Cultural Policy: A Short Guide

Simon Mundy

May 2000, 92 pages. Council of Europe Publishing; U.S. sales agent: Manhattan Publishing Co., 468 Albany Post Road, Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520, 914-271-5194.

The future seems to me no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking...
-E.B. White

It's broccoli, dear.
I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.
-Caption for a New Yorker cartoon by Carl Rose

In my work over the past four years I have encountered a lot of conversation about cultural policy, much of it hostile or baffled. Many people lump it with spinach or broccoli: an intermittent evil not completely inedible if smothered in cheese sauce. But what is it? Many assume that it's the culture police coming to tell you what you should do, how you should do it, and who should pay for it. They assume it's the opinion that we should have a Minister of Culture, or that we should double the budget of the NEA and NEH. The whole concept seems vaguely Stalinist or Fascist. Isn't this America, after all? Who wants the government telling you what your culture should be?

I would argue that this is not cultural policy at all, that cultural policy is an evolving toolbox of information for different people to make informed decisions about the wealth of cultural and creative issues that are more and more central to the twenty-first century. The United States has its own de facto cultural policies that are philosophically and measurably distinct from other countries: the tax code that democratizes culture by allowing millions of citizens to decide where to take their tax deductions rather than centralizing decrees in government; the increasingly complex questions surrounding copyright in the age of the Internet; freedom of expression in a world of endless copies and permeable borders; education for a world in which intellectual agility and creativity may be as important as defined content, etc, etc. The issues multiply and refract as the way we communicate evolves and the world changes.

Maybe we can get some perspective about this concept from the way other parts of the world write about it. The Center for Arts and Culture collects cultural reports and assessments from all over the world. All are fascinating. All are different from each other, and different from our experience in the USA. Given the challenges posed by the evolution of the European Union and recent launch of the Euro, I was particularly interested to find Cultural Policy: A Short Guide, written by Simon Mundy and published by the Council of Europe, which since the 1980s has been conducting a major research program evaluating national cultural policies. Twenty-eight different countries will ultimately take part in this research when it is completed within the next few years. National governments, research institutes, and independent teams of cultural policy experts have been engaged to collect and assess basic information about all countries collaborating within the framework of the European Cultural Convention.

While this process is far from complete, the Council of Europe has published an interim report that attempts a partial answer to the question raised in the booklet's forward as to how this information can best be exploited. Interestingly, they consciously chose a non-proscriptive and personal approach:

A typical response would be to use (this information) to develop a set of policy recommendations. But culture and cultural policies are as complex as they are sensitive.... It is therefore neither feasible nor desirable to simply provide a body of policy recommendations ‘officially' approved by an intergovernmental organisation.... However, it is with great pleasure that we share...the accumulated knowledge in this very personal guide by Simon Mundy, based on existing documentation on the National Cultural Policy Reviews.

Mundy (consultant to UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Cultural Foundation, and the League of Europe and director of Britain's Campaign for the Arts) provides an individual analysis of the ingredients that go into the European cultural policies studied so far. He reflects on the reasons European governments are more concerned with culture than ever before. The Council of Europe describes the booklet as “...designed to provide a starting point for anybody coming to the subject afresh, and a useful reminder of the issues for those grappling with policy on a day to day basis.”

You can't fool me; this begins to smell like broccoli. But wait: in likable and reflective language Mundy explores why the Council of Europe might want to take up these issues at all when it could arguably be concerned with more pressing issues.

So as administrative borders are downgraded it becomes more important to give people a cultural context which allows them to hold a strong sense of who and where they are. The challenge for European governments in the twenty-first century is to retain people's desire for identity and self-determination while moving easily within a federal and global system of law and trade.... Finding a way of reconciling the longing for firm and comprehensible roots with the equally strong drive for a free, open and tolerant world, adhering to values of liberality and prosperity, will stretch us all.(Pg. 37)

But Mundy doesn't stop at protecting cultural patrimony. He reminds his readers that culture is concerned with basic issues of identity, freedom and humanity:

It is assumed, then, that cultural policy is to be set within a political framework that is democratic, that is based on a society in which taxation is redistributed for the public good, that people retain enough of their income to do more than subsist, and that governments adhere to the international conventions of human rights, freedom of expression, heritage conservation and administrative probity. (Pg. 11)

He goes on to examine why these issues are vital now:

...for while the politician tries to convince the population that he or she has the solution, the artist is sure only of the question. (Pg. 13)

It is because of these three elements — the mutuality of culture, its use as an honest envoy and its appeal beyond context to a universal humanity — that culture is becoming an increasingly important part of international dialogue. At one level the culture industries are some of the most mobile and global of all... (Pg. 19)

For the services economies of Europe, in which manufacture and agriculture are trimmed down massively, it will be industries based on culture and creativity which provide the employment base.(Pg. 78)

Mundy refuses to solve everyone's problems at once through a reductive set of proscriptions, posits that in an age of permeable borders culture will be more important for self-identity than ever, asserts that cultural policies are intertwined with basic human rights, and says that in the twenty-first century the cultural sector will become an economic powerhouse and human rights beacon. He describes artists as those who know how to ask the important questions, and creativity, innovation, identity, and heritage as essential for navigating globalization. Maybe policy issues for culture are among our most vital and compelling questions of the age.

Slice of pie, anyone?

Reviewed by Gigi Bradford