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Prioritizing cultural policy can help us fix other problems

Gero Schliess / js
June 5, 2016

How can a million people be made to feel welcome as our guests? How can Palmyra be saved? How should the world see Germany? The right approach to cultural policy can give answers, says DW's Gero Schliess.

Karneval der Kulturen in Berlin
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Let's not kid ourselves: Many people see cultural policy as a luxury - a fair-weather project and a playground for do-gooders. Some would reduce it to fighting over and doling out ever-shrinking theater, museum and orchestra budgets.

In the world of grand political solutions, cultural policy is often at the bottom of the list of priorities. People with backgrounds in cultural policy are rarely elected chancellor. And throughout their political careers, culture ministers have to yield right of way to foreign, interior, finance and defense experts. That's unfair and also a disadvantage for the state - especially in times like ours.

Cultural policy as a last refuge

One doesn't have to look far to see that cultural policy has become the last refuge of politicians, utterly overtaxed by the refugee crisis, fighting for their own political survival. Despite all of the initial glitches, it is relatively easy to temporarily welcome and house a million people. But integrating a million people is a generational project. Many in Germany underestimate that task.

Cultural education is the key to mastering it. That means more than just bread-and-butter skills like learning German. To understand and live among us means getting to know more about our values, our way of life and our culture. It also means becoming a part of that culture - naturally, and without having to forfeit one's own identity.

Schliess Gero Kommentarbild App
Gero Schliess

Cultural policymakers, artists and volunteers have been working hard to provide ways for newcomers to do just that, through untold numbers of projects and initiatives in recent months. Such commitment is fabulous, and was never as desperately needed as today.

Admonishing conscience

At the same time, cultural politics serves as a warning to the German people. It sharpens awareness of what a "welcoming culture" might look like - as well as what threatens that objective. Nevertheless, the warnings often go unheeded by those who head the so-called "hard" departments. One recent example was the battle over integration policy - where cultural policy was overrun by the boorishness of big, loud, political theatrics. A glaring mistake!

But cultural politics can do more than simply put out fires when it comes to immigration. Its contributions have much more to offer in the long term. For instance, such as in discussions about our own self-perceptions, and the core values that must be respected by all, including new arrivals. Or, in discussions about Berlin and the cultural life of the capital - such as is the case with the new Humboldt Forum, housed in the reconstructed city palace.

Another example is the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation - cobbled together out of the cultural ruins of post-reunification Berlin - which serves as the umbrella organization for the city's globally admired Museum Island.

Despite the fact that cultural policy tends to be a state-based issue, Federal Minister of Culture Monika Grütters has been actively engaged in a number of cultural areas. Film funding, the creative economy, museums and media have all profited from her concepts and her coffers.

A second cultural minister

There is, however, a second minster in Angela Merkel's cabinet that counts on the power of cultural policy: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. No one has translated Willy Brandt's concept of external cultural policy as a "third column" for foreign policy into political reality as consequently as Steinmeier has. This is often referred to, slightly pretentiously, as "working toward world reason," in papers coming out of Steinmeier's department.

It is up to the "soft power" of cultural and scientific exchange to fix a world that is becoming ever more complex and dangerous. The most recent example of this was the "experts' meeting on the safeguarding of cultural heritage in Syria" initiated by Steinmeier. The reasoning behind it was not starry-eyed idealism, but rather the calculation that securing and reconstructing destroyed cultural heritage sites can help provide a sense of national identity in postwar Syria. Cultural policy is becoming ever more important. Those who still think that it is an unnecessary luxury have never been as wrong as they are today.