Friday 1 February 2002

Culture at the Crossroads

Charles Landry and Marc Pachter

Following the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the rise of postmodernism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism and various other ‘isms’, it is little wonder that the cultural institutions of Western society are going through something of an identity crisis.

Having been ignored and under-funded by the political right, and then made to feel emotionally insecure by the cultural left, the museums, galleries and libraries of Europe and America are fraught with anxiety about what role they should now play in contemporary society.

Culture at the Crossroads is an attempt to preach comfort, confidence and purpose to our cultural institutions in their time of need. Written by Charles Landry (Comedia Consultancy and author of The Creative City) and Marc Pachter (Director of the National Portrait Gallery, The Smithsonian, Washington), the book was produced in consultation with leading cultural figures and proposes a vision of what cultural institutions could achieve in the future. It is a timely work and asks probing questions about the relevance of cultural institutions in light of New Age values, new technologies and the new political landscape.

The book helpfully charts the life of our cultural institutions, beginning in the 19th century with Victorian social ideals about civilising the masses and then moving onto the fraught love affairs with agenda-led politicians in the 20th century. First the cultural world was plundered and ravished by the market economists of the right in the mid 80s, who argued that the ‘consumer is always right’ and that the effectiveness of the arts was to be measured in quantitative factors. Next, the institutions were made to feel ashamed about the superiority of the cultural objects in their possession by the cultural left who argued that the ‘Dead White European Male’ had dominated the canon for far too long. Landry and Pachter recognise that it is not the scarcity of funding alone that has brought about the curious sense of vulnerability of cultural institutions. Rather, the writers understand that it is the very values that these institutions were founded upon and purport to preach which are themselves under attack, ‘the crisis in our era’s willingness to make judgements’ (p16).

Certainly this crisis in mission is deeply felt throughout the cultural sphere. The traditional role of museums and galleries was to be guardians of ‘high culture’. But when the concept of ‘high culture’ fell victim to the culture wars, museums and galleries lost confidence about their work. Today, they seem only too happy to busy themselves with new ways to contribute to society - from tackling social exclusion and crime in the inner city to preaching to young people about the dangers of teenage pregnancy. In the words of journalist Josie Appleton, ‘Under the banner of social inclusion, museums are now busying themselves building community relations, challenging prejudice and tackling unemployment.’

As Landry and Pachter recognise, these institutions have become vulnerable to an instrumentalist view of culture. The magic of art is only justifiable if it can be explained as a contribution to social problems.

However, the insight into what has brought about the identity crisis in culture does not produce a convincing solution. Whilst Landry and Pachter argue for the importance of culture for itself, they too cannot resist the temptation to see culture as a panacea of social ills. Rather than lie down and be abused, they want cultural institutions to be more proactive and ‘to play a central part in the emerging social and economic landscape’. Their vision for culture remains an instrumental one, albeit in more holistic and subtle way.

The result is a manifesto for culture that sounds like therapy, a sort of stand-up-and-be-proud attitude, which bolsters the self-esteem of the cultural institutions. Rather than being side-lined by politicians, Landry and Pachter argue that in fact, culture should take centre stage and reach the parts that politics has failed to. They argue, ‘One task of cultural leaders is to build cultural leadership elsewhere - in public, business and voluntary bodies of all kinds so contributing to the pursuit of widespread change rather than sectional or personal interests’ (p.76).

Cultural institutions are being asked to create a vision, The Next Big Thing because it is clear that in a political vacuum, no-one else will have the courage to do it.

Some might argue that this is a positive thing, a welcome change from being rejected and exploited for decades by politicians. However, the flattery of cultural institutions in suggesting that they could possibly provide the ‘vision’ shows that we may in fact have too great expectations of them and too low expectations of our politicians. As Politics and Economics have lost the power to command people’s interest, Culture enters the scene to pick up the pieces. No longer a victim, it rises like the phoenix from the ashes, a new victor in the barren landscape.

However, it could be argued persuasively that if there were one group of people who should not be running society, it would be museum curators. With their particular expertise in special objects they may be guardians of our past but are they equipped to deal with the planning of our future? Can an understanding and passion about art substitute a lack of political leadership in society?

It is understandable that Landry and Pachter would much rather our cultural guardians were in charge of running society, because at least they display a passion and commitment to their field. They faithfully turn up to gallery openings and display the pulse of an intellectual life. How often do we see the House of Commons full? And when Tony Blair admits that he preferred to spend his time at university rehearsing in a rock band than being engaged in politics, it is not surprising that our political leaders seem an uninspiring lot.

However, the solution is not to ask the cultural institutions to adopt a new social role but to interrogate the political problems we have and demand that political leaders take responsibility for tackling them. Only then can cultural institutions be left alone to do what they do best.

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