Culture in the age of instrumentalism

10 October 2018

Dimitra Kizlari considers how governments who wish to implement international cultural relations policies, can restructure their control mechanisms to create processes flexible enough to accommodate the work ethos of cultural actors.

Culture in the age of instrumentalism

Dimitra Kizlari

Cultural relations has grown to become today a focal point of the EU’s foreign policy. Pondering upon the centrality of culture in the bloc’s external affairs, it is crucial to remember that the actors who are called to contribute to it will be entering this area with different intentions and that an expectation-reality gap is always imminent.

 The most controversial issue will turn out to be the ethical relationship between means - outcomes. Simply put, should policymakers use culture to yield benefits outside the cultural sphere? The debate around the instrumental use of the arts, heritage and culture is fierce in cultural policy studies with its critics mostly focusing on the ethics behind the use of cultural means to achieve financial goals. Yet, the study of international relations has remained largely indifferent to this ontological tension taking the instrumental condition for granted. Nye’s soft power discourse, which has dominated the field of culture in external relations since the 1990s, is nothing but an expression of this phenomenon.

No one single discipline, foreign policy or cultural policy, should dominate this diverse field for its practice is situated in the middle ground between these two antithetical schools of thought. While foreign policy is interested in power consolidation, cultural policy is more likely to emphasise power distribution and knowledge transfer through networks. Given these conflicting intentions, it is reasonable to contemplate whether and how this tension is reflected in governance structures.

The cultural field enjoys a long tradition of devolved governance with an array of sector-specific agencies having an overview of its various sub-fields like music, film, crafts etc. These agencies traditionally stand at an arm’s length distance from the central state apparatus for reasons of legitimacy. Cultural expression has historically flourished under the aegis of the state, however, its power was always discretionary. Culture in external relations, on the other hand, is governed by different principles exactly because of its foreign policy component. Policy makers today tend to invest significant resources in it expecting a range of returns (financial, social, political) on multiple fronts. These outcomes are carefully measured against set goals and new, more effective, engagement strategies soon emerge. Yet, the cultural agents called to operationalise these strategies have an ambiguous relationship with the government. They support that the development of genuine cross-cultural connections cannot be achieved under the watchful eye of the state. This is indeed a valid point which depends upon the level of state interference.

In this light, we should think about how governments can re-structure their control mechanisms to create processes flexible enough to accommodate the work ethos of cultural actors. A less conditioned relationship to the state would require broader administrative changes and for many countries, especially the ones who follow a more centralised system of governance, the transition from one paradigm to another would cause severe disruptions to the normal conduct of affairs. Reform is, however, a necessary step if the aim is to maximise audiences and create meaningful, long-lasting relationships.