How to impose austerity and destroy culture: the example of the Mediterranean

As the European crisis intensifies, the Mediterranean’s cultural funding is increasingly landing on the chopping block. But can a cultural policy presided over by a bipolar Union ever hope avoid becoming a victim of the continent’s single-minded drive for austerity?

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Christos Papanikolaou
19 June 2012

Greece, Italy and Spain are struggling with economic depression, financial degradation and dramatic increases in unemployment. The situation is becoming increasingly critical, a consequence of their plight being understood first and foremost as an economic challenge instead of as a contemporary socio-cultural issue which underlines the need for education and the commitment of governments to social inclusion.

As a sociopolitical and financial body that promotes intercultural dialogue and multinational cohesion, the European Union services its diverse and multicultural demands by providing funds and subsidies. In fact. the culture industry is increasingly oriented towards a public paymaster. However, in these austere times, European policymakers have radically redefined the character, structure and direction of Europe’s cultural policy while offering as a justification – or a fig-leaf – the demands of fiscal reform.

Situated at the epicenter of austerity politics, many of Greece’s cultural organizations are closing or merging, leaving much of its cultural heritage inaccessible to the public and unable to function properly. Additionally, professionals working in the field are significantly underpaid, which hamstrings the management of its cultural institutions. Most dramatically, many Greek monuments are disintegrating due to inappropriate conservation, inefficient administration and the lack of personnel.

In neighbouring Italy the situation is more or less identical. Financial legislation implemented in 2011 left cultural institutions similarly vulnerable: the establishment of public exhibition spending ceilings has led to a tremendous cut of 80% in overall resources, an issue that generated considerable anxiety for Italy’s community of cultural professionals. These limitations on exhibitions were expanded to include even the private sector, creating an exceedingly restrictive framework for a country of more than 4,500 museums.

Spain is going down the same path as Greece and Italy. The country of Picasso has instituted significant budget cuts – in some cases cutting over 25% of funding - presiding over downsized staff, reduced working hours and a degradation of the quality of restoration and conservation of its monuments. Additionally, in many of its regional budgets, funding for culture has been cut by up to a third, an outcome which has reduced the number of exhibitions and social inclusion programmes to historically low levels.

The issue is rather simple: how can a bipolar Union in terms of cultural policy hope to consider itself socially integrated? If the countries ringing the Mediterranean Sea are to be guided by an obstinate attitude of strict austerity, then how can Europe meaningfully converse about intercultural dialogue and social cohesion?

The recent fiscal crisis has exposed many lapses in the management of economies in the Union, but still, culture should stand removed from the politics of Eurocrisis. Strict austerity squeezes cultural institutions to the point of closing down and only exacerbates crippling unemployment, disoriented societies and unstable economies. Of course, it is undeniable that a crisis has the potential to stimulate the development of more efficient models of cultural management as well as better systems of cooperation and communication. However, as the experience of the Mediterranean has shown, this is not necessarily the only outcome.

If the Euro crisis is to wield such considerable influence over the implementation of cultural policy, then it is time to cease understanding cultural policy as the cornerstone of our European existence and to reduce it to a means for economic development. However, if we do respect a visitor to a site of our common heritage as a consumer of European culture, then we should also respect, especially in such divisive times, the reason why the culture industry exists: to promote our common heritage, educate the public, and sustain intercultural dialogue.

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