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.