Text Gerald Bast’s presentation at the plenary of the European Culture Forum, Brussels, 20 October 2011

From a Servant of Economic Growth towards a Leading Factor of Social Progress


At the beginning of the 21st century, the social and political value system finds itself perched at the height of a dramatic transformation: in place of the needs of individuals or the interests of certain segments of the population, a seemingly anonymous, even abstract and depersonalized shareholder value is at the center of economic and political processes. Educational institutions are relegated to the role of supplier firms for the economy. Education becomes redefined as mainly vocational training, the curriculum reduced to statistically measurable modules in the service of creating of employability rather than visions and ideas.  Welcome to the European Union.
You mean that’s an unfair argumentation?

Especially here and now, speaking at the European Cultural Forum?
Of course there are a lot of strategy papers emphasizing the importance of culture for the future of the EU, and there are some EU-programs in the field of culture. But the main focus of all EU culture projects is on the Cultural and Creative Industries and their contribution to economic growth.
I know all this is based in the European treaties. But where,  if not here at the European Culture Forum is the place to question this European reality?
Yes, competition and competitiveness is a European challenge. But the right question here at the European Cultural Forum is not: What can Art and Culture provide to make Europe the strongest economy in the world? - Yes, this very question is the first and fundamental request of almost all official EU papers on Culture - and by the way of all papers on education as well.  
What we have to ask now is: How can culture successfully compete with economics? What can we do to change the political positioning of the Arts from a servant of economic growth towards a leading factor of societal progress, at least in a role of an equal partner to the economy in steering our societies?
A lot of us, who are working in the cultural sector, right now painfully have to experience, what happens to arts and culture if the economy is going down in times of economic crisis. We have to be careful not to be too dependent in economic interests. Culture can indeed provide and transport much stronger and sustainable values. Culture and the arts must not be reduced to their economic effects. The arts are indispensable elements of social life far beyond economic dimensions.
The future of Europe as a Union, ladies and gentlemen, is not about economy, it’s about identification. And identification is a matter of ideas and not of money - at least on the long run. A healthy society is a society with cultural ideas and visions. All history is a history of ideas. Money only reigns if there is a lack of ideas.
The European Union is indeed a project for protecting and fostering peace, social stability, and human rights. But this is only represented in solemn political speeches and hardly known expert-papers. In practice, the EU reduces its appearance to an Agricultural and Economic Union. We just have to look at the European budget. Budget is a political statement and a manifestation of political priorities. And the EU citizens realize that. Their cultural and therefore emotional identity is not that of an European citizen but mainly that of a national EU member state citizen. While all politics in these days seems to be paralyzed by the crisis, putting all energies and all possible financial resources into increasingly desperate attempts to stabilize the financial system, the people of Europe increasingly is fading away from emotionally and politically supporting the European Union.

So if we really believe in the future of the European Union we have to question seriously if it is wise to leave the transformative and identity-establishing power of culture and the arts exclusively to the national states - or to the globalized art market?
I doubt that very much. I know about the importance of Europe’s cultural diversity - but at the same time I am convinced that it would be of great benefit for the European idea to have arts and culture as an official agenda of European policy: Cultural development and artistic research significantly - and I mean really significantly - funded by the European budget, independently from economic effects and parallel to funding activities in the member states.

Europe’s new strategy, outlined in the 2020 Strategy, is to become an Innovation Union. And it is the right strategy regarding to the necessity to met Europe’s global challenges aside to the European ones. But if we want to become an Innovation Union creativity needs to be an indispensable element of all kinds of industries. Creativity must not be reserved for the Creative Industries - not even semantically. The European economy needs to become a creative economy in total if we want to survive in the globalized economy. But this means to take significant changes in inter-sectoral communication - with consequences to our educational system and in particular to higher education.

For Wolf Singer, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, our communication is “impoverished.” He identifies a “connection between rational conclusions and the artistic approaches necessary for creative processes of any kind.
In the scientific field, creativity is, as a rule, the ability to see something together that so far has not been seen together. Much the same takes place when one wants to make something from nothing, a picture on a white canvas a piece of music. One must produce relationships that are not random, but make sense.” So, creativity means nothing less than the ability to build complex relationships and contexts. The brain researcher is “convinced that with everything that is served by non-rational languages - visual art, music, dance - knowledge is transported that cannot be transported over rational language? But for this, the languages of art must be learned.”

Economic success is not just caused by the work of business administrators and engineers. Look at the Iphone. It fascinates across all cultural and societal differences. And it does not fascinate because it is perfect in terms of technology - there are devices with better and richer technology. It fascinates because with its aesthetics, societal positioning and emotion driven appearance it transports a fascinating message  of modernity, creativity, freedom, difference,  dynamic lifestyle etc. You like it or hate it like all Apple products.  And which skills are needed for this success?  Crucially important are not the single skills but the interaction between skills. And the most important skill is the ability to speak or at least to understand different languages - among them the language of the arts, which is in fact the mother tongue of creativity.

So, what I propose at the end of my speech is to promote and to set incentives for creating and implementing new study programmes at university level with a main focus on "creative skills". General education programmes at a Bachelor level, including elements of arts, technology, economics and humanities, not just separated side by side but in a project driven process where students can develop and exercise the ability to think unconventionally, to question what already is familiar, coming up with new scenarios and producing amazement with their work. Programmes which are crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries in collaboration with different universities and non-university institutions and fields. This is the "general education" of the 21st century, which the EU will need for economic as well as social progress.