Where is culture born?

Interview with Owe Ronström
»Politics strives to divide the world into pieces, so-called policy areas. The piece “cultural policy” does not fit well with the fields where culture is actually created«, states Owe Ronström, professor of ethnology at Uppsala University, Campus Gotland.

Owe Ronström’s (1953) ethnological writings
explore music, dance, ethnicity, multiculturalism, age, cultural heritage, islands, the folk music revival, festivals and other subjects. Since 2009, Owe Ronström is a member of the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for Swedish Folk Culture. In the context of cultural policy, he has discussed the relationship between centre and periphery and the use of the term diversity.

Cultural policy

When you look at cultural policy with your ethnologist hat on – what do you see?

That there are a number of discrepancies between what we call “culture” and the part of society that cultural policy targets. Policies tend to divide the world into pie slices, “policy fields”. The cultural policy slice has never coincided with the field where culture is actually created. That leads to constant tension between cultural policy and an infinitely more multifaceted

Cultural policy has long focused on gathering resources and then distributing them according to certain principles. The selection
process is crucial, the selector has the power. A cultural policy is legitimate only as long as a sufficient number of people accept
the selection, and the selectors. Politicians say that culture “empowers people” and “enhances democracy”, but if they really
meant it, they would refrain from centralising resources in the way they do today and instead distribute funding more locally. That would also reduce the influence of the selectors.

What do you mean by “culture”? Is it the arts, or an anthropological, extended term that also includes ways of life, values, and so on?

I prefer to look at it from different angles when we’re discussing cultural policy. Instead of trying to define what culture is, it’s more interesting to ask when and where culture is created. Society is usually divided into public and private zones.

But in between, we have what is called the “third place” or sector, where local organisations operate. I usually interpret it as different kinds of spaces: nearest to us we have a private zone that I call the “bedroom zone”. Then we have the “living room zone”, a slightly more open environment where a lot of our socialising takes place. Beyond that is the “immediate outside world”, where organisations and other local bodies are active. Furthest from our private space is the “citizen zone”, where we claim our rights, vote, etc. There, in the citizen zone, we also find the major public arts institutions, that we visit as anonymous audience
members. But most of our cultural life is created in the “immediate outside world” by people who want to do things together. Here, more or less transient groups arise, creating large and small things.

I carried out a study of how immigrants behaved after settling in Sweden in the 1980s and 1990s. What most groups tried to do was establish their own “immediate outside world” where they could feel at home. The bedroom zone and living room zone couldn’t fulfil all their needs. So, they started their own arenas, restaurants, clubs and associations that could provide meeting places. And why associations? Well, because that’s what we do in Sweden. The association concept is deeply rooted in the entire Nordic region, and especially in Sweden, where it has become the base of public life in the immediate outside world. This is where we step out of the family living room, where we create things together, and where we decide things ourselves. Associations exist in their own right and aren’t that easy to control from outside. When cultural policy is to be manifested locally or regionally, the associations are the fundament. This is partly because such associations are where culture is created, but also because that is where a functional contract between politics and citizens can be established. Associations of various kinds are therefore essential to achieving the necessary symmetry between cultural policy and citizens.

What is the main cultural policy issue today?

My hobbyhorse: to stop the New Public Management (NPM) approach that has radically altered the terms for cultural life on every level. This is a far more serious problem than most people realise. Cultural policy is said to rely on the citizens’ own initiatives and creativity. There used to be a basic trust in these initiatives: local/ regional organisations would announce what they wanted to do, apply for funding and then report back on what happened and how it all turned out.

But NPM has turned that on its head. Now, the initiatives have to be checked beforehand. To get funding today, you need to present detailed documentation of what will take place, when it will take place, what audiences will turn up, their age, gender, ethnicity, and so on. This control-mania has grown gigantic and demands ever-increasing efforts. Consequently, there is a greater reluctance to apply for and receive public funding, since it requires so much work afterwards. The same tendency can be seen in the academic world, where we more and more often have to decline external funding because we don’t have the time and means for reporting back. Cultural policy claims to want to support the citizens’ own creativity, but this ambition is counteracted by the practice engendered by NMP.

