The Cultural Sector: Will Hybris Lead to Our Fall?


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.


Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:


Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].


Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.


This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].




[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.


5 thoughts on “The Cultural Sector: Will Hybris Lead to Our Fall?

  1. Nicole, I agree with everything you say, but I believe that the starting point is wrong or rather bypasses a small “technical” detail: when we are among colleagues and use the word “Culture”, we might, depending on the context, refer to “Culture” or “the cultural sector”. I believe this is what Aleksandra meant when she wrote that “Culture” (that is, the cultural sector) has to constantly justify itself. I believe that Aleksandra is also right when she implies, or that’s what I understand, that no matter how many reports and “proofs” one might bring to the politicians, nothing is ever enough to justify a sustained political (not necessarily financial) support for the work this sector is undertaking. In what concerns migrants and refugees, in Portugal also “Culture”, as a sector, was not invited to take part in the working group for the European agenda on migration. It will have to prove itself, it seems to me,… again. Social welfare, health and education are part of the group, though.

    Apart from these remarks, I agree with your views on the issue Culture vs. Cultural Sector.

    1. Hi Maria,
      Yes, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Aleksandra may have meant ‘the cultural sector’ when she wrote ‘culture’. I would say, however, that for various reasons I would find that problematic. We cannot simply assume that others share our views and approaches, without even stating in detail what these views and approaches are – particularly when this equation (‘culture’ is ‘the cultural sector’) is constantly and uncritically made. I also subscribe to a representational tradition, from which perspective using one term to express diverse things in itself seems a bit hegemonic, no matter what the context. It’s easy to nonchalantly appropriate a term and claim that ‘everyone’ is meant by it when you are part of the group in power. You are not affected by the ways in which this makes invisible important aspects of who you are, and casts you in a particular role that you may or may not agree with. Aleksandra’s dismissal of the discussion about terms at the brainstorming session as an expression of ‘the absurdity of the entire project’ also suggests that to her, the distinction of ‘culture’ versus ‘the cultural sector’ would be unimportant, possibly even absurd, to begin with. Needless to say, this rejection of the power of representation and discourse is not one I agree with. And in fact I would say that *particularly* when amongst peers we must be accurate with our language, for we are developing our thinking and on this basis, our practice (I could respond to Aleksandra’s dismissal of theory too but I think my position on this is clear).
      As for there never being enough proof of the cultural sector’s contribution to society and worth – well, since we seem to still have a long way to go toward establishing a proper empirical evidence base for our impact, I think we should just buckle up and get on with it for a couple more years. Then we can start to complain and with reason. I also note that culture and grassroots initiatives have far fewer issues with being valued, so from my experience it’s really not ‘culture’ that politicians and funders undervalue on principle, but the cultural sector. But of course I can’t speak for Portugal, things may be entirely different there.

      1. Fair enough, Nicole. As I said, I agree with the points you bring up, but I don’t see how Aleksandra’s text, her criticism and choice of words, could have been the cause of your post.

        With regards to the lack of evidence regarding impact, I don’t think we’re lacking evidence, that’s not what I said. There is evidence of a diverse nature, and at times even commissioned and paid for by governments. It doesn’t make a difference, though, and it won’t make a difference as long as citizens (=voters) don’t stand up for Culture. And this is where all your good arguments come in, in my opinion. As far as I know, the situation is no different in Portugal or the US or UK or… you name the country….

      2. Hi Maria,
        Aleksandra’s post didn’t prompt my post, actually. It just so happened to come around as I was starting to formulate my thoughts. In fact, I made the same point at the Voices of Culture Dialogue meeting in September :-).
        Regards evidence – actually, *I’m* saying we don’t have enough (quality, persuasive) evidence :-), and I don’t think it’s just a matter of it ‘never being enough’ for decision-makers. I’m thinking of things like the literature review that the Arts Council England published in 2011 before taking over responsibility for museums, where they noted (p. 9) the lack of evidence on culture’s worth and benefits (“A Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries”). The HLF do insist on their funded projects to be evaluated, but that need not be external, and their list of people to evaluate with is still about half made up of internal or associated staff and professionals – just what ACE had noted and criticised (HLF guidance for download: I’ve also come across more projects without useful evaluation as a consultant and a manager than those with. And finally – sorry to labour the point – I think voters do actually stand up for culture when they organise into Heimatverbände in Germany, local history societies in the UK, art clubs of all sorts, choirs, community gardens etc. etc. They may just need more of whatever you want to call it to support ‘the cultural sector’ (but in fact, there is regular outcry when local museums are scheduled to shut).
        Anyway, I really appreciate you taking the time to question and challenge what I wrote in my post, and why. I don’t want to be writing in an echo chamber, and what I ask of ‘the cultural sector’ (evidence! proof! justification!) I ask of myself too. So thanks!

  2. Thanks for all the references, Nicole. As I said, I don’t disagree with the points you make, my main objection was what I undestood to be the starting point.

    Regarding your latest comment, I don’t think ACE’s literature review showed lack of evidence. In my view, it showed there is evidence that practically never influences political decision making (just like reports in a number of countries regarding the economic impact of Culture, never made a difference anywhere). It also seems to me that cuts in Culture, in many-many countries, did not cause an outcry in society, quite the opposite actually. So, to sum up, I believe that one thing is the sector’s relationship with people (for the reasons you point out) and another the sector’s relationship with politicians (which will only get better, in my view, when our relationship with people will get better). Thanks again for another thought provoking post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s