Culture Vultures? Why Politics Needs Culture to Survive.
Gerard Dillon's 'The Little Green Fields' (1950)
Image Source and Copyrights: The National Gallery of Ireland (2023).
Life generates culture generates life, or at least the will to live it. There now exist at least two-hundred different definitions for culture, but the one perhaps most pertinent in this moment stems from T.S. Eliot. The American poet once noted that “culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living”. A life source long-harnessed by creatives and philosophers, politics also appreciates culture’s enriching capabilities; as long ago as the age of ancient Athens, it’s city-government reverently funded the arts, and in more recent years the European Commission declared access to cultural outlets as being the second most crucial prerequisite to psychological wellbeing, absence of disease being its sole precedent. It is hence this argument of intrinsic value that could be considered a most basic, benevolent motivation for formal governmental participation in the cultural sphere. Supporting art for art’s sake is, however, neither the most economically viable nor politically advantageous rationale, so when governments support the creative and cultural sectors it is generally not out of mere altruism but also to achieve concrete socio-political objectives, the results of which can place a hefty leverage on the balance of power.
Considering the matter at hand on a national scale, as disparate in temperament as the local artist and the state politician may appear, they are connected to one another by a cultural artefact: their nation itself. Indeed, culture’s ability to delineate a community or a region can also be utilised to define an ‘ethnos’, a nation, bolstering its image through the exercise of cultural nationalism. Benedict Anderson’s seminal text, ‘Imagined Communities’ (1983) argues that nationalism of any form “has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which – as well as against which – it came into being”. So, albeit sweepingly, one could certainly deduce that without the requisition of culture, modern nations and their political landscapes could never have come to fruition as we know them.
Culture and the arts played a transformative role in the political climate of nineteenth century Europe, an expression of nationhood that has been well documented by academics such as Anderson, and several who chronicled Ireland’s experience with this style of nation-building. The ‘Celtic Revival’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries initiated a return to the ‘true’ Irish heritage through language, sport, and the arts as a means to rid the island of the “demoralizing influence” that colonialism had imposed. The island’s literary greats of the time – the likes of Lady Gregory, W.B. Yeats, James Joyce – expressed the importance of placeness in their work, more particularly the incongruent differences between their authentic place and that which was demarcated by British rule. The results of this cultural reinstatement provided the unity and context with which to propel Ireland to progress, instilling a sense of social evolution and connectedness that would eventually lead to the island and its political systems as we now know them to be. So again, we see culture creating, consolidating, legitimising political systems.
Referring again to this national unity that the Gaelic Revival allowed, this is a crucial aspect as to why politics needs culture to survive: the formation of a demos. Demos is a term that stems from ancient Greece, meaning “a people for political purposes i.e., ‘public’ or ‘citizen body’ rather than a nation”. Considered a collective self, a demos is an essential component of achieving self-government, and has been a key strength of successful political federations’. The reason that is so is because an effective and efficient political unit requires a certain degree of homogeneity amongst its various parts, and an absence of this sameness can render political decisions inconsistent with the values or interests of segments of the group. Miguel Herrero do Minon, former Spanish MEP, noted in 1996 that “a democratic system without a demos is a contradiction of terms, or worse, simply cratos”. It is culture that provides this unity, this sameness, providing the means for democracy and hence successful politics.
Today, many political actors consider it necessary that their cultural policies benefit their voters in manners “over and above the aesthetic”, but it is without doubt that such strategies are as beneficial to the actors themselves. Cultural policies can be thought of as “political technologies”, and whether you consider them to be a vessel that perpetuates a symbiotic relationship, or a deceitful display of calculated interest that preys on a sector beyond their knowhow, depends on your interpretation of ‘Culture Vultures’.
1 Eliot, T.S., 1949.
2 Schoener, J., 1966 – 1967, 166.
3 European Commission, 2018, 3.
4 Holden, J., Balta, J., 2012, 6.
5 Cummings and Katz, 1987, 351, in Langan, 2010, 14.
6 Anderson, B., 1983, 4.
7 Leerssen, J., 2006, 563.
8 Ibid., 1983, 12.
9 Hutchinson, J., 1987, 484.
10 Allison, J., 2001, 55-58.
11 Hutchinson, J., 1987, 484-486
12 Jolly, M., 2005, 12.
14 Leicester, 1996, 4, in Shore, 2006, 11.
15 Zetterholm, 1994, 67, in Field, 1999, 246.
16 De Minon, M.H., 1996, in Shore, 2006, 11.
17 Mokre, 2007, 34.
18 Gray, 2007, 203
19 Shore, 2006, 10.
20 A motivation for this research was having studied the Soviet culturesphere under Stalin, particularly socialist realist art, wherein culture and the arts were appropriated for propagandist ends with little consideration for the impact this would have on aestheticism and creativity in its populations going forward.
text by Rhian O'Sullivan, MA student in Culture Studies, The Lisbon Consortium