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The truth behind 10 myths about culture in Germany

Rainer Traube ct
September 14, 2017

Does Germany have a world-class cultural scene? We look at 10 popular myths about culture in Germany and see how they stand up to the facts. It's not an easy task in a place where culture is considered holy.

Projekt Kulturcheck Deutschland E (DW)

"We are a nation with a strong cultural tradition!" emphasized Germany Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière a few months ago in his controversial thesis on the country's "Leitkultur" (leading or guiding culture). Klaus Lederer, Berlin's culture senator and member of the Left party, even declared art and culture the "strongest weapon against terrorism" when opening a classical music festival in the capital recently.

If there is anything that German politicians tend to agree on during election season, it is their belief in the power of music and literature.

It is a consensus that crosses party lines in the Bundestag, ensuring that subsidies for the arts flow. Before the summer break, the ruling coalition made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) decided to increase federal cultural funding by a hefty 23 percent in 2018, totaling 1.67 billion euros ($1.98 billion).

The sheer numbers

Germany is very proud of its cultural landscape. Many even consider it the best in the world. Are they right?

A glance at the sheer statistics in the land of poets and thinkers, musicians and artists in 2017 is mind-boggling.

The country counts 2,117 publishers and 3,803 bookstores, 42 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and 1,654 cinemas with 4,739 screens. There are also 142 public theater companies with around 40,000 employees in 825 venues, 12,000 public libraries, 931 music schools with 1.4 million students, 29 art academies, 9,804 galleries and art dealers, and 6,372 museums. The list is neverending.

While the older generations continue to speak of a "Kulturnation," conjuring up high-brow images of Bayreuth, Weimar and the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, economists and culture managers now refer to the "creative industries."

The term is better suited to the digital age, incorporates measurable data instead of elitist criticism, and sounds more dynamic. That's something the federal government has recognized, noting with enthusiasm that the creative industries are essential "to a modern Germany like hardly any other."

Lacking courage and creativity?

Where does Germany's cultural heart beat loudest?

Culture is one of the driving engines for German soft power. The federal and state governments invest more than 10 billion euros annually in cultural endeavors like youth theaters, music schools, chamber orchestras, renovations of historical buildings or museum expansions. That adds up to 123 euros per citizen - the cost of a mid-sized Ikea bookshelf.

Do lots of money and lots of jobs mean lots of creativity? Not according to the news magazine Der Spiegel, which wrote in a special German edition ahead of the election that it is "too little for such a large, wealthy country. Too little courage, too little love, too little creative risk."

Mediocrity is widespread in the arts, maintained the news magazine: unimaginative architecture, interchangeable detective novels instead of great novels, powerless intellectuals. But those who question the "fetishistic cultural state" have a hard time of it in Germany.

How much competition can culture take?

Art: Giant or dwarf?

In 2012, a letter of dissent from four culture researchers (titled "Der Kulturinfarkt") challenged the thinking behind high cultural subsidies that seemed to merely serve self-preservation. Should culture be subjected to creative competition and measured by its success? That sounded like the worst kind of neo-liberal sell-out. Not in the cultural nation of Germany, please! The text wasn't debated.

DW is looking in greater depth at these facts onDW Culture Facebook page. The television show "Arts.21" is broadcasting a special edition measuring the cultural landscape in Germany and telling the history behind the nation's cultural myths.  

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