Culture is not just a tool for interpreting reality, it can be a tool to shape reality. It can be a force to break down barriers, raise consciousness and tolerance of difference, but it can also be used in ways that divide peoples and nations and inspire rage and hatred.
I’ve been thinking about culture as a kind of intangible good that can be disseminated, even traded among nations, with results that can only be roughly guessed at, after hearing of the death in August of Dragan Klaic. From reading remembrances of him by people whom I respect, it’s clear that he inspired great affection and admiration, although I did not know him. A native of Sarajevo, educated in Belgrade and the United States in the 1970s, Dragan Klaic was a scholar of theater. He emigrated from Yugoslavia to the Netherlands in 1991; aside from his teaching and scholarly work he was often consulted on European cultural cooperation and wrote a book on the subject, hence my musings above.
He was a great believer in harnessing the prestige of Europe’s cultural heritage to build understanding between peoples and nations, but he recognized the difficulties involved. He’s quoted as saying, “Cultures do not dialogue with each other. They compete, clash, fight, interact and mutually influence each other.”
Klaic sometimes had to move in circles where people do talk about cultures dialoguing with each other. Specifically in regard to the newer EU members, he wrote about the need to direct EU cultural funding at organizations that can actually produce things and not to keep feeding money to ossified national cultural institutions focused on high-status, traditional forms.
Many of us working in cultural journalism and cultural cooperation had hoped that funds from the EU and the private foundations and Western government funding agencies active in this field could be used to build up a dense network of smaller cultural “operators,” to use the jargon, in Central and Eastern Europe – flexible, youthful organizations independent of the post-communist dinosaurs that dominated “serious” culture. An enormous amount of energy, creativity and money was spent on cultural projects.
For me, as a journalist with a professional interest in west-east cultural contacts, the most salient point about this cultural mixing and dissemination in the past 20 years is the hub-and-spokiness of it. Those spidery networks that we imagined did not appear. In spite of all the efforts to encourage “cross-border cooperation” in culture, to seed regional cultural centers and break down barriers between near neighbors who don’t understand each other, the broadest avenues of cultural cooperation are between centers of creativity and/or funding (Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin) and grantees, clients, contacts in Central/East Europe. Links are made and contacts cemented primarily along these axes. More local connections, across national borders and even among regions within a state, are far less robust and where they exist it is often thanks to funding from the “rich West.” Ample evidence for this can be found quite often in the monthly newsletter produced by the Budapest Observatory, a cultural policy watchdog headed by the very capable Péter Inkei, who moonlights as deputy director for Central European University Press, from where he published Klaic’s book on international cultural cooperation.
As someone who is both an insider and acerbic observer of the cultural funding scene, Péter has commented many times, with handy graphs and pie charts, on the newer, eastern EU members’ dependency on the European Commission for funding of cultural projects. He’s also noted the consistently lower levels of spending on culture by national governments of these countries, compared to most of the older EU states, and the paucity of cultural contacts among the eastern EU states compared to their links to the established cultural capitals.
If strong, lasting regional and local cultural networks in the new and candidate EU countries are to be something less rare than a coypu in the Danube, more voices like Dragan Klaic’s are badly needed.
Photo: design by W.M. Puehringer for a temporary installation on the historic bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.