Entries for September 2009

On intercultural dialogue

More frequently than now-and-then, along come new buzz phrases in international cultural discourse that require not a little unpacking.  Just recently, there’s been “cultural diversity” and “culture as vectors of development”.  Now, there’s “intercultural dialogue”.  Each phrase seems to generate its own global industry of conferences, researchers, consultants and bureaucrats creating red-tape-filled fundraising forms.  And before one can say “UNESCO”, along comes another buzz phrase tsunami!


So, what is this “intercultural dialogue” thing?  According to the Sharing Diversity report published by the highly reputable ERICarts Institute in 2008, “Intercultural Dialogue is a process based on an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals, groups and organisations with different cultural backgrounds or mindsets. Among its aims are to develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives and practices, to increase participation, to ensure freedom of expression and the ability to make choices, to foster equality and to enhance creative processes.”  The Report goes on to say that “Intercultural dialogue takes place in an environment where individuals and groups are guaranteed safety and dignity, equality of opportunity and participation, where different views can be voiced openly without fear and where there are ‘shared spaces’ for cultural exchanges.”


Given this definition, it is unlikely that intercultural dialogue took place between the two opposing groups marching in London recently, one generally comprising people of the Muslim faith, and another of people with faith in slogans like “F-off Paki!”  Neither is it likely for intercultural dialogue to take place between a US Customs Official and someone with a tell-tale Al Qaeda-like beard.  And forget about intercultural dialogue between a Somalian shopkeeper in a South African township and the local thugs who are about to rob and probably shoot him.


All of these situations could do with a little bit of intercultural dialogue, but this is unlikely as “intercultural dialogue takes place where individuals and groups are guaranteed safety and dignity….”.  Which begs the question, what’s the point of intercultural dialogue if it can only happen once conducive conditions have been created?  Is it not more important then to spend time, energy and resources on creating such safe conditions?  And if these conditions – safety and dignity, equality of opportunity and participation, shared spaces – etc exist, then why bother with intercultural dialogue?  Everyone’s happy already.….


And, anyway, are the arts the best way to facilitate such intercultural dialogue?  It may be very worthy to commission an opera by a former Afghan prisoner in Guantanamo Bay about his life experience, and then to have it conducted by an American Republican and sung by a Jewish lesbian, but those who matter, those flying planes into buildings or dropping bombs on Palestinian civilians or slaughtering ethnic others with matchetes are unlikely to buy tickets to see – and, at a long shot, have their paradigms shifted by - the opera.  It is more likely that perpetrators of intercultural violence will find more in common at a performance fusing belly- and pole-dancing.


So, first we had cultural diversity – everyone has the right to practice the culture of their choice, and to do it in the spaces they create.  Some would label this neo-apartheid, but no, it’s the progressive view that we move away from the potential homogenisation of the multinational media and creative industry companies of some dominant (now shaky) economies, and encourage everyone to be different.  Then a few nasty things happen – bombs on busses, the odd embassy being attacked, a train explodes – and we (or rather, those whose comfortable lifestyles are now under threat) begin to say, “Gee, why is this happening to us?  We’re such good guys!  We’d better get to know those ‘others’ who are doing this, and integrate them into our way of life so that we all live happily ever after.  Oh yes, and since it’s culture that divides us, let’s use intercultural dialogue to build bridges, and what better cultural expression to use to do this, than the arts!”


Now, it’s hardly likely that migrant and marginalised communities wake up in the morning and decide that “today, I’m going to have a multicultural experience, and seek to have a relationship with someone from the dominant culture”.  It is almost always those from within hegemonic cultural paradigms that initiate cultural exchange, cultural diversity programmes, intercultural dialogue.  Which begs the further question: whose interests do these serve?  Who provides the resources for such programmes and what are the power relations within such intercultural dialogue?  While such dialogue “takes place in an environment where individuals and groups are guaranteed safety and dignity, equality of opportunity and participation, where different views can be voiced openly without fear and where there are ‘shared spaces’ for cultural exchanges,” those on the underside of history, invited to participate in such dialogue, may be forgiven for wondering how long their “freedom of expression” will really be tolerated if it constantly points out the structural inequities in the distribution of resources that make real, sustainable “sharing” and “equality of opportunity” mirages.


In the ‘developing world’, while we are trying to make sense of these buzz phrases (beyond their strategic value as conduits to the resources of the ‘developed world’) and what they mean for us (cultural diversity was the swear word of the divide-and-rule colonialists, and now we are asked to embrace it), the next buzz phrase is upon us, demanding our support and engagement.


