“Culture is economy” – or maybe not?

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by Ares Kalandides

On 20th of February 2014, the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports Mr. Panos Panagiotopoulos delivered the opening speech of the EU conference ‘Financing Creativity’ in Athens. The aim of the conference was to address models of cultural policy for the coming decades, but as it has been the fashion in the past 15 years in Europe, it turned into a meaningless discourse full of platitudes and dangerous oversimplifications around the notion of the creative economy.

That is, at least the part of the speech we managed to see[1]. Only a few minutes into the speech, a group of artists known as the “Mavili collective”, disrupted the speech through loud laughter and applause. Here is a part of the collective’s declaration:

“…not a single artist was invited as a speaker nor was the conference promoted publicly.

Given this situation Mavili Collective called for artists from different fields of practice to attend the conference. Having been excluded from a dialogue about cultural policies the artists present publicly expressed their feelings regarding the proposed role of culture and laughed. The response of the Minister is revealing.

The Minister of Culture stated in his speech that we need to be more competitive following the economies of China and Middle East since the cost of labour in Europe today is extremely high. The words most frequently used by many of the speakers were: competitiveness, business, industry, product, consumers etc. Mrs Lina Mendoni, General Secretery of the Ministry of Culture and Sports made the crucial statement that ‘Culture is economy’. A vision for the culture that is nowadays expressed openly and indicative of how the Greek State is increαsingly abandoning its support of contemporary culture. Instead, as was stated clearly in the conference, the Greek State intends to fund private institutions that will then form the cultural landscape of the country. Does such a policy reflect the wider vision of the EU for culture?

Some might say the conference was a fiasco, but was the fiasco the laughter or the cultural policies being proposed?”

machineUnder normal circumstances, I would have ignored the event. Not only because the Minster has proven totally inadequate (and is not even worth a serious comment), but also because I consider a discussion on the creative economy at such a low level to be totally meaningless. Yet, I found the incident so infuriating that I wanted to point out at least a few things from my point of view:

1. Of course there are interconnections between the economy and culture, as it is always the case when people make a living through some activity. This is not to say that culture can be reduced to an economic activity or that “economy is culture” as the Secretary General said. Whether we decide to include cultural activity into the market at all or rather how much of it we decide to include, is a political choice. Yet, in all market activities, what does not find a consumer is bound to disappear. Is that the way we want to treat culture? As another consumer good, no different than, let’s say, a piece of jewellery, that can vanish if it does not find a buyer?

2. The concept of the creative economy (my guess is that it’s what the speakers wanted to get to, but got lost on their way) is not without interest. It implies that even cultural production has a value chain that includes, but is not limited to, market activities. E.g. whereas a public museum in itself may be “outside the market” there may exist a museum shop that is inside.  Or, taking it further, the museum will probably be commissioning external businesses (in the market) to repair the museum building. In the end it means that every Euro spent (by the tax payer) into a museum can generate several Euros in a large value chain in the economy. Culture is not produced or shared in isolation from the rest of the society.

3. Creativity and culture are not identical. Creativity is a fundamental human quality and can be found in many different areas of activity (including everyday life, natural sciences etc.). The creative economy on the other hand refers to particular market sub-branches including design, media, IT/games, the publishing market, the art market etc. We’ve been talking about these things for years and there is vast literature on all of it[2]. As usual there are not enough people out there who read or listen.

4. Starting a speech on culture with the statement that we need to be competitive with China because “the cost of labour in Europe today is extremely high” can either stem from perilous ignorance of the basics of political economy or from a fundamentalist political propaganda. Or of course (and most probably) from both.

Unfortunately the discussion on the creative economy (or rather on the creative industries which is significantly different, as it is a business-based discourse) has led to such expressions of simplistic economisation of culture as the above. Just like other cases, (e.g. the privatisation of public space) it is the product of a political dogma that does not accept that anything can remain out of the market. In the hands of the self-appointed free-market Taliban this can endanger whole societies – and in most cases it does.

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[1] You can watch an amateur film with English subtitles here:

[2] Already in 2009, together with Bastian Lange, Birgit Stöber and Inga Wellmann we had published a book called “Governance of the Creative Economy” and we have all written several articles and worked on numerous projects since.

About Ares

Ares Kalandides holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the National Technical University of Athens. He is the founder and CEO of Inpolis, an international consultancy based in Berlin, Germany and has implement several projects around the world. Ares teaches Urban Economics at the Technical University in Berlin and Metropolitan Studies at NYU Berlin.
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One Response to “Culture is economy” – or maybe not?

  1. Pingback: CULTURE IS ECONOMY – OR MAYBE NOT? (TAKE 2) « Places.

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