1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'The West has disappeared': How cultural policy should react

June 16, 2017

While globalization was the main theme of the Ninth Federal Congress on Cultural Policy held in Berlin, last year's shock developments in the US and the UK couldn't be avoided.

Kulturpolitischer Bundeskongress in Berlin
Image: Martin Becker

Now in its ninth edition, the Federal Congress on Cultural Policy, held in Berlin on June 15 and 16, focused this year on the consequences of globalization on cultural policy. The event, entitled "World.Culture.Politics," brought together diverse institutional actors and thinkers to discuss the impact of increased interconnectivity and blurred national borders on culture.

Shifting perceptions of the world

London-based Indian author Pankaj Mishra opened a panel called "New Cultural World Views." Reacting to the "mad adventure of Brexit" and Donald Trump's election, Mishra clearly established his views: "The West has disappeared," he said.

Author Pankaj Mishra
Author Pankaj MishraImage: picture alliance/Effigie/Leemage

Taking a step back, Mishra reminded attendees that "the West" is a concept that has transformed over time - and that it's a construction that is increasingly losing its meaning.

When Germany didn't belong to 'the West'

Germany had its own opposing interpretation of "the West" in the late 19th century, an entity which comprised France, Great Britain and the US.

Those views were clearly expressed at the time: Even Thomas Mann, an author who would become a strong critic of the Nazis in the 1930s, initially believed that England's liberalism and France's Enlightenment were incompatible with Germany's unique values - controversial views he expressed in his 1918 essay "Reflections of an Unpolitical Man."

Buchcover Age of Anger: A History of the Present Pankaj Mishra
Revisiting history from a different angle: Pankaj Mishra's latest book, "Age of Anger"

Mishra reminded that compared to Great Britain, industrialization came later in Germany. The history of the modern world has generally been narrated by the "winners" of the industrialization process. Exploring it instead through the lens of modernity's latecomers - or the "losers" of history - can help explain current developments, argued Mishra, who recently published a book dealing with the hidden history behind the current international crisis, called "The Age of Anger."

A neoliberal fantasy

Reinforced by the fall of the Berlin Wall, a predominant a simplistic narrative imposed by Anglo-American liberalism has guided many economic and cultural policies to this day: Allow free markets to spread around the world, unleash entrepreneurial energies, and economic growth will automatically lead the population to demand democracy and rule of law, said Mishra.

The historian compared this view to the Marxist fantasy that the working classes will at some point feel so disaffected that they will inevitably end up overthrowing the bourgeoisie.

"We need to step away - if not completely abandon - those ideas and assumptions, which we impose on the rest of the world," he said. These views are however so firmly anchored, that they "will be difficult to give up - even if we have a madman ruling in the White House."

Leontine Meijer-van Mensch
Leontine Meijer van Mensch is program director of the Jewish Museum Berlin since February 2017Image: Yves Sucksdorff

Entangled histories

In reaction to Mishra's keynote, Leontine Meijer van Mensch, program director of the Jewish Museum Foundation in Berlin, said that establishing new dichotomies between the "winners" and "losers" of history is not the solution. Such categories are obviously not always clear-cut. With her Jewish and Dutch origins, she believes that "entangled histories" is a better approach.

For example, through her work at the Jewish Museum, she aims to overcome any unifying definition of Jews - often boxed into the "victims" category in Germany. She wants to reveal the plurality of the Jewish community, while demonstrating for example that an "Orthodox Rabbi and a lesbian Jewish activist can be talking about the same thing."

 Focus on 'shared experiences' instead of condescending 'dialogue'

 Along with Meijer van Mensch, Lavinia Frey, chief culture officer of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin,is also exploring new ways to open a museum's perspectives. All three panelists agreed that the overused term "dialogue" generally connotes a patronizing attitude, in which one party tries to impose its views on the other.

Frey explained that she rather works towards exploring cross-border "shared experiences" in the Humboldt Box's exhibitions, citing the upcoming "Watch Out, Children," which highlights how parents the world over have tried to protect their kids throughout history.

Similarly, the Jewish Museum's current exhibition, "Cherchez la femme," goes beyond specifically Jewish religious practices by exploring the traditions and current views surrounding head coverings - whether the wig, the burqa or the wimple.

Cultural institutions in the spotlight

"Dialogue" nevertheless remains a central approach of Germany's main cultural exchange institutions. The word was often repeated by Johannes Ebert, secretary general of the Goethe-Institut, during another panel bringing together different institutional actors.

Kulturpolitischer Bundeskongress in Berlin
"Between the Worlds. New Challenges for Cultural Mediators" brought together heads of Germany's top intercultural institutions and a notable activist, Nana Adusei-PokuImage: DW/E. Grenier

Along with Ebert, Ronald Grätz, secretary general of ifa, or the Institut for Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Relations); Susanne Spröer, managing editor of DW's Culture Online; and Nana Adusei-Poku, research professor for visual cultures at the Willem de Kooning Akademy in Rotterdam, were brought together to discuss "New Challenges for Cultural Mediators."

Grätz pointed out that Germany has undergone a recent paradigm by which the state no longer plays the main role in cultural initiatives, but rather civil society. That leads his institute to work "more strongly on co-operations and co-productions," he explained, even though this generally makes projects more complex and time-consuming.

Some work on the ground allows ifa and Goethe-Institut to predict where dissent is fomenting - with one current example being in Latin America, Grätz pointed out. However, most crisis situations are unexpected - the most obvious being Trump's election or Brexit. Cultural institutions are struggling to keep up with them, he added. 

Missing diversity

Professor Adusei-Poku said that even though Trump's election is a rude awakening, she believes the real problem is that institutional work hasn't been done properly for years.

She strongly criticized Germany's top cultural institutions for not properly representing gender identity and diversity: "Who is represented in these institutions? Germany's plurality is constantly marginalized," she said.

Spröer, Grätz and Ebert all agreed that such criticism is necessary, while naming some of their efforts to improve the situation. "Plurality will never be represented well enough, unfortunately," said ifa's Secretary General. But he admitted that they are guiding ships that are difficult to turn: "As an international institution, a total reinvention...well - we won't manage to get that done until the end of the year." 

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture