Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The cultural space by Michael D. Higgins

the Cultural Space - Not just location of the arts,

but the basis of Creativity, source of innovation and

the vindication of citizenship

Michael D Higgins –


ECCM Athens 2007     Photo: Kostas Kartelias


President of the Labour Party, Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs,

Former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Ireland, 1993-97

Former President of the Council of Culture Ministers, European Union 1996

Adjunct Professor at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway


ECCM Symposium 'Productivity of Culture'

Athens, Thursday 18th October 2007


Since Ireland began its transformation from an economically depressed outpost of Europe- the island off the island- to one of the world’s richest countries, debate has tended to centre on the economy – and particularly its transformation since the 1990s.

During the years of the Celtic tiger economic boom, and indeed even now, well into the 21st century, talk at all levels of Irish society frequently centres on our economic performance. Great pride is-rightly- taken in the rapid climb we made at our development as a nation, which was in such stark contrast to some previous decades. Because of these recent developments concerns about our economic output have centred on the need to prevent the economy ‘overheating’ and undoing what is regarded as the good work which had been achieved.

Beyond this however, there are more crucial questions, some which we share with other countries in the European Union. More and more we are being driven to ask questions as to the nature of the connection between the economy and the society. These have included more than the obvious basic questions as to the equitable distribution of wealth or the fairness of taxation, they have raised fundamental questions as to the degree to which a general inclusion and a full participation has been made possible for our citizens. Indeed, we have been forced to question the means by which we might remain both citizens and consumers. Some commentators have gone so far as to suggest that we have begun a process of being consumed in our consumption. Simple critiques of what is perceived to be the materialistic implications of increased and complex consumption however, are insufficient. An agenda for living requires us to seek to specify the realms of economics and to define the cultural space as wider than the economic space. Refusing to accept such a proposition is to seriously limit Citizenship. The cultural space stretches in time back before any contemporary version of the economy. In that stretch, it raises all of the issues of the ethics of memory. The cultural space also includes the various versions of the economy that are not yet born. The ethical issue posed in that stretch is one of defending the integrity and freedom of that which can be imagined but which has not yet managed to be. Culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share. It is a process that is continually being reworked. Because it is shared it constitutes the bed-rock of the public world – a public world that is under threat from the demands of a privatized world, predicated on consumption, and the protection of which is often based on a fear of others. Thus the shared trust of citizens in the public space is replaced by the insecurity of private possessions.

The cultural space cannot be the residual of the marketplace. Rather, it is the space within which various forms of human activity are made possible. This need not appear as abstract. The fact is that the cultural space properly respected can be not merely a location for the arts but a source of vision, offering innovation in capacity for living, including the economic, and a necessary defining capacity for quality of life.

I was very impressed by the work of the “Strategies for Creative Cities Project Team” work within such a framework. In their report “Imagine a Toronto…Strategies for a creative city” they state

“In today’s world, creativity is a necessity – a must have, not a nice to have. There is a direct link between a flourishing city and the vitality of its creative sector. Toronto is on the cusp of a creative breakthrough”

When I was Minister for Culture in Ireland during the period 1993-1997, I stressed the importance of the creative space and the immediately discernible contribution of the creative industries, be it film, music or publishing to economic wealth and employment. During that period the value of the creative industries in employment terms was greater than that of the Banking Sector or the IT Sector. The multiplier was also greater and had a greater regional effect. This situation has not changed, but I have to warn that one could not assume that even in such an area there was an equality of participation. There was then and there is now in Ireland, a clear divide based on class. The National Economic and Social Forum in a study, published in March 2007, gave statistics for December 2006 that showed clear differences.

*Those on higher incomes are three times more likely to attend classical concerts, and twice as likely to attend plays and are exhibitions, than those on lower incomes; this was also true in the use of public libraries

*Even going to the cinema varies by class, with 69% of the middle class going to the cinema in the last year, compared to 42% of those from semi-skilled unskilled backgrounds

*People aged 35-44 have lower attendance rates at a number of arts events, which may be related to family commitments in the rearing of children.

*A digital divide is also noticeable – 36% of the middle class downloaded arts-related material in the last year, compared to 21% of those from semi-skilled/unskilled backgrounds. Young people and men were most likely to download arts material; and

*Another striking statistic is that 40% of those using PCs in public libraries are non-nationals and 44% were unemployed.

These figures present a very serious challenge to a country with a rich economy but with a social and cultural space that is seriously deficient in providing social protection and cultural inclusion.

Returning to the Canadian example – a working group was established to produce strategies for a creative city. The Departure point was impressive. It assumed that:

“We are now in the creative age-a time when the generation of economic value in a growing number of sectors depends directly on the ability of firms to embed creativity and cultural content within the goods and services they produce.

Familiar goods such as clothing, furniture, and food products depends on creative and cultural content for their competitive success, and consumers are willing to pay higher prices for products that are well designed and culturally distinctive. Knowledge-intensive products such as computers, mobile communication devices and biomedical technologies are born of innovative spark of well educated, creative workers. They also exploit appealing and ingenious design to enhance their success in the marketplace. Furthermore, a set of creative industries producing ‘cultural goods’-including film and television production, new media, electronic games, publishing, advertising, design, music, and the visual and performing arts-now generate a large and steadily increasing share of our international trade, employment and gross domestic product locally, regionally, and nationally.

Not only does the generation of economic value flow from this creative economy, but the people who work in creative occupations and industries are themselves drawn to places that offer a critical mass of creative and cultural activity, broadly defined. These are places where the arts flourish, with vibrant and lively local scenes in music, literature, theatre and visual arts. They are cities that host cultural traditions from around the world. They welcome newcomers from a variety of ethnic, racial, religious, and national origins, and provide opportunities for their easy social and economic integration. They are also places that enshrine freedom of cultural expression, places that nurture the creative act.”

It is important, however, that accepting a social definition of creativity requires an integration that goes much farther that having a space that respects or is conducive to the arts. The Toronto experience however, is instructive insofar as its film and television cluster ranks third in North America with just under 900 Million dollars worth of film and television productions shot in 2005, and the industry contributes 1.1 billion dollars annually to the local economy. Toronto is also home to 25,000 designers, the third largest design work-force in North America. It is home to more than 11,000 performing artists. What is significant, from the Toronto reflection on its future is that it recognised that a simplistic business model would be insufficient for the creative industries.

It is also important to recognise the political implication of accepting the hegemony of the cultural space over the economic. A neo-liberal model over-reliant on market provision cannot produce such a space. Indeed, it tends to destroy it, colonising as it were, the space of citizenship with the demands of consumption.

There is now, then, a real need to emphasise that there is more than one version of an economic order. That which currently dominates in Europe is by no means the only one. Neither is it the most efficient or effective version.

Such an economy might be referred to as a ‘depeopled economy’. What does this mean? What it means is that all is predicated on the needs and demands of the economic at the expense of all else. We do not work to live; rather, in too many examples we live to work.

Too much else of our potential life experience is either denied us, or is seriously curtailed. In essence, issues pertaining to family, community and society are all too often superseded by an imposed devotion to maintaining the economy. But it goes much farther than that. Across the dimensions of space and time we are forced, be it in terms of enforced limitations in housing, or, in the absence of public transport, to huge losses of social time to the demands of commuting to a work that is more often a necessity for economic survival rather than a choice for personal development.

We must, I suggest, conclude that our current, over-determined model of the economy, and the economic space, is reductionist, clumsy and limiting.

There have been two major collaborations of an international kind that might have produced an international response to these issues. “Our Creative Diversity” – The report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, published by UNESCO in 1995 and “The Regional Contribution from Europe entitled “In from the Margins”, published by the Council of Europe as its contribution to the debate. Unfortunately, there has been little parliamentary response to these publications. While there were a number of valuable meetings in the preparatory phase of these works in different regions and countries, including Europe, ones that produced often valuable, thematic considerations, such as the Power of Culture Conference at The Hague in the Netherlands, in 1996 which concentrated on the ethical basis of culture, the intellectual community’s debate has been deeply disappointing.

It is time for us to repeat that there needs to be a critical engagement; a critical relationship to, and a critical evaluation of, the society. There is a real need to engage critically with the world around us; particularly with regard to the way it is presented to us. In a globalised environment with a galloping concentration of ownership in the media, the dangers of an imposed homogeneity of consumption are real. I remain unconvinced as to the possibilities of local mediation of corporate globalising tendencies. The form may change but the rules remain the same.

At the political level, to identify democratic, participatory and empowering policies to ensure access to culture for the public at large and through a better knowledge of other cultures, to encourage intercultural dialogue.

On a practical level, culture may be utilised to see to it that our past is "harnessed" to our future, to ensure access and creativity and sustain our cultural richness in its identities and diversities.

We are told again and again in Ireland and by the OECD, at our own request, that our future demands that we be functional cogs within what is termed the ‘knowledge economy’. This, it is suggested, is to make us ‘competitive’- to ensure we have a capacity- a facility to compete with other zones of economic power. This may be true in the short-term but the risk it carries in terms of skills and capacity is that it is a recipe for obsolescence

More fundamentally, the problem with this view is that it is reductionist. It limits us all to some degree, because it reduces citizens as social beings to an existence as alienated individual consumers, citizens with personal stories to tell, and narratives to share, and roles to fulfill, are turned into a succession of square pegs. It lessens the possibility we have to be persons in the fullest sense, to be citizens in a creative society with a diverse past and future.

The way in which our world is structured places the economy in first place, to the detriment of all else. We need a re-evaluation. Other aspects of human solidarity and creativity must also be brought to prominence. Part of that, surely, is the need to emphasise our cultural and creative natures.

Culture, it must be repeated and repeated again, is central, not residual.

The re-evaluation discussed above needs to be brought about. Culture must be used as a prism through which we can see the society, as well as, for example, the economic. There must, for this project to exist be a space of contestation, and culture is that very space.

Culture can prevent and treat some of the emerging tensions of our society: it can help understand the many facets of sustainability. It can bring about a new sense of solidarity. It can positively inspire the new economy, especially act as a means of empowerment and entitlement. It can be the bed rock we need to reach out from to understand and respect other cultures with self-reliance.

In other words, it is an ingredient of society and policy which needs to be brought in from the margins, because for many decades it has not received the attention it deserves by policy-makers.

Sadly today across many parts of the world, culture is seen to be residual. It is marginal, tangential, and is in the worst instances abandoned.

I have previously argued, and did so as a government Minister as well as head of the European Council of Culture Ministers that what is so sorely needed are fora to make possible reservations of an ethical, political, or social kind to the hegemonic discourse of neo-liberal market economics- the system which underpins the economic movements and engagements of our economic arrangements.

I called for the recognition that if a cultural space were to be accepted as at least equal, if not more important, than the economic space, then we would have had a space for a morally informed discourse. Unfortunately, we are currently in a period of a single, limited, intolerant, inhuman, discourse: That for which I had called his not occurred - yet, at any rate.

It is surely now crucial, if not morally imperative, that we try to create such a scenario. What then might we do? A decade ago, it was suggested, and I summarise that:

1. Culture will have to be brought into the heart of public administration if it to become more than what it is now – a partial and spasmodically effective instrument of policy.

2. Freedom of expression is a crucial principle and cultural policies should establish a general framework within which individuals and institutions can work rather than intervene closely in what they do or say.

3. Europe’s most valuable resource is its human capital. In many ways, this is not being exploited to its full – a failure which can be as damaging to economic prosperity as it is to the life of the imagination and the pursuit of happiness.

4. A more holistic approach to education is needed by transforming schools into culture-centred environments and enabling them to become foci of cultural life in their local communities.

5. It is time to restore the natural links between the arts and sciences, which were broken in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Centres of technological innovation would help t heal the long-standing schism in the industrial world between so-called “two cultures”. However, there is a danger that a dominate class will emerge, well equipped and at ease with the new technologies, but consigning all those restricted by poverty and lack of training to the role of passive consumers, rather than full and active members of the communication society. This can only be avoided by a substantial technological investment in formal education and the availability throughout adult life of retraining opportunities.

6. Cultural policy should foster unity while, at the same time, welcoming diversity. For good or ill, culture is powerful promoter of identity. By emphasising one set of values against another, culture can be divisive and contribute to conflict rather than social harmony and mutual tolerance. It is essential that the development of arts and the conservation and exploitation of the heritage not only assert the commonality of European values, but also reflect the multicultural variousness which is characteristic both of Europe as a whole and of individual nation states.

7. The role of the heritage in identity building for Europe, nation states, area-based and minority cultures needs to be acknowledged and a new ethical approach is called for which recognises the destruction of one community’s heritage is a loss to Europe as a whole.

8. Culture has an important role to play, for it I the cement of the social and civic bond. An appropriate balance needs to be struck between the power of the state and, increasingly, multinational corporations and the freedom of the individual.

9. Governments should not the growth in the celebration of the “local2, which is a natural response to globalisation and is often driven by the apparent cultural renaissance of image-conscious cities. The nurturing of creativity is essential if this is t be sustained – cities do not regenerate themselves spontaneously or at the behest of politicians.

10. The danger of Europe and more particularly the European Union closing in on itself should be avoided and culture can play a crucial role in this. National governments need to review their international cultural policies to reflect more adequately contemporary cultural practice and the changed political environment in Europe.

These proposals were made in the summary of “In from the Margins”, the contribution to the debate on culture and development in Europe, produced by the Council of Europe. They still remain a good starting point to redress the neglect of the cultural debate and they might be a good basis for what I hope will be a successful project – the recovery of the public space.


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