A peek inside: Culture Action Europe’s German Hub Meet

This month, I had the fantastic opportunity of meeting the members of Culture Action Europe (CAE) in Berlin. CAE, based in Brussels, is the largest interdisciplinary forum for the non-governmental cultural sector in Europe. Jointly hosted by Internationale Gesellschaft der Bildenden Künste (IGBK ) and International Theatre Institute ( ITI) and moderated by Anna Steinkamp, the participants represented both national as well as European culture networks. Art managers, curators, policy experts, educators, academicians, artists, musicians and theatre professional put their heads together to discuss and debate current issues in Culture Policy. Tere Badia, the Secretary General of CAE put forward CAE’s appeal for the European Elections 2019.

Dr Daniel Gad, Managing Director of the UNESCO Chair ‘Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development’ sharing insights with CAE members. Photo Courtesy: Culture Action Europe/ IGBK

Below I summarise few of the many interesting points discussed during the two-day meet mottled with local and global news and statistics :

Diversity makes us stronger!

Diversity is the bedrock for a vibrant cultural landscape. A two-edged sword, it presents many unique opportunities but at the same time is often made the talking point for polarisation and hate. Coming from a syncretic country like India, I know that diversity and tolerance are not directly proportionate. Diversity needs to be actively mobilised for strengthening values of respect and empathy.

People gather at an anti-racism march in Venice on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017 Photo Courtest: Los Angeles Daily News

We live in a world that is hyper-connected yet conflicted. While there is ease of access and faster dissemination of information, societies are plagued with debilitating suspicion, conflicts and violence. In order to reap the true benefits of multiculturalism, collaborative dialogue and deeper inquiry into diverse cultural narratives is crucial. Cultural diversity is what makes us truly stronger as people.

The soft power of culture

In formulating global and national strategies,we certainly cannot afford to overlook ‘the soft power’ of culture. Joseph Nye (1990; 167) defined soft power as the ability to influence through persuasion,attraction and ‘setting the agenda’ rather than military or economic force. Soft power is when intangible power resources such as culture, ideology and institutions become more important in interstate relations.

Take for example how through art, cinema, theatre and dance, each country promotes a certain set of values and strengthens a sense of belonging to a shared cultural heritage. With Brexit and the growing political tension in Europe, how can culture be used as a tool to promote the cohesion policy of EU?

Joseph S Nye, an American political scientist pioneered the idea of soft power

The question of funding

Culture is more often than not seen as a subsidiary rather than a primary undertaking of the state. Little wonder that funding for culture is low and in times of financial adversity suffers severe cuts. The European Union dedicated (through Creative Europe, the main EU programme) 0.14 % of its total budget to culture! India too spends less than one percent ( $346 million) on culture compared to 19 % of its annual budget allocated for defence (2016–17). (Fun Fact : India spends more than twice on culture than USA. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) received only $148 million in 2016 and continues to be under threat of further reduction.)

CAE is strongly campaigning for doubling the budget for Creative Europe and allocating 1 % of the budget of each EU policy field to culture. Stepping up funds for culture is to recognise the value of culture in shaping inclusive, peaceful societies and to further empower them.

CAE’s campaign for increasing culture funding

However, there is some good news as well and interesting experimentation to open doors to culture. Germany pledged $ 2 billion for cultural undertaking in 2018, an increase of 9% in federal spending. France too increased government funding for culture in 2017 by 6.6% to $3.2 billion. President Macron is all set to publicly release the intensely debated new electronic Culture Pass — Tinder for the arts — with a view to “encourage cultural discovery and diversification.”

Freedom of Artistic Expression

Censorship, vandalism, criminal persecution and threat to life continually restricts creative ingenuity and political dissent. In the past decade, violence has escalated to a systematic suppression of free voices.

According to a study by Freemuse on the state of artistic freedom, one artist per week, on an average, was prosecuted for expressing themselves in 2017. Women, LGBT and minority groups suffered more violations than others. These attacks intended to strike terror in the hearts of artists-activists, are also paradoxically a testament to the transformative power of the arts.

The State of Artistic Freedom by Free Muse

CAE recognises the need for a stronger legal discourse and multi -faceted strategies to affirm and uphold the fundamental rights of an artist. Though many countries recognise freedom of expression as a fundamental right, it has its limitations. Ambiguities in what constitutes as ‘offensive’ is often used to censor views that are less preferred or politically provocative. Freedom of expression is actively misused as well to promote hate speech and divisive propaganda.

Article 5 of the German constitution guarantees freedom of opinion in written text and images, freedom of cinema and press. The artist’s freedom of expression is largely respected especially for satire or comedy (except the use of Nazi symbols). This freedom falls short when it comes to slander of God or any of the prophets that disturbs the peace and is punishable by fine or 3 yrs of imprisonment under the Blasphemy Law. However, the law has hardly been used, and since 1969 only 10 people have been convicted of breaking this law.

In contrast, tradition and religious offence is a leading cause for violation of freedom of expression in India. In a study by Free Muse, India ranks 5th among countries known to have prosecuted artists and tops the world list in censoring films. (2017 data)

Brainstorming session in progress

The well moderated session concluded on schedule with the group arriving at a joint position on major cultural issues. But it did not all end here. The wheels of action are set in motion and you can follow their work here and here. It was indeed heart warming to see a group of committed individuals collectively raising their voice to make culture diverse, inclusive and democratic for all. When I think of a similar cross-sectoral network of cultural organisations that champions advocacy and political lobbying in India, unfortunately, nothing comes to mind.