Forgive me for asking, but can we perhaps see a little more – real - action in terms of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Cultural Diversity, before we are stampeded into signing along the Intercultural Dialogue line?

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On Arts Advocacy

On Arts Advocacy


“Artists in all countries shall be encouraged and helped to form associations. Their organisations shall receive the support they need to create their own structures and make their action effective”.


This is a quote from the Final Declaration of the World Congress on the Implementation of the Recommendation Concerning the Status of the Artist held in Paris in 1997.  The Recommendation itself - a beautiful document spelling out the ideal working and living conditions for artists, their social status, their vocation and training, their right to participate in creating and implementing cultural policies, etc – was adopted in Belgrade in October 1980, almost 29 years ago.


The Recommendation urges UNESCO’s member states to “take appropriate measures to have the opinions of artists and the professional and trade union organisations representing them…taken carefully into account in the formulation and execution of their cultural policies.  To this end, they are invited to make the necessary arrangements for artists and their organisations to participate in discussions, decision-making processes and the subsequent implementation of measures aimed, inter alia at:

  1. the enhancement of the status of artists in society…
  2. the promotion of culture and art within the community…
  3. the encouragement of international cultural co-operation….”


The Recommendation concerning the Status of the Artist is very clear on both what should be implemented to allow the arts to flourish within countries and for the optimal conditions for artists to work in, as well as how this should be done i.e. by public authorities engaging with artists and the organisations representing their interests.


However, for most artists in most countries of the world, the Recommendation is simply yet another idealistic document to which their governments may have subscribed (like the more recent UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions or the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights that declares that “Everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community (and) to enjoy the arts…), but have singularly failed to implement. 


From my experience, other than in very advanced democracies, it is unlikely that artists’ organisations are supported by “member states” i.e. government or parastatal agencies like National Arts Councils.  Generally – despite government and the National Arts Council in South Africa sometimes lamenting the absence of artists’ organisations with which to engage – the reality is that in the post-1994 dispensation, government has largely ignored, or actively rejected representations made by independent artists’ organisations as they have been deemed too critical of the failures of the public authorities.  Government departments and parastatal funding agencies tend to engage with “sweetheart” organisations, those whose leaders claim to represent their constituency, but who compromise their members’ interests in exchange for government support, or for access to various perks or other personal benefits to do with power and status that public authorities bestow on them.


Our recent history is littered with letters and emails to different levels of government and to the National Arts Council and their provincial equivalents making proposals, suggesting alternatives to current policies and practice, pointing out – quietly at first – the incompetence, mismanagement and corruption that undermine the sector, only for these to be ignored.  Then, when activists and arts organisations go public with their criticisms, government is embarrassed into taking some action or goes on the defensive and the arts organisations and activists are made out to be the problem – the messengers are shot as racists, as anti-transformation, as having personal agendas.


Then, along comes an election with new politicians, sometimes new government officials, new National Arts Council boards and there is a brief honeymoon period as everyone tries to improve on the strained relations of the previous dispensation, only for these to be repeated a few months or years later as the same patterns – artists trying to improve their conditions on the one hand and recalcitrant, insensitive public authorities on the other – play themselves out.  At best, just when years of education and engaging with politicians and government officials begin to bear fruit, an election takes place or they are redeployed elsewhere or they leave to take up a more lucrative job in the private sector.  And then the laborious process of educating their replacement starts all over again!  Or gains made under a previous dispensation, are reversed through the ignorance of the new incumbent, often assigned responsibility for the arts since she or he needs to be accommodated politically, rather than because s/he has any real understanding of or commitment to the sector.


However, with regard to the lack of advocacy for the arts, the hands of artists are often not clean either.  Many artists are completely disinterested in the macro policies and structures that directly impact on their lives, preferring to leave it to a small coterie of arts activists to fight on their behalf.  Or the sector suffers from an inferiority complex, a lack of self-esteem and insecurity from often being told that the arts are not important, that there are more important things on which to spend taxpayer funds (like useless arm’s deals, sports events and ministerial vehicles) and so the arts community spends huge amounts of time and resources justifying why the arts need to be taken seriously with our economic impact studies, showing how the arts generate jobs, income and tax revenue.


And yet, as with all other workers in society, artists – creative workers - have as much right as others to assert their interests, to lobby for better working and living conditions, to demand participation in structures and policies that directly affect their lives and livelihood and generally, to advocate for the best interests of the arts.


