Economics and Culture
Posted on 6 January, 2015
Carlos Guevara Meza
Perhaps I should begin by pointing out the relevance of presenting a book entitled Economics and Culture at an arts research center. When “traditional” cultural producers, such as artists, intellectuals and academics, hear those two words together, we start shaking, thinking (not without reason) that the idea is to throw us into a market previously constructed by other agents, after their own fashion, in which they already exercise a dominion, and who don’t think twice about “liquidating” (in the Mafia sense of the word) any real or potential competition.
A market we would enter at an absolute disadvantage: a Roman circus, where large transnational corporations would be the lions, and we their food. Where artists would be forced to abandon their exploration of form and language; their socio-political critique; and their constant effort to build for themselves and for everyone else other ways of feeling, thinking and acting, just to constrain themselves to the “best-sellerization” norms imposed by some executive, with no other interest than to maximize the margin of profit in the shortest possible term. Where historians imagine themselves leaving aside their erudite paper, in which they attempted to analyze and explain a social process, to concentrate instead on a pseudo literary text, centered on a funny or saucy anecdote. And where philosophers and poets must devote themselves to writing self-improvement manuals and mawkish memes.
I say “not without reason”, because we’re living within a context where certain economic and political ideologies have achieved worldwide hegemony, making “profitability” (in its most limited and limiting sense) the supreme criteria for legitimizing and evaluating any activity, and where the allotment of social and/or public resources to sectors inscribed in the “private” sphere is severely questioned. In a country like ours, where there exists a respectable tradition of public participation in the cultural sphere, this has practical implications of which we are all well aware, such as budget cuts, subsidy limitations, and the applications of cultural and academic management schemes based on efficiency and productivity norms, which do not fit the traditional internal logic of artistic creation or intellectual production, thus generating not only distortions but unwanted and counterproductive effects.
This situation cannot be faced or modified by mere passive resistance; self-isolation in elitism; simplified slogans; an unequivocal and rash rejection of any internal reforms; and the occasional mobilization. It must rather be accompanied by deep reflection, systematic study, and the radical critique of the theoretical and ideological premises, and of the ideological and aesthetic forms and contents of industrialized cultural production, as well as (and this is highly important) a serious self-criticism of our own practices as artists, intellectuals and academics. Because there is room at least for questioning whether we are doing something wrong, if after so many and so important achievements in the field of high culture, we are not able to make more people prefer to see or listen to a masterpiece, instead of watching the umpteenth television show about forensic detectives (and what is even worse: in reruns). We cannot ignore the perfectly legitimate and increasing social demand for more transparency, rationalization and democratization in the use of public resources, nor can we reply to criticisms with abstract statements about human nature.
This book, a direct result of the First Forum on Economics and Culture, can represent for many of us a first approach to these issues, produced with great seriousness and focusing on diverse sets of problems, ranging from general theoretical questions regarding the relation between both fields, to concrete data about specific phenomena. It also presents a wide ranging bibliography, complete and up to date, as far as my own knowledge allows me to judge, which will undoubtedly be of great help to those interested in embarking upon their own studies and reflections, which as I have said are very important or even urgent. In the Introduction, the coordinators present a quick but comprehensive overview of the state of the question at hand, mentioning key authors and texts regarding this debate worldwide, highlighting Mexico and Latin America, which is clearly commendable, along with each collaborator’s bibliography.
Perhaps visual arts specialists will find scant specific material in this book, even though a couple of texts about design are of great interest; the same may be said by a stage arts specialist. But the book lays out problems which can undoubtedly be extrapolated to those fields with due caution, and above all can generate several questions about the practices and the conceptual premises employed in the production and management of cultural goods and services.
There is not, either, much data about the public sector, which at least in our country has a significant weight, because of the number of its institutions, the size of the investment it makes each year, and its potential economic effects, although Rebeca Romo’s text, for instance, points out some interesting issues, albeit focused on the public promotion of music, which can be considered in more general terms regarding the cultural policy model, in particular the issue of devoting most of the resources to production and a very small amount to what she calls “attention to demand”, i.e. the processes of promotion and circulation of the generated goods or services. It had already happened in France, for instance, during Jack Lang’s tenure as minister of Culture under president Mitterand, in the 1980´s, that this emphasis on production generated excess supply and a sort of inflation in the costs of said production, which was unsustainable by an audience that did not increase and furthermore was dispersed among a multitude of activities, and increasingly impossible to sustain by the State, just to mention the financial aspects and leaving aside the ideological issues. Lang’s model was liquidated as soon as the Right won the elections, without giving a thought to its achievements and, as economists like to say, its positive externalities. In the case of music, as far as I understand, without being an expert, this has not happened with the children and youth orchestras movement in Venezuela, some of which fill stadiums without breaking a sweat, but this follows quite a different logic than the one apparently used in Mexico.
Another interesting issue is the “touristification” of culture, which is quite complex and multisided. Just as beach tourism affects the ecology of a place, cultural tourism has an impact on cultural development, identity processes, and the conservation of the monumental heritage. There is never a shortage of cultural tourism “experts” and businessmen who want turn an archeological site into some kind of Disneyland, privatizing (legally or not) the cultural practices of the inhabitants, who become cheap labor for precarious and/or intermittent jobs. Or they even become part of the tourist attraction, but without collecting any royalties. At the same time, we cannot fall back on a closed and essentialist view of identities, forcing us into cultural reservations, which could easily become social and economic, not to mention racial, segregation.
This book generates, as I said, many questions and many opportunities for reflection. It is a good starting point to broaden and at the same time delve deeper in urgent debates. We cannot simply close our eyes, we cannot wait things out, or long for the “good old days”. We must debate and fight hegemonic positions, but not in the name of our comfort zone, of what we have become used to doing or not doing, but in the name of what we might and ought to do.
Read on September 5, 2014, at Multiple Use Hall, National Center for Research, Documentation and Information on Visual Arts (CENIDIAP), National Center of the Arts, Documentación e Información de Artes Plásticas, Centro Nacional de las Artes, Mexico City.