Does public funding stifle culture? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.03.2012
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Does public funding stifle culture?

Close half of all theaters and museums in Germany? A provocational call from four authors has created controversy in the cultural establishment. Meanwhile, other countries envy culture funding in Germany.

A stop sign with a blue sky in the background.

Culture cuts? No way!

Their aim is to "demolish the halo of culture" and they have managed to set in motion an intense discussion. This is exactly what the four authors who wrote the book about what they call Germany's "Culture Infarct" intended.

One of the authors, Pius Knüsel, says they're pleased with the lively debate that has ensued. The book argues that those who criticize the culture establishment or cultural politics should not be considered an enemy of art.

On the contrary, "It is our job to free art from its alleged custodians, who embrace it to the point of suffocation," write the authors. "The demands are not new, but more pressing than ever: More entrepreneurial spirit, closer examination of the needs of the public, fewer fantasies of omnipotence. And the understanding that art will not heal the world."

Critique from the critiqued

The book Culture Infarct by the authors Dieter Haselbach, Pius Knüsel, Stephan Opitz, Armin Klein. Copyright: Andreas Pavelic 2012

The book: A bone of contention on the scene

Criticism of the book came from those the four authors had themselves criticized: museum directors, and cultural collectives and organizations. The German Cultural Council noted that reducing cultural funding by 50 percent would not result in any noticeable difference in the tax burden shouldered by German households.

The German Theater and Orchestra Organization also said that no city that closed a theater would redirect that money into alternative culture or neighborhood theaters. Aside from that, the market economy principle of supply and demand cannot be applied to the culture industry, it was argued; the art market is based on property ownership, while selling admittance to plays and concerts is not.

The money that flows into cultural funding is described by the four authors as subsidies. That sounds like the squandering of tax money and appears to be a battle cry which is irrelevant to the case in hand. Capital for culture does not necessarily equate to millions in wasted tax money, but to comparatively modest sums. In Germany, no more than two percent of public finances are allocated for culture, which amounts to around 10 euros ($13.25) per capita per month.

Facts versus opinions and facts

This contribution is used in order to ensure that culture is provided not only for the well-salaried, wealthy elite, as the authors of "Culture Infarct" suggest. Culture is created where people actually are - all over the country - and it deals with their problems.

That is especially clear in the area of theater, which is spread widely throughout Germany. Theaters don't only perform Goethe's "Faust" or Mozart's "Magic Flute," but also deals with current issues like right-wing extremism, xenophobia, atomic energy and the financial crisis. The capital which is allocated to culture, the intellectual activity of people, benefits the citizens of a region and society as a whole.

Financing the arts has pros and cons

Financing of the arts has pros and cons

Elsewhere, the culture scene can only dream of such support.

"In the field of culture, Germany is the world superpower," said Swedish director Staffan Valdemar Holm. He visited Germany intermittently during his youth because he was so enthused by the theater scene. The biggest plus point according to Holm: Theater in Germany is decentralized and anchored in the regions and cities. Even in wealthy Sweden, this is not the case. There, theater is concentrated in the cities of Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö, while the rest of the country generally lacks a theater scene.

The reason why that is not the case in Germany is due to a number of historical factors. Previously, every small principality had its own theater. This decentralized structure has remained in place to this day, so that even small villages have theaters.

Praise from abroad


Theater is decentralized because of Germany's history

If half of Germany's theaters were to be closed, which is what the authors of "Culture Infarct" are calling for, the very thing that Holm praised - namely the incomparable variety of the German theater scene - would be lost.

Holm now lives in Germany and is the director of the Dusseldorf Playhouse. He doesn't believe that public funding stifles creativity. "That is exactly how experimental pieces are made possible," he said. "Every entrepreneur knows that you have to invest in creativity."

In comparison to the US, where he often works, Holm believes Germany is better off: "The whole of America doesn't offer what Germany can provide in one day. In the US, only the big, prestige theaters like the Met can function. But even a cosmopolitan city like New York doesn't offer decent Shakespeare."

Romanian theater expert and translator Victor Marian Scoradet salutes the funding of dramatists in Germany. In 2009, Scoradet was honored with the Goethe Medal in Weimar for his transnational work and has long bemoaned the fact that Romanian theater has failed to support home-grown talent.

"In contrast, German playwrights are supported," argued Scoradet, "they can allow themselves to take risks, and thus they take many more risks. I find this kind of risk-taking an extremely good role model for authors from an ex-totalitarian state."

Funding not just about money

Even in wealthy neighboring countries, art struggles in hasher conditions than those in Germany. In the Netherlands, theater funding has been reduced so much that artists are abandoning the country and moving to Germany. Like Annemie Vanackere, who is set to become director of Berlin's Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater in September 2012. Originally from Belgium, she spent many years working in the Netherlands and said that the situation for theater there has gone steadily downhill over the years.

"The political climate is mostly responsible for that," commented Vanackere. "Especially over the course of the last few years, art has had to constantly defend its right to exist."

She is particularly concerned about resistance from the Dutch right-wing populist party, PVV, to "anything which they consider to be 'leftist' or 'elitist' to the point where a debate about the societal importance of art becomes absolutely impossible to have."

The debate in Germany has only just begun.

Author: Aya Bach / Marlis Schaum / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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