3 months ago

Culture Wars

Reflecting on a performance of Mark Thomas and a guided walk by Edinburgh Art Festival director Sorcha Carey, the Global Cultural Fellows discussed the idea of "Culture Wars"

The Culture Wars group started today’s session with a clip from the film The Gladiator, specifically the scene in which two warriors fight to the death in the Colosseum for the amusement of the emperor and cheering masses. “We who are about to die salute you,” one ill-fated man yells to his ruler.

Then, with the clip finished and the lights turned back on, today’s presenters stood in front of the assembled Fellows and stated now that you have an idea of the game we’re about to play…

The Culture Wars group reconfigured the room’s seating to mock a stadium with two sets of three chairs in the middle positioned in front of Mikael Löfgren, Manuel Francisco Viveros, and Solomiya Shpak. They took turns asking a question central to culture wars politics; the Fellows divided into camps and Abdulkarim Ekzayez and Ariel Stolier served as ‘generals’ leading representatives from each side to the middle chairs where verbal exchanges were hurled back and forth. The trio of questioners also served as ‘senators’ by voting in favor of one side for the following debates: are you global or local citizens/artists; should the arts be funded by the state or private philanthropy; is art for social change or the exploration of aesthetic possibilities.

Tensions and decibel levels ran high, but the Fellows managed to re-group in a civilized fashion and break off into smaller discussion circles. Mikael, Ariel, Solomiya, Manuel, and Karim gave short presentations on the topics and directed questions on specific debates that comprise culture wars. Their topics were, respectively: iconoclasm and those symbols that should be protected from deconstruction or satire; how to measure the value of arts in a given community; public art as a public good and the role of the state in deciding what art gets chosen for public spaces; the identity of artistic creations in the context of globalization; and the role of the art and artist during violent conflict.

Each of these discussions produced thoughtful commentary on socio-political fault lines. In the subsequent large-group session, the group members asked one question that encompassed the overarching themes for each topic with time for brief debate between all the Fellows.

These questions refined the scope of the conversation and how the Fellows engaged with specific terminology. Natalia Mallo rejected the presumed fluidity between global and local in the Fellows’ discussion on these identities. She stated that as a non-native citizen of Brazil, she is excluded from state arts funding and practices of social inclusion despite her 20-year residence in the country. Natalia argued that because she has greater agency as a Brazilian artist when abroad, she demonstrates that global and local identities can be mutually exclusive.

Similarly, Ann Henderson refuted the premise that the tension between local and global would be a point of conflict for her.  An advocate for economic equality, Ann stated that she feels greater affinity for African miners working under unfair conditions than the national symbols that populated her native Edinburgh during the 2014 Scottish Referendum. “That’s my community,” Ann said of African laborers.

Gideon Wabvuta stated that while he is influenced culturally by his international travel, he values the practices that allow him to keep himself grounded in his Zimbabwean identity in any location.

Gideon’s comments bridged the discussions between spatially-defined identity and memorialization and heritage work. 

Faisal Abu Alhayjaa said that in his culture, statues memorializing public figures are integral to Palestinian identity. In the Palestinian case, there may be congruency between its public art and popular opinion, but locales with histories of successive political regimes must negotiate their remnant monuments with their current societies. Chris Creegan questioned some citys’  practices to remove such symbols, such as Budapest's decision to treat Memento Park as a repository for Soviety era statues. He believed the statues’ presence were useful affirmations of history.  

Works that memorialize and commemorate history are often public goods, as Solomiya explained to the group. But culture wars also involve disputes over private goods with finite resources such as the number of theater tickets available each night for purchase.

The Fellows disagreed to various extents on the benefits and costs for different pricing models. Natalia reminded the Fellows to consider motivation for attendance in addition to access; she argued that expensive tickets prohibit the disadvantaged from arts participation, but that cheap state-subsidized tickets do not automatically guarantee the same population shows up either.

Xenia Hanusiak offered an alternative structure to calculate potential audience motivation. She argued that the decision to attend a performance is in-part informed by how the individual perceives a sense of community with the work. “It’s not a question of money,” Xenia said.

Debates over access and motivation revolved around the themes of inclusion and exclusion. For example, Ann contended that theaters’ practice to scale seating prices excluded low-income audiences from the same artistic experience as those that could afford the best seats.

Furthermore, the conversation demonstrated that cultural business models also limit or exclude which works art practitioners can introduce to the public. Devika Ranjan indirectly answered Caitlin Nasema Cassidy’s question for how arts administrators could be allowed to create more complex programming with her observation that performing arts companies tend to produce only the safest, most popular shows out of financial necessity.

Throughout today’s deliberations, the role of the state served as the hinge between all topics. Public support can restrict artists by making them comply to funding stipulations, but also force citizens to indirectly pay for art that conflicts with their moral and value systems.

Shubham Roy Choudhury stated that people needed to support art they don’t like because to condition funding on taste would have an isolating effect. Shubham argued that support for controversial work benefits the individual, noting that when that an isolated population would be unprepared to confront such work when it does show up in society. 

The discussions on culture wars covered the spectrum from arts and cultural policies to the position of culture in violent conflict.


Reflection by Solomiya Shpak: The goal of our team during Culture Wars day was emphasize differences, complexity and breadth of the cultural wars we face in our societies. I was not expecting that out discussion on the topic of the role of monuments and memorials would be relevant and resonant in so many countries and contexts.  We discussed whether we need monuments, what are the role of the monuments in creating space for public dialog and the alternatives for monuments as a source of objective representation of the past. Truly fascinating and extremely relevant discussions to the current events, Charlottesville being just one of many.

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