Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Productivity of culture - Hatto Fischer (2007)


Sky above Technopolis in Athens                     Photo: Hatto Fischer

Introduction *

'Productivity of Culture' is a vital focal point when it comes to understand how culture works. It includes setting free impulses and the freedom to follow up something e.g. Darwin to go on field trips in search of clues about human evolution and Kant to draw conclusions from these findings as to enhance an understanding of mankind.

Still many explanations fall short of giving the human spirit an uplift. For that to happen is needed that everyone adopts a friendly attitude towards the world. If the unknown, including other people and their problems are to be approached openly, then there is needed an optimism which makes possible the going forward to find a solution. It may well lie in a more precise formulation of the problem and in learning out of initial failures to resolve them. This going on expresses, however, already a strong notion of what is entailed when referring to the 'productivity of culture'.

Naturally it is advisable at all times that real needs within given constraints are fulfilled while not letting the challenges of life out of sight. As investment in the future culture works best by letting things be worked through i.e. understood before taking any decision and therefore action.

The subtle idea to let things work out over time complements any child growing up in society. If inspired by others and touched by the human spirit, such an individual can make his or her contribution to society.

Inspiration can take any individual or groups of people quite far. One outstanding example of such inspiration making things work out over time was the idea of Melina Mercouri. She proposed before Athens 1985 became the first European Capital of Culture to institutionalize the importance of culture in Europe by having every year one city become a Capital of Culture.

Culture is not something arbitrary but allows people to communicate about their likes and dislikes within models of life. This knowledge includes everything from how to prepare bread to deciding whether or not to have windows open up to the left or the right. The same goes for driving the car on the right as opposed to the left as the case in the United Kingdom compared to the rest of Europe.

Much has been written and said about this art of communication based on a way of doing things. There is Simon Frazer's famous 'Golden Bough', an anthropological description of life which became the basis for the text of Sigmund Freud about 'Totem and Tabu'. Much of that can be attributed to the need to know whom to marry, what not to touch e.g. the pipe of the chief or how to treat someone who has become a warrior and killed someone else e.g. he was treated as a sick man and kept upon returning from his mission separate in a hut at the edge of the village. Reintegration into society has remained through the ages a major problem for those who have gone beyond normal human limits.

In philosophy, there is the thesis of Jürgen Habermas about 'The Reason of Publicness'. He reflects upon the mass media as a flow of energy above the heads of the common people. The media is meant to retain some moral impulse to correct the political discourse of the elite within the institutions where negotiations mark the political process. Public opinion is a representative thing which might affect attitude of voters over a long run. Interestingly enough he refers to a 'pathology of communication' which is the case once someone like Murdoch can throw his media in the scale to support Bush or Thatcher. In Italy Berlusconi has managed to gain power to make laws which allow him to consolidate his media power even further. As a result the press and media has been transformed into an info-entertainment. Sadly enough that leaves everyone being just interested if the spectacle is to continue made possible by letting Berlusconi stay in power (Umberto Eco).

Habermas places some hopes into the civic society to correct this but its organisations lack resources and money. Moreover, they can only address the general public if the issue has become a part of a greater movement.

All these observations about communication are of interest. They depict culture in such world as being no longer a prism (Adorno), but more as a consequence of many shattered dreams exposed due many betrayals to a 'corruption of the mind'. Horkheimer had already identified before Second World War egoism as the force which shall destroy freedom only to be realized if the others are equally free.

Apparently success can be achieved in society only on the basis of exploiting all the many failures and weaknesses of mankind. Many do not make it past the cutting edge to distinguish those who know how to survive within the system from those who pose a potential threat. That clears the stage for the achieving athlete, the record breaker and of course for the billionaire. They all achieve a kind of immortality within life through financial means. It leaves civil society with its emphasis on cultural values in a very weak position, if not short of breath. Any serious attempt to challenge the system leaves the protagonists if not entirely outside the political realm, then hardly with any support.

