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A few thoughts on culture and democracy

Article by Matjaž Gruden, Director of the Directorate of Democratic Participation, Directorate General Democracy and Human Dignity at the Council of Europe

The Finns are pragmatic people. They like to tell the story of Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Helsinki, sometime in the mid-1970s. As it was a high-ranking state visit, Soviet protocol also suggested laying a wreath at the monument to the Unknown Soldier. No problem, said the noble Finns, and Brezhnev was taken to a pine grove on the shores of Lake Tuusula, some 30 kilometres from the capital. There the Soviet leader laid a wreath with all pomp on a modest marble plaque.

As he strode back to the waiting Finnish President, Urho Kekkonen, Brezhnev remarked, somewhat confused, that the plaque read Jan Sibelius. “Wasn’t that a well-known composer?”, he asked his Finnish colleague.

“Yes”, replied Kekkonen, “Sibelius was a well-known artist, but a completely unknown soldier”.

This story, even if most likely not entirely true, nicely illustrates the difference between two understandings of culture, one embodied by Sibelius, the other by Brezhnev, and his successors, all the way to the current occupier of the Kremlin. And the plethora of like-minded nationalists and populists who are popping up all across Europe and the world. There is nothing wrong with heroes, of course, known or unknown, and many fully deserve our tribute and gratitude and the monuments erected in their honour. But there is a sea of difference between the understanding of what culture is, by genuine democrats on one hand, and nationalists and populists on the other. On one side, we have artistic creation, and on the other, we have ‘culture’ reduced to religion, race and skin colour. The former is defended by talent and creativity, as well as by the attention and support of the society, while the latter is defended above all by intolerance of others and of the different.

On the one hand, then, we have culture as artistic creation, which transcends political, ideological and all other definitions and divisions. Which is left or right or neither left nor right? Institutional and institutionalised, revolutionary and subversive, professional or amateur, rural and urban? Commercial or its most unsellable opposite? The kind that goes down easily and the kind that doesn’t. A culture that can be progressive and deeply humanist, or not. A culture that inspires and one that “disturbs, offends or disturbs”, as the European Court of Human Rights calls it. The culture that we like and the culture that gets on our nerves. The one that carries important social messages and the one that – quite legitimately and socially useful – is an end in itself.

On the other hand, we have ‘culture’ that is not culture, but a myth- and stereotype-laden baseball bat with which nativist and nationalist populism divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. A ‘culture’ reduced to an ‘ein wolk’ identity that does not tolerate and is afraid of creativity, openness and freedom. A ‘culture’ that serves as an adrenaline rush for people without empathy, courage and imagination. ‘Culture’ as a hammer with which to beat the Others and the different. A ‘culture’ that not only annoys, offends and upsets, but above all and solely hates. A barbed-wire-protected cesspit without any currents, inflows or outflows, just silt and stagnant water. No oxygen.

Culture and art have been the catalysts of progressive social progress since, well, ever. Still, every time we should really acknowledge their essential contribution to human freedom and dignity, we somehow manage to ignore them.

In 1954, Council of Europe member states adopted the European cultural convention, the first major Council of Europe treaty after the European convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms. This was no coincidence, but a deliberate political act. The founders of the European project were well aware that, just a few years after a devastating war, this project had little chance of success without a democratic European environment, a sense of unity that would bring Europeans together, an identity based on progressive values, one that came in addition, not as a substitute to their national or other identities. And they knew exactly how to go about creating such an environment. Through culture, art, heritage, history, language learning and education. And it worked. For a while.

Where we are today, as a society, 74 years after adoption of the European cultural convention, is beautifully illustrated by Donald Trump’s infamous statement from the early COVID days that the solution lies in a “herd mentality”. He probably meant to say “herd immunity”, but this Freudian slip says a great deal about his views on the social order. Even though Trump may be American, many politicians in Europe wholeheartedly agree with him. The herd believes and does not think. The herd does not know, does not dare and does not want to know. The herd follows and does not protest.

“Hatred is something peculiar. You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If knowledge is treated badly, culture has it even worse. Today, to put it mildly, many people understand it differently from the way Goethe viewed it. We are a long way from the lessons of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. We are a long way from the culture that the European Cultural Convention of 1954 identified as an opportunity for achieving greater unity in Europe, as a means of getting to know and understand each other, based on shared ideals and principles.

These days, culture often means something very different to many. Culture in the discourse of nationalist populism is not Goethe’s defence against hatred but, on the contrary, a set of prejudices, intolerances and myths that often serve as a uniform and a weapon for semi-literate couch-potatoes and cultural warriors to fight against the Other and the different. A ‘culture’ that we defend with intolerance and hatred. A culture without art and artists. A culture for cultural struggle. A culture for the cultural war.

“In a dark place we find ourselves and a little more knowledge lights our way.” Yoda

A few years ago, Gerfried Stocker, the long-standing Director of Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, delivered a keynote address at the Conference of European Ministers of Education in Paris. The topic was education for a digital society. It was not simply Gerfried’s crumpled T-shirt and ponytail that surprised many ministers. He believed that preparing for a high-tech society should be based on four foundations. First, knowledge of the basic structures of the digital world, without which we cannot understand technology. Second, on social skills and intelligence and humanistic values that enable us to participate and contribute to social life. Third, on knowledge and critical thinking skills. And, fourth, on creativity, which we acquire primarily through the arts, without which there is no imagination, no innovation, no economic success, no competitiveness, no social progress.

I would say, very quickly, that we are not doing a very good job of looking to the future. We are all dependent on black boxes all over the place, which we use without understanding them. Instead of people controlling technology, technology is being used to control people.

Ethical scepticism and the doctrine of respect for all different opinions without moral judgement equate, in the public’s eyes, the fundamental values of civilisation and democracy with their opposites. As a society, we reject openness and solidarity and are building our future on intolerance and selfishness towards our fellow human beings.

Critical thinking as an immune system against deception and lies has been replaced by a herd mentality. Knowledge is getting on our nerves, conspiracy theories are dearer to our hearts than reason and rationality.

Art, as the expression and driving force of creativity, ingenuity, innovation, self-reflection, comment, criticism, openness, daring, exploration and freedom, has become a distraction. Many of those who are said to be deeply concerned that European civilisation and national culture are under threat feel that culture is a waste of money, so they send artists into the marketplace to compete with entertainers on the commercial stage for the public’s affection and survival.

Enlightenment thinkers – so says Wikipedia, lest you say that I am making this up – advocated freedom of expression, criticism of religion and a progressive society, and stressed the importance of reason, science and the value of human life. More than two centuries later, we are clearly tired of the light. The values on which the modern age of human civilisation was built are increasingly starting to annoy. Yodas are boring and irritating, Darth Vaders are now in vogue. Welcome to the age of the Endarkenment, but remember, once it becomes dark, it it might be dark for a very long time.

Matjaz Gruden is the Director of Democratic Participation at the Council of Europe

The views expressed in the article represent his personal opinions


This article was published in Bled Strategic Times 2023. Bled Strategic Times is the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum. Check the full 2023 edition here.

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