It was a fascinating evening last night at the Dutch Institute in Paris. Not at all what I had expected, but fascinating all the same. Or perhaps I should say: fascinating for the very reason that it delivered something I did not expect.
The debate about the role of art in society is an old one. As is the discussion about the difference between high and low culture. But current political developments in the Netherlands have placed these subjects back on the agenda. It’s not just the new government that wants to cut its art budget; a recent poll showed that nearly half of the Dutch people believe that too much public money is spend on culture. Time to defend the necessity of art – or more concrete: to defend cultural subventions.
Four invitees, two Dutch and two French, all men (Frédéric Martel, Rob Riemen, Harry de Winter and Marc Restellini) where seated behind a table, with Fouad Laroui moderating their discussion. The audience was promised a structured dialogue about elitism, the rise of populist politicians, the situation in the US, the commercial aspect of arts and the global competition. But as soon as the first speaker made his statement, we all sensed that everyone was too passionate about the importance of culture, to allow a calm dialogue along premeditated lines.
This first speaker was cultural philosopher (and president of the Nexus Institute) Riemen, stating that the Dutch politician Wilders, who had been referred to as a populist, was better called by its proper name: a fascist. It should therefore not have surprised anyone that Wilders attacked our culture. All fascists hate culture, as they all hate democracy. To Riemen, high culture was necessary to ensure or at least facilitate political freedom – in line with Spinoza, he believed that art helped us to establish human values.
The second speaker was sociologist Martel who came to the conclusion, after his research that took place in thirty countries, that the distinction between high and low culture had more or less disappeared. Of course there was still a difference between Beethoven and Lady Gaga, but the difference between a dance performance and Japanese manga was a lot more blurry.
But there it was: the mentioning of Lady Gaga (or Lady What’s-Her-Name, for some). She would dominate the debate from here on.
Museum-director Restellini was rather black and white in his opinion of her. Lady Gaga represented nothing but money. She was a young girl, possibly without any talent, being exploited. This statement made television producer De Winter “speechless”, although fortunately it did not leave him without words. To him, Lady Gaga was a genius. And sure, she had a great marketing team, but that did not mean she wasn’t an artist. What we used to consider bad or low culture had changed: HBO television series from the US were important cultural products.
Without even blinking, Restellini then admitted to have never seen or heard anything from Lady Gaga. Still, he was sure that she did not represent art.
His avowal exposed an underlying problem, as his opinion on Lady Gaga was not based on Lady Gaga. It was based on what he had read about her. But according to Riemen, we no longer lived in a reality with intelligent free media to inform us, we lived in a mediated world, where mass media prescribed our opinions.
Needless to say, the men did not reach an agreement on the importance, danger, genius or superficiality of Lady Gaga, but they did deliver an animated discussion. The only thing I regretted was that no one dared to ponder the evidence surrounding them.
We were all present at a free debate in a heavily funded cultural institute (a representative of the so called high culture *), but the walls surrounding us were covered with large prints of famous fashion photographer Sasha. Now I don’t want to say anything negative about her work – she more than deserves this exhibition – but it made me wonder: can a fashion photographer enter the realm of high culture or does the institute not care about the distinction between high and low anymore?
Except for Riemen, none of the speakers gave a clear description of what they believed culture was supposed to give us, but fortunately for me, I agreed with the one statement that was made early on: art is an instrument to help us establish our human values. So, could anyone looking at these large fashion photographs feel enhanced, liberated from a limited mindset or transformed? Perhaps. And this ‘perhaps’ is no doubt the reason for this photographer’s presence on these walls.
The distinction between high and low culture seems mostly vanished, but that does not mean that all culture is in danger of becoming plain entertainment. When confronted with something (a painting, a television series, a Lady Gaga video clip), we shouldn’t ask: is this high or low? We should ask: does this have the potential to give us something we don’t expect, to force us to think outside the box, to change us? And if the answer is ‘yes’ or even ‘perhaps’, then that something is worth defending.
March 10th 2011 // L’Institut Néerlandais (The Dutch Institut) // UN CRI POUR LA CULTURE (A CRY FOR CULTURE)
* Please read the response from Jeanne Wikler on this in the comments.