If culture plays along, then it gets quickly caught up in similar mechanisms aiming to see who fulfills certain achievement tests e.g. how many labels did Michael Jackson sell? Such a successful star cannot do without the producers behind the scene. Consequently he is marketed in a highly clever way with his songs knowing how to exploit the pretense of hard life. The latter is depicted as if the streets are dominated by gangs and sexy girls not on cat walks but ready to dance to the flash of light. Hopelessness as much as achieving something can be confused by hands being thrown up in the air.

Reflections about communication may even include McLuhan's treatment of the world as a global village but one still depending upon another village listening to hear the drums sending messages.

As Max Aufischer would put it, if mankind is not capable of putting something into words, to describe the phenomen, then that does not exist. It seems that human communication is very much about weaving in and out of categories while thinking about the existence of life. Without categories there is no existence, but staying within the boundaries of these categories, life can become very limited, if not boring. That forsters attempts to break out even if at the risk of being thereafter unable to exist.

Of interest is when Aristotle set out to draw some lessons from the use of categories, he really discovered language in the form of grammar. More so, he added to that aesthetics or that what makes things become beautiful. Above all this means mankind can be inspired by the poetic spirit and poetry taken to be the beginning of philosophy. When wonder about life becomes a special dialogue, then in response to the need to stay in touch with reality, fore mostly human reality. Here Levy Strauss wondered why Indians had more categories to describe nature than what they needed to survive. The probable answer is whenever reality is perceived of man's own reality and limited interest, then productivity of culture is at work. Something enriches human communication as if feed by a secret or hidden underground reservoir and which extends itself into multiple spheres of the imagination.

The Archaic spirit linked still the inner and the outer worlds but subsequent developments made possible a new perception of mankind within self created spaces reflecting these differences between inner and outer worlds, the Greek temple perhaps a most telling example as the pillars of the outer corridor allowed the setting of such time frames as used later on by the film when showing a continuity of images depicting slowly or faster a change in images. This first model of a film meant acknowledging that man's rich imagination would need verification as to what could exist in that outer reality i.e. the physical world.

Indeed, culture works best when done in public and in the interest of safeguarding society from breaking apart. It entails memories or as the Roman poet Virgil would say myths are there to remind according to the seasons in which they play a role what everyone should do at that time e.g. cut the olive trees. He concluded the moment people no longer know how to cut the olive trees or to tame horses, then these forgotten skills would predictably contribute towards the collapse of the entire empire. Now there have been given other reasons as to why societies, even entire empires and with them great cities collapsed, but surely the failure of upkeeping inherent things like a self critical understanding of oneself and others as human beings must be one of the more telling ones what happens when mankind fails to communicate.

In other words, not just any kind of communication is meant but in addition to this vital work of culture has to be added the dialogue between cultures as an ability to uphold communication with not merely the outer world, but with the cultural word of others. Once that necessity can no longer be fulfilled, then because the various tributes feeding the great stream of human self consciousness have all dried up. If the case then culture has ceased to be the vital motor behind the amazing productivity of mankind which has so far let people find ways to survive.

Communication through culture has been developed not only to survive but to do so as a free human being. This includes expressions of joy but also of sadness i.e. showing of inner emotions but more importantly as demonstrated by Ancient Greek dramas by the ability to express human moral dilemmas. Making conscious different options and therefore choices as an expression of freedom is the way to gain responsibility as a human being for the way one decides how to live. Thus culture is not merely a way to retain the freedom of not merely consciousness as a human being having these choices, but also the freedom of conscience when making these decisions in the interest to retain above all and first of all that freedom and the responsibility which goes with it. It means life is not left to fate, but to the productivity of culture to make possible that man assumes responsibility on the basis of conscious decisions. Since Ancient Greece pointing out consequences of these decisions has been linked to listening to the voice of 'human reason' and therefore especially to those friends who are not afraid to tell one the consequences ahead even if they materialise not immediately, but two hundred years from now. The Pelopponesian war brought about precisely what was predicted but not listened to and therefore ended that amazing streak of cultural achievements under Pericles by a battle leaving in the end no side being victorious. Human self defeat is more powerful than anything else and repeatedly these mistakes have been made where cultural wisdom has been ignored e.g. in the United States after 911.

