The pitfalls cultural policy entrepreneurs must navigate

December 16, 2022 10:41
Photo: Reuters

Much ink has been spilled on the nature of cultural exchange in Hong Kong – or, indeed, beyond.

In the post-COVID era, as countries and cities alike seek to emerge from the turmoil and scars of the past few years, it is only natural that cultural exchange has come to the forefront of public consciousness amongst those who are civically minded.

Less natural, perhaps, though by no means unpredictable, is the politicisation of the culture and arts in some quarters, with rent-seeking intentions. We live in an age where culture is innately political – whether it be in its critiquing the present reality, offering an alternative reality, or embodying values and sentiments that shall come to define and shape political action.

Geopolitical realities have only exacerbated the political weaponisation of the arts. Protest and anti-war art have grown in prominence in Europe, which has been plunged into the first, serious land war since the conclusion of World War II. The rising antagonism and wariness concerning China has, too, given rise to art that overtly or implicitly criticises the country; such art forms are hence both vehicles of political messages, and political innately in their choice and screening of audience, and the subject matter they choose to exclude. In alleging that Russian artists are ostensibly mouthpieces of their country’s messages – or complicit in their injustices – the pitchforked witchhunt for ‘deviants’ in the West has surged to heights unseen since the early days of the Cold War.

For that matter, then, the primary pitfall cultural policy entrepreneurs – whether it be artists, scholars, writers, or thinkers – must tackle, constitutes the blatantly political overtures constitutive in how art is interpreted and disseminated. Gatekeeping has evolved into a mechanism by which individuals shut out dissent and differing views; it has empowered dominant countries with further propagandistic and economic tools to apply pressure on those with whom they do not see eye to eye, thereby amplifying their entrenched hegemonic tendencies. It is thus not just political censorship or repression that policymakers in the arts must fear – but the exploitation of creativity as a resource for ambitious, self-interested politicians.

A further pitfall concerns the over-commercialisation of the arts. Don’t get me wrong – arts, especially arts that can traverse long distances and cut across national boundaries, would necessarily require investment, of both monetary and non-monetary kinds. It is only reasonable to think that a modicum of financial resources would be the prerequisite to the sustaining of cultural preservation, dialogue, and ensuing activities.

Yet the danger here is to take this tendency too far, and the derived culture where arts are judged and produced, artists are appraised and promoted/demoted in accordance purely with how much their work would sell. It is this ‘culture’ that unfairly shuts out artists of substantial artistic merit and yet whose works do not appeal sufficiently to the in-vogue zeitgeist of the times, or the palate of sensibilities held by the ultra-rich and wealthy. It is this ‘ethos’ that forces artists into unwinnable compromises, where they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. As entrepreneurial policymakers, there is much to be done in order to support artists in finding their own niches, grounds, and modes of expression – not just in terms of direct, financial subsidies and support, but also through indirect coaching and advice that allows them to fuse, organically, their own vision with the demands of others. Only through such bricolage and adaptation can culture survive in an age where money is increasingly calling the shots. This is particularly given that the only realistic alternatives to money are grassroots organisations or top-down state dogma and control. Artists need to be equipped with the skills to navigate practical constraints and bottlenecks in order to get their voices heard.

This ties me onto the final pitfall – much of cultural policymaking in East Asian countries, specifically China and Japan, tends to prioritise above all else the ability on part of culture to deliver, qua an “industry”, “goods” to be sold and purchased. Yet art isn’t just a business. It is certainly not a goods-producing and -selling business. A far more sustainable approach to art calls for building up institutional resilience and public consciousness – steps towards a public culture where, through conversations, debates, and discussions, the public comes to grip with the ’artistic character’ of the community at large. This takes not just time, but a mindset shift.

The mindset shift, I would posit, constitutes moving from ‘goods-producing’ to ‘institutions-producing’. We should shift away from seeing art as purely paintings, sculptures, or NFTs to be bought or sold, but as the bases and products of public deliberation and collective reflection. This is in fact easier DONE than SAID (on the contrary to the popular saying) – it’s hard to describe what “institution-building” means, but so long as we start working towards a shared, common goal of empowering structures and improving the quality and finesse of decision-making bodies, we’d already be a step closer to the end goal in mind.

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Assistant Professor, HKU