretical examination of it, for example in the Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft, but also reflection on the omnipresence of political themes in popular culture. From American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish to Coldplay and U2, popular musicians are increasingly speaking out about the environment. Massive Attack, the trip-hop band from Bristol. are now even funding a study on CO2 consumption in the music industry. A magazine recently asked: ‘Can this be more than a green sale of indulgences and political symbolism?’

Young people with a poster saying "Fridays for Future".
New issues now concern the entire society, such as environmental protection, photo: Geralt via pixabay

For many years now, there has been a difficult and agitating process around questions of identity and human rights, LGBTQ, gender, diversity and race in the political and moral ‘battlegrounds’. Postcolonial studies have reached most corners of the continent; restitution debates and diversity politics are now the practice of the vast majority of institutions, especially media houses and cultural institutions, from national flagships to municipal theatres and social-cultural centres. Great literature makes the emotional core relatable to broad swathes of readers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the best-selling novel Americanah, was on hand to discuss feminism with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus.

But, unfortunately, here too the gap is widening. Those who feel threatened by precarity see this debate as mere symbolism, a debate that ignores their real-life needs and concerns, a luxury debate about the sensitivities of the privileged.

The world is moving closer together – culturally, locally, and in the networks. This has implications for foreign cultural policy and Europeanisation. European cooperation began to intensify a few years ago, for example with the More Europe movement, strong support from the Goethe-Institut in Brussels, and the EUNIC network of national cultural institutes. EUNIC’s former Secretary-General, who also once headed up the Goethe-Institut in Congo, has now taken over the top position at ifa, the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has now integrated this process into its work and created budgets and instruments to this end.

Cities in Europe are force fields of international cultural cooperation and act as European laboratories, places where it is still possible to experience and participate. But they are also practice rooms where ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ come together – the cultures of migrants and refugees, of local people and their history, and artists from all over the world. In many cases, this interaction achieves paradigmatically transformative levels and a quality of togetherness that radiates through some European Capitals of Culture.

The impact of the pandemic

The whole cultural sector was badly hit by the pandemic, with many businesses cut to the quick. Politicians were confronted with a desperate need for compensation. At the same time, the importance of art and culture had seldom been experienced so existentially and supported by so many people. This has led to many cities, federal states and EU Member States taking extraordinary financial measures and attempting to be extremely flexible, including for freelancers, who always find themselves in a precarious position (for example, the Fair Pay campaign in Austria). The risk of collapse has not yet been averted, nor the danger of relapsing into old mechanisms or a new Biedermaier. However, there has been a renewed discussion about the development of new audiences and participation, the tension between expensive, stable large institutions and the rest, between quality and quantity, art and society, sustainability in the cultural sector, digitalisation and diversity.

Cultural civil society has made key contributions to society; one example is Die Vielen, a strong German and international network against right-wing radicalism and its grip on culture. Positions of solidarity across borders are emerging; after the refugee crisis of 2015, cultural workers have contributed significantly to bringing differentiation and empathy to the discussion and fostering coexistence in specific neighbourhoods. They have taken a stand, not only on environmental issues, and are taking political action in a brand-new sense; the critical and utopian potential of art and culture is being positioned, also with a view to neo-nationalism and a transnational Europe.

In light of the extraordinary global shifts, it is shocking that there is no clear and, above all, common EU strategy.

This brief exemplary presentation follows the basic thesis that the extraordinary situation, which calls for a culture of transformation, is faced with a cultural sector that has transformed or is transforming itself in terms of meeting social challenges and expectations. One may call this unduly affirmative, one may counter it with an unwieldy factual situation, cite deficits in the face of crises, but the fact is that there is a great deal of ‘political’ awareness among artists and cultural workers and that there is no alternative to extraordinary efforts made in conjunction with citizens. This interim assessment of art and politics assumes a new normality of differentiation, of enduring contradictions instead of ideological slogans, of productive uncertainty and the irreplaceable cycle of bold experimentation and open learning, correction and renewed reflection and action. Hope for the future is vital; it needs confidence in the ability to work together to find solutions. In this epochal transformation project, the openness of art and culture and their utopian potential in confrontation with reality can become a key currency.

However, the basic conditions have to be improved at every level. And now a concluding paragraph about the institutions, also and above all with an eye on Europe (and its place in the world).

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Europe has made huge efforts and launched an investment and structural programme worth hundreds of millions of euros to stimulate national and private restructuring. However, as part of this transformation, culture is barely mentioned and is hardly visible. This is why various alliances and the independent European Cultural Foundation have proposed a Cultural Deal whereby 2% of the EU’s National Resilience and Recovery Plans goes to culture. It is similar with perhaps the EU’s most ambitious environmental and climate package, where architecture is (still) created without the thousands of cultural buildings in the cities and regions that are much more advanced in their thinking.

Overall, the Brussels Directorate General for Culture, which worked with civil society a few years ago to conceive and create a European cultural policy with breath-taking speed, has now lost its momentum. Today, key projects such as the Capitals of Culture risk becoming sclerotic. There is a shortage of initiatives for a culture of transformation. In general, towns and cities are far more advanced and active. Things are more complicated in the area of the EU’s external cultural policy.

In light of the extraordinary global shifts, it is shocking that there is no clear and, above all, common EU strategy. However, this reflects the lack of direction and agreement between national foreign ministries. Even the larger nations are flailing around more than they are strategising and designing. The voids are particularly galling when juxtaposed with the burning interest of citizens (of Europe and beyond) and the impressive practice of global conversations and projects in art, culture, and debate.

Illustration: two hands are shaking, on each hand words such as “cooperation, connection, help out,”… are written.
Cultural institutes have a great role to play in our modern world, illustration: Johnhain via pixabay


It is not possible to take a genuine next step towards overhauling the ageing policies and rituals of major cultural institutes, such as the German and French institutes but also many of the smaller ones, without having a plan for Europe in the world. Institutional restructuring can only follow on the heels of a clear and courageous intellectual analysis; transnational cooperation urgently needs a unifying narrative. Here too, it is strongly recommended to borrow from initiatives and pioneers at the heart of culture. The path has to lead through issues of general concern, so the culture of transformation and the transformation of culture in tackling the massive challenges that lie ahead: climate change and the environment, economic restructuring, digitalisation, migration, democracy and global governance.

Laying this groundwork for the future can only truly succeed if it has the trust and confidence of citizens – locally, nationally, across Europe and the world. This requires the integrative, critical, reflective, creative and also utopian power of art and culture at all levels. At the end of this short review, my suggestion is as follows: once again, Europe needs to make a great and widely visible effort to achieve oneness, the culture of the Agenda for Change, so a massive, diverse shift towards a new culture of transformation. This has to be orchestrated.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.