There is another way of perceiving productivity of culture, namely as outcome of a dialectic of securalization. Meant is not merely what frees religion from politics and vice versa politics from religion, but also mankind from thinking about law as if written only by those who leave everyone else in the dust as they move on. The lawfulness of culture is on the contrary a moral impulse taken from Antigone who does not wish her brother to remain lying in the dust. To give dignity to her brother as a human being underlines the need for culture, including conducting a proper funeral or not, not to conceal or to mask what is happening within a state institution. The latter aims to monopolize culture for the single purpose to uphold but one identity and that in obedience to its own anti cultural laws. Hegel in 'Philosophy of Law' would state that such an identity would commit itself fully and unquestionably to but this one state who works as arbitrator in cases of conflicts and thereby uses law to suspend revenge. But this claim of being more civilized does not protect the citizen against abuse of power threatening to become absolute whenever someone dares to contradict and more so does not necessarily commit the own identity to the state as a functioning whole. The Jew was, therefore, denounced by Hegel as Cosmopolitan who would not show any allegiance to the state.

Thus an idea of how culture works can be gained to what extent culture emancipates itself from politics and gives to everyone that human self consciousness which gives them the freedom of expression not merely in a political, but equally in an artistic way.

For instance, creativity is brought about by heeding human constraints and by attending directly to human problems in need to be resolved. But graffiti found on the walls of a house in Athens, even if highly artistically expressed, seems to doubt the optimism proclaimed especially by official cultural policy makers. The latter proclaim lately that problems can be overcome by staying creative. It appears as if in search of solutions such necessary ingredients like good humor are countered by a growing pessimism, if not outright distress in view of so many obstacles being encountered daily but also within an entire life time.

Humor and distress, comedy and tragedy seem to be as much conjoined over time as they are completely apart. This is because the rich and the poor people exist not in one common city with public spaces being accessible to all, but people reside and move about in two different worlds. Even if treated as poles to create and to understand some of prevailing dynamics in society, life in cities does not necessarily conform to the wishes of cultural policy makers.

No wonder. The terms used to formulate the policy measures e.g. intercultural dialogue, do not describe sufficiently the crisis of a society. There is at risk that no one wishes to see these problems until too late, they explode or if not because suppressed by sheer force (police, but also chronic unemployment), they shall implode e.g. suicide, alcoholism, depression. Resignation is felt especially when people withdraw and no longer participate in public discourses, never mind share with others something made only possible by culture e.g. mutual appreciation of the works of Vincent Van Gogh.

But then a positive interpretation of 'productivity of culture' does seem to imply that culture can bring its creative energies to bear on any given subject, especially if it has been prioritized due to affecting so many people's lives. That would make it more directed than creativity and reflect organisational possibilities to overcome constraints and problems in a productive way. Another expression for that is 'innovation'.

Yet what are the social problems in need to be dealt with. If classical literature is an indication, then Dostoevsky described the plight of the poor bureaucrat in the nineteenth century or Kafka the loss of orientation in the endless corridors of power in the twentieth century. Reading this literature and seeing what inspiration they gave to countless generations, it is conceivable that culture at the beginning of the 21st century can become equally productive there, where such energy is needed to further communication, interaction and learning out of experiences made when seeking a reasonable way to survive in society. There is some doubt as to the later being on a path of reason. Over and again crisis, war and other disasters have struck often unexpectedly but also deliberately as if there is no learning taking place. These destructive forces are just as pertinent as the lack of attention that culture is very much needed where society is about to abandon yet again both the individual and humanity at one and the same time.

