Monday 4 February 2013

Discussing values, from Brazil to Lebanon

Image taken from
In June 2011 I was writing about a law proposal of the brazilian government that would create the Vale Cultura, a culture stipend that would allow for a subsidy of R$50 (approximately €22) for workers earning up to five times the minimum salary, in order to facilitate access to products and services in the areas of visual arts, performing arts, audiovisual, litetrature, music and cultural heritage.

I had been very critical at the time. Not because I didn´t believe that thousands of people would benefit, but, mainly, because of the objectives it was announced it was going to achieve. In its proposal, the government presented this initiative as a way “to allow for access and fruition of cultural products and services; to stimulate the visitation of establishments that provide the integration of science, education and culture; and to encourage access to cultural and artistic events and performances”. On the other hand, Roberto Baungartner, in his article Democratização do Acesso à Cultura (Democratizing access to culture), seemed convinced, that, apart from benefiting culture itself, the stipend would create more jobs and income, it would reduce violence, it would increment, on the side of the demand, the production chains involved and it would make brazilian companies more competitive at an international level.

Today, Vale Cultura is a reality. From the US (here and here) to Lebanon (here), it has been received as a great source of inspiration. And it´s a good thing it has, because there is no other such initiative (at least, I don´t know of any) and thus, it is important to follow and evaluate it based on the objectives it aims to reach. Nevertheless, the reports and opinions I ´ve read so far only consider the logistics: who pays what, how, etc. Thus, my 2011 doubts and criticism remain.

What would it mean to a Brazilian (or Portuguese or Greek or Lebanese) to receive a stipend to spend on ‘culture’ when where he/she lives, or in the proximities, there´s no cinema, no theatre, no museum, no bookshop? What are they supposed to do with it? And, on the other hand, which was the study that revealed that, in places where these venues exist, the majority of people that didn´t go to them didn´t have the money to do it?

I don´t mean to say that there are no people who enjoy or have a pre-disposition to participate in cultural activities, but who are not able to have access to them due to financial limitations. Especially now. Nevertheless, I consider the existing mental and psychological barriers between people and cultural institutions and certain forms of art, in any part of the world, to be bigger and more determinating than the financial barrier, especially in the case of all those who haven´t got the habit of participating. Who among us is willing to invest – not only money, time even – on something that doesn´t seem interesting or relevant or comprehensible in the first place? Or on something that seems distant or or something that doesn’t even exist?

It is worth listening to and analyzing the details of the interviews with some brazilian workers on a TV programme, where the Secretary of Cultural Policies of the Ministry of Culture, Sérgio Mamberti, was also interviewed: a lady says that she had never even had the courage to get close to the Municipal Theatre and ask how much it was, considering that, being so beautiful and big, it would also be very expensive; a gentleman says that he doesn´t have the habit of attending, but that he would like to have an incentive to do so; and another gentleman states: “As we are a country with great miscegenation, we´ve got lots to give to the world. I believe that we take little advantage of this, because people haven´t got access not only to enjoy culture but also to the person that makes culture. So, I believe that this incentive, apart from incentivating people to go to the theatre, to go to the cinema, it will incentivate them to study theatre, to study cinema. They´ll get to know things they didn´t know and many people will get interested in these subjects and will become part of the other side, not only the side of the spectator”. [sic]

The interviews with the workers reveal, in my opinion, the prejudices, the misunderstandings, the mutual lack of understanding between the two sides, the lack of habits, in other words, the lack of access related, first of all, to intellectual and psychological barriers. Thus, I believe that those who study, develop and implement cultural policies should first look at these barriers, while at the same time trying to facilitate access on a financial point of view. To start backwards, insisting in considering money to be the principal factor of inhibition in this relationship, is to insist hiding one´s head in the sand or taking the easy way forward.

In the meantime, while news about Vale Cultura are spreading around the world, another piece of news, also coming from Brazil, has had a more discreet circulation, at least for someone living away from that country. According to those news (read here), in the municipality of Santo André, in the brazilian state of São Paulo, a cultural movement – that brings together the so-called Points of Culture (local associations promoting cultural activities), students, teachers, writers, social movements and other members of the local population – demanded and was successful in booking a hearing with the state´s Secretary of Culture. They wanted to know what were the plans of the Secretariat of Culture and demanded public participation in the management. They didn´t make things easy for the Secretary, they didn´t take generalities and promises for an answer, they insisted with questions and criticism, they got irritated, they lost their patience, they weren´t touched by the Secretary´s demonsatration of humility – when he stated that he had lots to learn from them – and protested about his lack of preparation for the job. How did this happen in Santo André? What does it take for this to happen? How does this feeling of belonging, of a sense of what constitutes a civic right and an obligation  towards the affairs of culture, come about? This is news, yes, probably greated news than the creation of Vale Cultura and thus, it is worth paying greater attention to it and following the situation closely. Santo André should be a case study.

More readings
Walker, C., Scott-Melnyk, S. and Sherwood, K. (2002) From Reggae to Rachmaninoff, How and why people participate in arts and culture.
Wallace Foundation, The (2009). Engaging audiences.


Anonymous said...

I'm from Brazil, living in Lisbon, and I agree with you. The "culture problem" in Brazil is not (only) a matter of money. When I read this new, my first thought was "but what is culture for Brazilian people? what do they mean when they say "to give access to culture?". As you said, they should have looked at issues like education, psychological and intellectual barriers in the first place, and then create some programme. Not the otherwise. And there's another problem, a kind of a prejudice against culture, because who never had access to it think they don't "belong" to this. It's a very serious social problem and I'm keen to see, in a short time, the results of this "culture cheques".
A very good post.
Kind regards,
Eloísa Rodrigues

Maria Vlachou said...

Many thanks for this, Eloísa. I am also very curious to see the results of this initiative. As for the rest, it´s an issue almost everywhere, but few culture professionals are ready to face things or at least acknowledge the fact that "we´ve got a problem".