Monday, 2 April 2012

Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose culture?

“The protection of human rights, in a cultural society, requires the observance of cultural rights, these being universally accepted rights. There are no human rights, much less democracy, without cultural justice, without cultural diversity and pluralism and, much less, without guaranteeing the right to exist, the right to visibility, the right to difference and cultural dignity.” Flávia Piovesan in Building democracy: cultural practice, social rights and citizenship (text in portuguese)

Bandstand in Alentejo, Portugal (photo taken from the blog À espera de Godot)

An 11-year-old boy told me the other day that only when he is on holiday in Algarve he can go to the cinema, because in Évora, where he lives, there is no cinema. My first reaction was desbelief; then shock; then shame; in the end, anger. Évora, a district capital, a university town, has not got cinema in 2012.
This made me think again of António Gomes de Pinho´s interview in the TV programme Câmara Clara (26.02.2012), where he said that maintaining a Ministry of Cultural that had been losing its political weight, was an exagerated expense, an autophagic consumption; this is why António Gomes de Pinho had been defending the extinction of the Ministry, the reduction in services and the investment of the resources available in the creators, who are the ones who make culture.
Despite agreeing with the first part of this argument, I cannot agree with the solution proposed. The existence of a Ministry of Culture is not justified, in the first place, for supporting creators and its extinction does not affect (in the sense of benefiting or harming), in the first place, creation. A Ministry of Culture exists so that the young boy from Évora (and many more boys and girls, men and women, all over the country) can watch cinema; can go to the theatre; can attend concerts; can visit a museum; can have a library. It also exists to protect and safeguard, for all of us, our cultural heritage and to create the necessary conditions so that some people can develop their creativity and share it, with all of us, thus contributing for what is going to be the heritage of future generations. It exists to guarantee that the sector is ‘populated’ by professionals who are adequately prepared, on a technical point of view, to carry out their duties. It also exists in order to contribute in the development of citizens who are attentive, critical, sensitive, tolerant, intervening. A Ministry of Culture exists, in the first place, in order to guarantee the citizens access to it, being this a human right that every State is obliged to defend.
Despite all this, the dialectic of the majority of the professionals in the cultural sector is far from defending this fundamental right. Ignoring society (forgetting about it?), it seems to me that our argumentation focuses mainly on the revendication of State financial support and our voice is normally (and more and more sporadically) heard after the announcement of cuts or extinctions or, at times, of certain nominations. We are quite an egocentric sector (although there are some bright exceptions – starting from the education services of many museums around the country) and we are not particularly worried about the fact that, when we revendicate, we revendicate alone, for ourselves, without the involvement or support of a big part of our society (or even a small part, for that matter). When faced with this fact, we prefer to think that society lacks an interest in ‘culture’. Which culture? Whose culture?
Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to hear theatre director Jorge Silva Melo (SIC channel, 17.03.2012) commenting on the 100% cut in annual and one-off grants for the performing arts. Silva Melo gave a whole new orientation to all this, focusing his worries on the spectator: “(...) I, as a spectator, will not be able anymore to discover young talents. (...) The grants do not support the artists, they support the spectators. Because if I want to see a play by theatre company Truta, and if they don´t get a grant, I´ll have to pay approximately 100 Euro per ticket and I haven´t got that money. But I have the right to see what young creators are doing, what´s preoccupying them, what they are thinking about. It is this kind of support that has been taken from me, as a spectator. (…)”.
Although Silva Melo was commenting on a very specific issue – one of the many a Ministry of Culture should worry about (let´s continue discussing at that ‘level’, of a Ministry, despite our reality being ‘minor’) -, his words are an example of how we should be building our argument: without forgetting or allowing to forget for a moment at whose service the State is; at whose service a Ministry of Culture is; for whom public museum exist; or who creators and artists who are being supported aim to communicate with and share their thoughts; among many other things.
On the other hand, both culture professionals and culture authorities must realize as soon as possible that it is urgent to open the dialogue up, to involve the community, to aim for a greater representativity of the country´s various cultural realities – when we support, when we programme, when we plan, when we promote -, to aim for pluralism and respect for the anxieties, worries, needs and tastes of many citizens (both creators and audiences) and not only for those of a minority. Because the majority of the citizens are not lacking an interest in culture in general; they might, yes, be lacking an interest in ‘ours’.

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