Culture at the crossroads

A new book calls for cultural institutions to run society. Bad idea.

Munira Mirza

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Topics Politics

In the wake of the so-called ‘culture wars’, and with the rise of postmodernism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism and every-other-ism, it is little wonder that Western cultural institutions are in the grip of an identity crisis.

Having been ignored and under-funded by the political right, and then made to feel emotionally insecure by the cultural left, museums, galleries and libraries in Europe and the USA are increasingly anxious about their role in contemporary society.

Culture at the Crossroads, a new book by Charles Landry, founder of the research and consultancy organisation Comedia, and Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, tries to give a renewed sense of purpose to cultural institutions in their hour of need. Produced in consultation with leading cultural figures, it is a timely work that asks probing questions about the relevance of cultural institutions in today’s world.

The book charts the life of cultural institutions, starting in the nineteenth century with Victorian social ideals about civilising the masses, and going right up to museums and galleries’ fraught love affairs with agenda-led politicians in the twentieth century.

In the late twentieth century, cultural institutions were first plundered by the market economists of the right in the mid-1980s, who argued that the ‘consumer is always right’ so the effectiveness of the arts should be measured quantitatively. Then cultural institutions were made to feel ashamed of their cultural objects by the cultural left, who argued that the ‘Dead White Male’ had dominated the canon for far too long.

To their credit, Landry and Pachter recognise that it isn’t only the scarcity of funding that has made cultural institutions feel vulnerable. Rather, the very values that such institutions were founded upon are under attack, culminating in what Landry and Pachter call ‘the crisis in our era’s willingness to make judgements’ (1).

This crisis in mission is deeply felt throughout the cultural sphere. The traditional role of museums and galleries was to be the guardians of ‘high culture’. But when the concept of high culture fell victim to the culture wars, cultural institutions started to lose confidence in their work. And today, they seem only too happy to try new ways of contributing to society – from tackling social exclusion and inner-city crime to preaching to young people about the dangers of teenage pregnancy.

As Landry and Pachter recognise, cultural institutions have become vulnerable to an instrumentalist view of culture – where artworks are only justifiable if they in some way help with social problems.

Yet despite the book’s insights into culture’s identity crisis, it offers no convincing solution to the problem. While Landry and Pachter argue for the importance of art for its own sake, they simply cannot resist the temptation to see culture as a potential panacea for social ills. Rather than letting cultural institutions lie down and be abused, Landry and Pachter want them to be more proactive and ‘to play a central part in the emerging social and economic landscape’. Their vision for culture remains an instrumental one, albeit in a more holistic and subtle way.

The result is a manifesto for culture that sounds like therapy – a sort of stand-up-and-be-proud attitude designed to bolster cultural institutions’ self-esteem. Instead of being sidelined by politicians, Landry and Pachter argue that culture should take centre stage and reach the parts that politics has failed to: ‘One task of cultural leaders is to build cultural leadership elsewhere – in public, business and voluntary bodies of all kinds, so contributing to the pursuit of widespread change rather than sectional or personal interests.’ (2)

But surely the last group of people who should run society are museum curators? With their expertise in special objects they may be guardians of our past – but are they equipped to plan society’s future? Can an understanding of art substitute a lack of political leadership in society?

It is perhaps understandable that Landry and Pachter would rather see our cultural guardians running society – at least they display a passion and commitment to their field. By contrast, politics is passion-free and dull. When prime minister Tony Blair admits that he spent more time at university rehearsing in rock bands than engaging in politics, it’s not surprising that our political leaders seem an uninspiring lot.

But the solution is not to ask the cultural institutions to adopt a new social role – rather, it is to challenge our political leaders to make politics more interesting and meaningful. Then, cultural institutions can be left alone to do what they do best.

Culture at the Crossroads, by Marc Pachter and Charles Landry, is published by Comedia, 2001. This book is available from Eco distribution, telephone +44 (0)1239 891431.

Read on:

Museums for the People?, by Josie Appleton

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Culture at the Crossroads, p16

(2) Culture at the Crossroads, p76

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Topics Politics