Quality exchange

A cross-cultural initiative for dialogue and cooperation was introduced to the public in Johannesburg on September 22 as part of deliberations leading up to the 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture. Peter Anders, programme director of the Goethe-Institut, looks at how the European Union National Institutes (Eunic) for Culture will provide an opportunity to forge new networks beyond party politics.

“At the first South African meeting of the European Union National Institutes for Culture initiative (Eunic), held at the Goethe-Institut on September 22, there was discussion concerning the power relations between North and South, and the inevitable impact that exchange will have on relations.

The event was held to coincide with the arterial network pre-conference on the eve of the 4th World Summit of Arts and Culture. And in promoting our concept of mutuality I am convinced that when we talk about cooperation in the field of the arts we, as cultural players, speak from a standpoint of depending on the artists and not vice-versa.

It is through their engagement with ideas and visions that we are able to do our job and so we need a consensus that the arts are free to criticise and to resist instrumentalisation.

Let me quote philosopher and critic Denis Dutton who said: ‘The spirit of Schiller and Kant would view the purpose of art not as a force to make people think the right thoughts, but to provoke them think for themselves.” And Dutton concludes: ‘No wonder dictators everywhere fear it.”

Encouraging independent thinking against manipulation seems to me the silver bullet for the arts, and if we analyse best practise within cultural cooperation we favour those projects that work on the historical and current upheavals through the process of evaluation of one’s own past. ‘The pull of the past is a critical resource, not a set of directives. It too is not stable. Art functions best in the interface between different spatialities and temporalities,” as South African art critic Colin Richards puts it.

A key-issue in many cultures is the question of cultural identity and remembrance. Cultures have a memory. And it is especially the artist who preserves, rethinks or adjusts it. They broach the issue of trauma, the discontinuities of cultural narrations and they invent new narratives that might lead to new interpretations of historical myths and cultural identity.

As Richards says, referring to South Africa: ‘History changes the practices of art just as these practises themselves constitute and change our histories.

“The first years of democracy were perhaps more geared to national imperatives, development, nation-building and the like, and much art of the time figured accordingly. Now, while we are still faced with huge developmental challenges, art is arguably moving historically in the direction of greater autonomy, reflexivity and critically.

‘It less simply reflects or mirrors freedom than becomes an act of freedom itself.”

Encouraging independent thinking against dominant ideology as an act of freedom seems to mark the difference between democratic and authoritarian states. This year Germany is commemorating the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and one lesson learnt from the dissolution of the former GDR is that people rebel against ongoing manipulation as part of their daily lives. The struggle of the people, and especially the artists, was dedicated to fighting ignorance and the petty bourgeois behavior of their leaders. The underground and resistance movements of artists led to new perceptions that ultimately resulted in the political change. Art differentiates views and tries to destabilise simplified assumptions.

In this sense I refer to local academics Sarah Nutall and Achille Mbembe who reminded us about stereotypes of Africa drawn by Westerners which have to be broken up through the arts to reflect, ‘the full spectrum of meanings and implications that other places and other human experiences enjoy, provoke and inhabit”. Artistic practice should not exclusively be defined in terms of the social—art after all, lives in the realm of ideas—an expression of an imaginative understanding of existence, which expands and enriches our collective understanding of the world.

I am convinced that respectful cooperation and quality exchange can take place through thematic discussions resulting in artistic projects. Essential to this route is that the setting of themes is not an arbitrary act but produced from the perspective of an artist (and not from a ‘development” perspective). We do not believe that the integration of the arts into the contexts of a society contradicts its autonomy. Nor do thematic sets constrain artistic freedom. The thematic sets that the Goethe-Institut is currently working on are based on ‘city transformation”, ‘migration” and others.

The time when Europe took it for granted that it was the authority on culture, and imposed a notion of its own modernity on Africa, is over. It is only recently that Europe has managed to acknowledge its own position, reconsidering its relationships that at times resembled hostile takeovers more than engagement.

The process of formulating thematic sets, as everything else, must be done self-critically, in a way that is conscious of the inherited, and still present, power relations, defined by the internationally unequal distribution of public support for the arts. A paternalistic attitude is simply not an option, if one is to foster an equal dialogue. For the Goethe-Institut, the recently opened Goethe on Main venue in the city centre reflects another way of engaging, and may be an interesting example in this context.

This project-space in the CBD of Johannesburg aims to stimulate discussion through artistic projects proposed by artists and cultural activists concerned with the rapid transformation of the city due to the Soccer World Cup. The projects are selected by an independent jury of local art professionals and artists. Although the space is focussed on a broad theme generated with artistic discourses in mind, individual projects remain diverse. For us it is important not to influence content or manipulate the outcome by facilitating financial resources.

As members of the art community, we are afraid of loss of autonomy of the arts through commercialisation and the emphasis placed on sponsorship as a funding model. Our own budget of the Goethe-Institut has tripled within the last two years and brings with it its own set of problems. We are aware of the necessity of dialogue and of being self-critical. Change demands more responsibility from all the players on the ground and a deepened debate by those who are interested in cultural discourses. We are confident that Eunic could be such a platform of discourse.

The added value of the arts might, at times, be entertainment but it should never be superficial. Making art is not a popularity contest but a complicated process with its own torments and moments of happiness. True autonomous art, which is exploratory, cannot know in advance what it may reveal. But art bound to a political ideology never explores anything honestly, because it always knows in advance what it will discover—the script is already written.

We consider the arts a basic need and we do not believe in the sole healing of the private sponsoring hands. Guaranteeing of artistic freedom is a public task that cannot be reduced to state subsidies, but includes the work of art criticism, which provides an insight into the process of making art rather than evaluating results. Art is too valuable to be reduced to being the mouthpiece of anybody’s government.

To overcome national concepts of culture the Goethe-Institut is proud to be member of Eunic in which we see enormous potential for focussing on content and debate rather than generate national representation.

Conscious of the colonial past of European nations on the continent I understand the scepticism of our African partners towards a newly founded supranational European institution such as Eunic.

But Eunic can afford to keep governments at arm’s length and is not the mouthpiece of Europe. Europe is as diverse as Africa is.

Together as Eunic, and with our partners, we work on lobbying for the treasure of people’s imagination, as we (at times) challenge the state, and civil society.

  • Peter Anders is the Goethe-Institut’s director of programmes for sub-saharan Africa. This article is an edited version of a speech he delivered at the Johannesburg launch of Eunic in Johannesburg on September 22 to coincide with the 4th World Summit on Arts & Culture that happened at Museum Africa, Newtown, from September 23 to 25. Over 30 speakers gathered from the Untied Kingdom, Ghana, Palestine, Israel, Brazil, Germany, Botswana, Morocco, Egypt, Cameroon, South Africa and more. For details go to www.artsummit.org

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