Artists and creative practitioners who derive from middle-class backgrounds need to learn that their conditions – as artists – will not change by themselves, or by others doing it for them.  It will come with struggle, with painstaking organisation, with committed and long term activism.  There is little that is sexy or financially rewarding or image-building that comes with such struggle, but it is necessary and is, in fact, the only way in which conditions will change.


We need to advocate for the arts – for better policies, better funding conditions, etc – to government, to parastatal agencies, the corporate sector and even to international development organisations.  There are many issues to lobby around, but even just one from the Final Declaration of the 1997 World Congress on the Status of the Artist should be sufficient to mobilise artists globally: “Article 18: In every country, in every year, at least one per cent of total public funds should be allocated to artistic activities of creation, expression and dissemination”. 


Perhaps development agencies that provide aid should be lobbied to insist that the governments to whom they provide such aid should allocate at least 5% of the aid budget to the cultural dimension of the arts, not least to ensure that the fundamental human right to participate in and enjoy the arts is not limited to the middle-classes.


We need to advocate to the arts community itself, to show the links between their micro-lives and the macro policies that shape these, to encourage them to read, to be informed, to organise and take action to improve their lot.


And then we need to lobby the public at large – as per IFACCA’s proposed campaign – to support music, dance, theatre, visual art, film and literature a whole lot more!  I am always surprised at how many people with disposable income and who think of themselves as being relatively sophisticated, simply don’t go to the theatre or see dance or at best buy a CD or see a Hollywood movie.  Yet, just imagine if every artist took responsibility for recruiting 100 people per year to go to a gallery, or see a play, or buy a CD from a local musician, and 500 artists did that nationally, 50 000 more people would be supporting the arts per year.  But what is also surprising – given that we are creative people working in the arts – is how boring and traditional (and ineffective) our marketing and audience development strategies are!


There are huge possibilities in building interest in the arts among the broader public and by doing so, potentially increase the general public demand for more support for the arts (rather than limit this demand to a self-interested arts community). 


If the arts sector spent at least as much time reflecting on our own culpability for the state of our sector as looking for scapegoats elsewhere, we will have to concede that often, we get – or have - what we deserve.



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The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions: Bold new instrument or just another document?


One of the key clauses adopted as part of this Convention (certainly from the perspective of the so-called developing world) is Article 18 which establishes an International Fund for Cultural Diversity.  Parties to the Convention are invited to “provide voluntary contributions on a regular basis towards the implementation of this Convention”, with such a Fund potentially playing a major role in investing in the development of the creative industries in the south, and providing access to markets in the global north.


Yet, since the adoption of the Convention in 2005 and notwithstanding the list of signatories which now stands at one short of 100, in the last four years, only 14 countries have contributed towards this Fund, with the total contributions being a paltry US$1 321 145.10 - probably less than the catering bill of the meeting at which the Convention was adopted!

While many countries may have bilateral relationships and probably believe that their funds can be more efficiently invested through such bilateral relationships, the insignificance of this fund at the moment calls into question the political commitment and political will of the signatories which raises the further question: is the Convention doomed to suffer the same toothless fate as numerous other international instruments?  

Below, is an imaginary cabinet meeting in the north – a sketch which I penned for the publication After the Crunch, a collection of articles on the potential impact of the economic recession on the creative sector. 




Finance Minister:   

So then, to conclude this item gentlemen…and ladies…it is likely that we will

be in recession for the next five quarters.  We are all going to have to tighten

our belts a lot more.  Every department is going to have a budget cut in the

next financial year.  Except Defence, of course.  Thank you.


Prime Minister:       

That’s not exactly what we wanted to hear.  And with an election due in eleven

months, this is a rather frightening forecast.  At the end of this meeting, we’ll

set up a cabinet subcommittee to look into this matter of the elections and the

recession.  So, moving along, the next item on the agenda is our contribution

to the International Fund for Cultural Diversity….


Arts Minister:          

(clearing his throat, embarrassed) Er, yes, that’s me.


Finance Minister:   

Why’s this even on the agenda?


Arts Minister:          

Well, we…er…signed the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and

Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions…


Sports Minister:     

(drily) That’s a bloody long name for a Convention….


Prime Minister:       

Well, it is UNESCO….(general laughter) What’s the connection to this

International Fund?


Arts Minister:          

All signatories - especially in the developed world – commit themselves to

contributing to an International Fund to help grow the creative industries of the

third world….


Finance Minister:   

(sighs) More handouts…


Prime Minister:       

Who else signed?


Arts Minister:          

Everyone…except the US…


Environment Min:  

They never sign anything…..


Arts Minister:          

And Israel.


Defence Minister:  

Good for them!