Since such directed energy goes beyond mere reproduction, it is appropriate that Spyros Mercouris considers 'productivity of culture' to imply that culture has its own capacity to renew itself. It does so by bridging the difference between the old and the new, and still remains able to maintain a sense of continuity through diverse expressions in daily life. They reflect a sense for common feelings and meanings of words and even of concepts while giving a sense of direction as to what are livable solutions. The latter are based on values, morals and ethical dimensions entailed in what can be described as the human spirit and its capacity to inspire while also not afraid to paint the stark colours of reality. That is the case when Goya shows how 'reason can devour human beings' or Käthe Kollwitz the atrocities of war. In that sense, 'productivity of colour' means to bring about numerous answers or more precisely reformulated questions so as to allow for a possible answer as to why these contradictions in life? As this includes war, culture has to deal fore mostly with the loss of convictions in the other(s) as human being(s) and with what Michel Foucault named as another focal point when stating 'we speak only then with the others when we have no victory necessary'.

Thus while human plight can be linked to having been abandoned by 'reason', human deprivation derives from loss of culture, including the ability to communicate. As this includes telling of stories, no narrative reflection exhausts itself in a mere analysis of what happened. Rather a synthesis is attempted out of the materials made available by mankind living together. Here the difference between not knowing and yet not fearing the unknown becomes a matter of trust. When starting to write, the poet does not know what lies ahead, but when he puts down the pen, he or she will know immediately in the words of Michael D. Higgins, if that poem is made or not. If such writing goes beyond explanation, it does not matter as much as the surprise of a poem just made strokes a sense of wonder. It allows for a conviction of life out of which stems most likely this sense of culture having its own productivity to continue affirming life. No wonder then when Pavese took it as a final destination once he could no longer write. Something similar happened to Hemingway after he failed to put down just four lines for a speech dedicated to the inauguration of J.F. Kennedy as President of the United States. For without these poetic words there is no longer livable an imagination which allows a seeing ahead on the basis of a commitment to stay honest in not only words but in love of life.

If the concept 'productivity of culture' requires any further clarification over and beyond what can be grasped through the dialogues which took place in a symposium like the one held in Athens 2007, then in following terms: productivity includes an activation of the imagination and what human feelings go with that. The activization of the imagination depends at primary level on such extra human qualities as a deep love and commitment to other human beings and to humanity in general. At secondary level, in terms of interactions with others in both an anthropological (the inner reflection of self-understanding as influenced by culture and the place in which one grows up in) and an ethnological (the outer or exterior reflection when looking from the outside into a culture) sense, human productivity is about the creation of social relationships. They are crucial in terms of giving and receiving love.

Love and the happiness and freedom which goes with it is not a romantic idea. Rather it is a key to understand what activitates human beings and gets even Oblomov off the couch, at least for a while. Above all, such love opens up human beings once this feeling can be based on a certainty of happiness. If Kant could speak about the 'unity of apperception' as prerequisite for 'ich denke, ich kann überall hin meine Vorstellungen begleiten' (I think, that I can accompany everywhere my imagination), then the love referred to here can unify in a forward looking way the identity of the persons in love. Moreover people in love do act in reference to each other. Thereby they motivate themselves by activating an 'inner recognition' towards a much wider perception of other human beings. Since that gives them a greater sense of responsibility but also understanding for others and themselves, they enhance in each other the human self-consciousness. The latter is a term used already by Marx who made it a condition that people address each other in such a language which contains categories of both productivity and creativity. They do so by activating the imagination and thus develop greater empathy for others. This understanding is not a simple affirmation of the other, since it allows for the perception of the others' abilities and capacities while at the same time it means to be more truthful to the full potentialities of the human being while in negotiation with all the short-comings.

As Michael D. Higgins would maintain culture has always something to do with truth telling and an interest to share things, above all stories about human life. Such richness in narrative reflects the 'productivity of culture'. That will be enhanced once people are personally involved and engaged to make possible the creation of a path marked by their 'lived through experiences' (Jean Paul Sartre called it 'le vecu'.) It is linked to being 'oneself' amongst others (a theme linked by Jürgen Habermas to Kierkegaard right up to Derrida) and, therefore, open to ideas and opinions of others. Such a democratic life has to do with the freedom to be oneself. As a matter of fact such self governance can become the basis for democracy in which people take up their political responsibilities within the community. Once these responsibilities are taken up in terms of 'public space - public truth' as outcomes of cultural developments open to be questionen (Bart Verschaffel), then that fulfills the prerequisite of governance in a societal sense i.e. the ability to consider the others when making decisions. It shall be reflected directly in the kind of discourse practiced because then consistency and honesty would elevate thoughts to the level of the imagination and human integrity would exist in terms of things said, done and kept in memory through the narratives told.

