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Defining culture

Jochen Kürten / kbmJanuary 7, 2014

The definition of culture has expanded, putting street art and Mozart on the same shelf. Museum director Rein Wolfs tells DW we shouldn't shy away from 'high culture' - and politics should take responsibility for it.

Rein Wolfs at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: For years, the definition of culture seems to have been broadening. With this in mind, what do you see as "culture"?

Rein Wolfs: The definition of culture is much broader today than it used to be. We categorize quite a lot as culture. We can think about the term in a historical sense, in a contemporary sense, but also in the context of historical mentality.

We think about foreign cultures and about our own. The term "culture" is a conglomeration with lots of possibilities. We are not only a house in which art exhibitions are shown, but also cultural-historical and scientific exhibitions. We can also show exhibitions based on a broad definition of culture, like fashion or architecture exhibitions. And we can display the cultures of far-away countries.

Where do you see limitations?

These days it's no longer meaningful to use the term "culture" because it can refer to nearly anything. We talk, for example, about culinary culture. The term is as big as the world. And we at the Art and Exhibition Hall should and would like to be commensurate with that. That doesn't mean that we have a carte blanche to do anything and everything that could be construed as culture.

We continually concern ourselves, of course, with the question of quality. We have to base our work on a certain quality standard, a certain level. As the Art and Exhibition Hall, we can't afford, for instance, to become very populist and dilute the definition of culture.

What do you mean by that?

Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Bonn's Art and Exhibition Hall presents rotating exhibitionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

I would see the broad definition of culture as both an opportunity and a risk. As an opportunity, so that as many people as possible can participate and develop an understanding of areas where they are already involved in cultural life. They already are involved if they deal with fashion in some kind of intensive way. Today there are so many possibilities to get involved in cultural things, objects, and cultural worlds.

On the other hand, there is a danger of dilution. [A broad definition of culture] can be a carte blanche for cultural institutions to be active on all levels. We have to build protective walls around what is seen by some as elite culture and "high" culture. We live in a time in which high culture is easily attacked because it may be too elitist, it may be accessible for too few people, or it may be created by too few people.

We have to give this term some space and protect it. We have to give high culture the chance and the platform to be noticed.

Is the differentiation between high and popular culture particular to Germany? [Eds: In Germany, high culture is sometimes referred to as E-Kultur (E for ernst, serious) and popular culture as U-Kultur (U for Unterhaltung, entertainment).]

In Germany, the divide is larger than in the Anglo-Saxon world. It's telling that we even speak in Germany about E and U culture and that this E stands for seriousness. I value that in particular. I think that in Germany, culture is still dealt with in a serious way, even on a broader level.

I also think that it's dealt with in a serious way on a political level as well. That's much less the case in Anglo-Saxon countries. Look, for example at the US, where the entire culture sector has been privatized, or always has been. There it's much easier for politicians to ignore culture altogether and not take responsibility for it.

So your opinion is that Germany takes a positive approach to culture?

Yes, it is positive! I recently criticized the situation in my home country, the Netherlands. In Holland, a lot has been privatized. Everything used to be publically financed. These days, politicians are no longer represented in the boards [Eds. …of museums and other cultural insitutions.] And politicians who have given up their responsibility are no longer committed. As far as culture is concerned, they can reduce or even cut public financing for institutions much more coolly and without empathy. I think that as long a politicians are responsible and participate in the boards of cultural institutions, then the continuity of culture is ensured.

Emil Nolde "Soldaten" (1913), Copyright: Bundeskunsthalle
The current exhibition, "The Avant-gardes at War," commemorates World War IImage: Bundeskunsthalle

You are from the Netherlands and became director of the Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn in March 2013. Does being a foreigner give you a different perspective?

I think that you always have a different perspective when you come from a different cultural background. By the way, four of the past five directors have come from abroad. It allows you to take a bit more distanced view of the country and have a more objective take on it all.

The recent coalition agreement between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) did not explicitly make culture a part of the German constitution. What do you think about that?

If you can clearly anchor culture in a coalition agreement and attain planning reliability, then that's good and important. But whether you can manage culture with such agreements is another question. There you have to remain a bit skeptical and ask whether culture isn't being managed too strongly. In the past we've seen proposals where we can now say we're pleased that they didn't go through. State-run culture alienates us and invokes less-than-positive associations. But I think that certain ground rules of responsibility in a very broad sense - with plenty of leeway - are very important, interesting and seminal.

Rein Wolfs has been director of the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn since March 2013. Born in 1960 in Hoorn, the Netherlands, Wolfs was previously director of the Kunsthalle in Kassel. The art historian has also made a name for himself as curator and managed the Dutch Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.