Arts Minister:          

That was in George’s time.  Obama has included an allocation to the arts as

part of his stimulus package.


Finance Minister:   

Well, maybe superman Obama gets some things wrong!


Defence Minister:  

You can take the African out of Africa…but can you take Africa out of the



Finance Minister:   

Well, clearly, we can’t make any contribution now….


Arts Minister:          

We signed this two years ago…our contribution’s due…


Finance Minister:   

(irritated) With all due respect, the world economy is in recession.  It is not

exactly the time to be throwing money at non-essentials like the arts.  And

especially in developing countries like Africa which are a huge black hole

anyway…(laughs) if you’ll excuse the pun.


Trade Minister:       

If I may come in here…trade in cultural goods and services has actually been

among the most dynamic sectors in global trade in the last decade.


Prime Minister:       



Trade Minister:       

I’ve got the figures right here. The average annual growth rate in this sector

was close to 9% from 2000-2005.  In 2003, the turnover of European creative

industries was 654 billion Euros, and employed more than 5,6 million people.


Arts Minister:          

Even in the developing world, exports of creative goods grew from $51 billion

in 1996 to $274 billion by 2005.


Finance Minister:   

So why do we need to contribute to a global Fund?  They seem to be doing



Arts Minister:          

Because most developing countries are not yet operating anywhere near their

potential in this regard.  They need investment, expertise, expansion of



Finance Minister:   

(cutting in) We’re cutting the budgets for our own opera and ballet companies. 

How are we going to explain to them that we’re supporting music and dance



Foreign Minister:   

The annual budget for our national opera is probably more than the total arts

and culture budget of Mali…        


Finance Minister:   

What does Mali have to do with this?


Foreign Minister:   

It’s where Timbuktu is…


Finance Minister:   



Arts Minister:          

And Mali has a very significant music industry.  Which could do even better

with a bit of help.


Finance Minister:   

Why would we want to help them?  At a time like this we should be looking

after our own, surely!


Prime Minister:       

Especially with an election coming up!


Defence Minister:  

That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?  How is the Mali music industry going to secure

our seats – not just in this Cabinet – but in Parliament?


Arts Minister:          

May I remind you that this Cabinet took a decision a few years ago to support

cultural diversity as a key component of our security strategy?


Defence Minister:  

I was against it then, I’m against it now.


Arts Minister:          

Maybe.  But most of us agreed that in a post-9/11 world, and after the London

bus bombings, we need to place more emphasis on building a multi-cultural

society and a multi-cultural world.


Defence Minister:  

I still think it’s bollocks.  You don’t see Israel signing cultural diversity

agreements to ensure its security.  It invests in the hardware they need to

protect themselves!  And then they use it!  None of this limp-wristed soft

power, cultural diversity crap!


Home Affairs Min:  

For me, the question is…even if we have the funds to invest in the developing

world…are the creative industries the place to be doing this?  It’s a key part of

our strategy to invest in the developing world to provide their people with jobs

there, so that we wouldn’t face this wave of immigration, which creates this

diversity issues, and with these, the security problems.          


Prime Minister:       

This is getting more complicated….


Sports Minister:     

Let’s set up a Cabinet subcommittee to look at it….then the rest of us can get

a drink.


Prime Minister:       

(ignoring the Sports Minister as usual) As I understand it, there are three

issues here.  The first is about cultural diversity in terms of global trade in

cultural goods and services.  And it seems as if trade in this area could help to

stimulate the economy. 


Trade Minister:       



Prime Minister:       

The second issue is about cultural diversity as a security issue…assimilating

migrant communities into our way of life and value system so that they don’t

plant bombs and do other nasty things…


Defence Minister:  

I say bomb them back!


Prime Minister:       

And the third issue is about creating jobs in the developing world to counter

the wave of economic migrants to our shores….


Home Affairs:         

That’s right.


Prime Minister:       

We can’t fund all of these like we used to, or maybe like we would like to.  So

the question is…what are our priorities?


Defence Minister:  

Security.  Definitely security.


Finance Minister:   

It has to be the economy.  Without a strong economy, our security is



Arts Minister:          

We’re vulnerable anyway….unless we deal with issues of cultural diversity.


Prime Minister:       

(impatiently) We’re going around in circles….


Sports Minister:     

Can we take a comfort break?


Still continuing…..


One of the roundtables at the forthcoming World Summit on Arts and Culture will deal with the Convention.  As with many such instruments, the challenge is to civil society to use it for advocacy purposes, to act in terms of its Articles, and to prevent the Convention from being just another collection of good intentions.

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