On the other hand, productivity had been used by economists as criterion when measuring the performance of the industry. Nowadays more and more reference is made to the existence of cultural industries. The assumption is close at hand that a similar criterion of measurement as used in former times for industrial work is being applied as well to the cultural sector e.g. in terms of its capacity to attract so many visitors to festivals and or a writer managing to have so many of his books be published in successive years. Such notion of productivity has to do with the tendency in society to establish success only by means of quantitative criteria.

However, this was not at the core of interest when conceiving the ECCM Symposium 'Productivity of Culture', even though Spyros Mercouris considers these measurable evidences of success of European Capitals of Culture to be interesting aspects. He came only late to such a conclusion, that is after having listened to some statistical reports as part of the evaluation of former European Capitals of Culture e.g. Lille, Luxemburg, Genoa etc. In his mind, there remains one crucial question which is not really answered, namely what 'experiences' people take away with them after having been in a city currently the European Capital of Culture?

Mercouris agrees with such a finding underlining the growing importance of culture for the economy, nevertheless there needs to be made an important distinction between the two of them. In his opinion culture has also the power to regenerate itself'. It is this latter aspect which constitutes the productivity of culture. This he wants to stress by opting for such a theme when holding the ECCM Symposium in Athens.

By including the Kids' Guernica Exhibition, the ECCM Symposium took on still another dimension. For such an exhibition shows the rich imagination of children when it comes to convey their wishes for a peaceful world.

Some postulates

The world of the twenty-first century needs not resignation, but an optimistic culture to end the permanent institutionalization of war. In this context the cultural dimension within European foreign policy becomes a crucial backbone of the promise made in Europe after 1945, namely 'never again war'. This promises finds a resonance in what Kids' Guernica expresses. For example, there is the peace mural from Nagasaki with the title saying it all: "Re-building the city after the bomb!"

Since Picasso painted Guernica in response to those astrocities committed in 1937, the world has witnessed many more Guernicas. It includes Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but since 1945 the war against cities and innocent civilians has not stopped there. Cities like Beirut, Baghdad and Sarajevo, but also countless villages in rural areas come to mind. Interestingly enough Dusan Sidjanski reflected upon the mural from Nepal as it was brought about by a dialogue between children from Katmandu and a village at the foothill of the Himalayan mountains.

Thus by taking heed of the enormous productivity of Picasso, and in seeing how this is constantly reinforced and renewed by children who are much freer than adults to express their own imagination, it becomes apparent why freedom and culture not only go together, but how they can contribute to a new kind of 'Productivity of Diplomacy'.

As explained in the forefield to the ECCM Symposium all peace keeping and conflict resolvement mechanisms must include in future those children who through the Kids' Guernica experience grow up with different solutions in mind. These solutions evolve out of direct dialogues which free most importantly the minds from the fear to speak up in public. For instance, children at the PlanJena School in Weimar and one of the contributors of a peace mural to the exhibition in Kastelli, 2006 hold at the beginning and the end of the school week a school assembly. Always all kids sit on the floor while up front, on the stage, some make a performance (dance, recital of a poem, playing a musical instrument etc.). Once they have done this, they return to the others and the roles are reversed since others get up and go on stage. To experience both sides makes the audience receptive and the fear to speak out in public vanishes. When asking these children who is Picasso, 200 arms shot up and the same amount of children willing to answer a question shows they had no inhibition. Fatal are the ones who do not learn from an early age onwards how to stand up in public and articulate one's own opinion even at the risk of being laughed at. Nothing should intimitate or produce a false shyness or fear not to be accepted by the others. Something of that idea has been followed up by Jürgen Habermas in his pursuit of public openness and discourse.

To overcome despair, equally forgetfulness by not naming the real issues, 'productivity of culture' needs to be based according to Michael D. Higgins on an active cultural policy, one which can rely on the 'integrity of memory'. Moreover, that what takes place and becomes a human experience should be recognized and articulated in all its contradictions and incomprehensibility. Understanding is not a given nor a norm, but a way to bear empathy upon difficulties to articulate ideas and thus a way to support individuals in their search for expressions. For that to happen cultural policy has to provide public space. Bart Verschaffel calls 'public' more precisely 'cultural' truths. After all culture is what people want to do together and share. They do so out of wish not to become prisoners in their own constructed worlds, but to be able to question these self acclaimed truths in order to go further.

Above all the world of the twenty-first century needs to create conditions for culture to exist and to develop. This is possible only when humanity frees itself from the permanent war. It does so by letting people from regions of conflict tell their stories even if most difficult to narrate e.g. Palestinians to Israelis and vice versa. Although Jad Salman from Palestine and Prof. Kacem from Tunesia raised doubts at the ECCM Symposium that this necessary dialogue between cultures is still possible, all efforts must be undertaken to ensure that the tributes feeding the great stream of humanity do not dry out. This includes as Prof. Kacem suggests preparing students to face things which the existing generation of professors and teachers have failed to take up. Again it means the culture must become productive precisely in areas where shortcomings are felt and lived daily e.g. the literature and poetry of Arabic countries not translated and read in Europe and vice versa.

All these discussions about culture in relation to other fields have already acquired a knowledge base over the years in and outside the European Capitals of Culture. Their story from the very beginning is told very convincingly by a book edited by Jürgen Mittag. The telling of stories is a part of the ongoing practical discourse about the meaning of culture and cultural policy within the European context.

The ECCM Symposium of Oct. 2007 follows the one held as well in Athens in 2005. Thus the ECCM Symposium 'Productivity of Culture' aimed to take up further going reflections in terms of especially a clarification of cultural policy principles made explicit onhand of the European Capitals of Culture which have implemented during one year their respective programs.

In an age with increasing tendency to shy away from reality, and by this is meant how people allow themselves to be affected by specific ideologies the type of which are Right Wing Populism, but also Anarchism, there are new irrationalities at foot and equally a withdrawal into private spheres. The lack of convincing models to adapt to future needs affects many youth. There is even to be noted a resurgence of Nihilism, one already discussed by Robert Musil in his never completed novel 'The Man without Attributes'. (Musil considers it a mistake if young people send out their ideas but never get any feedback; that is worse than criticism).

In reference to Albert Camus, there is a need for a new art to live (and not to resign) and to become practically involved in societal activities and work. However, some ideas afloat suggest that the entire society is inhumane and irrational so that even at the risk of committing suicide as did finally Paul Celan, it is better to stay outside (in order not to get one's own hands dirty or to keep the illusion of moral purity). But as Adorno would say even the outsider is entangled with the system, only that he or she often does not know it and, therefore cannot acknowledge this entanglement due to a prevailing silence.

There is another warning to be heeded before attempts at radical changes are made. Klaus Heinrich warned to cut through entanglements by a single stroke, for that, so his reasoning, may provoke many more problems than thought to be a solution when in favor of some kind of revolution.

Thus the productivity of culture is touched upon when human beings engage themselves to work through complex matters and still find a simple way of expressing ideas. The art to live is, therefore, a way to resolve issues despite a difference of opinions. A prerequisite is to to allow the questioning of cultural truths (Bart Verschaffel) as part of a humane practice and as contribution towards cultural development. This includes as well the dialogue between cultures.

Consequently this website reflects more a working progress than a final outcome. Hence the materials presented are subject to changes as further comments and responses shall be the best indicators of how the tasks ahead shall be faced individually and together.

Hatto Fischer

* This introduction was written for the ECCM Symposium 'Productivity of Culture' held in Athens 2007. See www.productivityofculture.org

^ Top

« Culture and economy | From productivity to creativity - the cultural economy in the making by Hatto Fischer »