Does this affect the arts institutions too?

Yes, they are victims of the same demand for reports and evaluations. Also, the road to the established arts institutions is often through voluntary work in the arts. The non-profit organisations latch on and help build roads for the audience to the arts institutions. When local activities dwindle, this impacts on the professional arts sector, and on the arts institutions’ audiences and conditions. We ought to be giving much more attention to the massive change that NPM entails, and which is happening right now.

But people don’t stop doing things just because the organisations become cumbersome and unattractive. Where do the initiatives go, if they disappear from what you call the “immediate outer world”?

The trend is that they retreat to the living room zone, away from the public sphere. Lots of people read and discuss books with each other. That creates roads that lead them to the libraries. But if it gets too difficult to borrow books, people borrow from each other instead. I’ve been involved in the folk music movement for years. Gotlands spelmansförbund [the Gotland federation for folk musicians] was founded in 1933 and has been very active. But it recently folded because nobody wanted to be on the board. And yet, the folk music movement lives on, but not in public. Musicians meet at home to play, instead of in public premises. The new thing is that no one has the energy to work for the organisation when the structure feels more like a chore than a possibility. This development means that the public spaces in the immediate outer world are left empty more and more of the time. Thus, we are heading towards a system similar to pre-modern times, when a large portion of cultural life took place in rooms that were only open to a private circle of friends, to individuals with a thick wallet, family connections, the right ethnic background or special interests. “Ordinary citizens” don’t necessarily have access, or may not even know what’s actually going on around them.

What is created in the living room zone has very small chances of getting funded through cultural policy initiatives, simply
because there is no one there to talk to, no established organisation, no obvious place where agreements can be made between cultural policy representatives and citizens.

Cultural policy builds on a fundamentally revolutionary – in the sense of “transforming” – idea, and it was introduced
to encourage people to be creative and develop their lives together. NPM demolishes the base for this liberating power, and thus also damages the public’s trust in the mission of politics.

The requirement to report back often springs from a political ambition to create broader representation: diversity in gender, abilities, and so on. Isn’t that a good thing?

When the idea of representation comes from the grassroots, it can be radical, inclusive and transformative. But now it’s increasingly coming from above, and in a preposterous form that causes unease and aversion. We should, on the whole, be more sceptical of terms such as “representation” and “diversity”. To think “diversity”, we first of all need to assume that the world is separated into different parts and that each part has its own origin. Diversity also has to take place in contrast to some kind of homogeneity, or else it would be indistinguishable. So, in order to celebrate diversity, we have to first claim the existence of genuine origins, essences, in the form of, say, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and then claim that they comprise the homogeneous
group in contrast to which the concept of diversity can take place. But there is nothing that can be called “genuine origins” or “homogeneous cultures”. All cultures are transient, and diversity consists of a multitude of expressions and forms. Thus, diversity does not have to be achieved with special policies, because it’s there all the time, diversity is the original and natural form for all life. But the idea of homogeneity, on the other hand, has to be invented and spread, in order for diversity policies to be enacted. Homogeneity is what would require policies, ambitions, ideology production. Paradoxically, you need to first assume that the world is fragmented, before you can celebrate the blend.

The requirement on diversity and representation gets even more intricate when you compare the situation in urban and rural areas. In cities, you can create special cultural formats and scenes for specific ethnicities, genders, age groups, and so on. But small, rural communities are different. They might only have a handful of venues where most things happen. Cultural policy in the form of identity politics is a truly urban project that might work in major cities but tends to be counterproductive in smaller communities.

The urban-rural differences have come to be a contentious issue in the Nordic countries. How will this conflict affect the cultural sector, do you think?

I see it more in terms of tension between centre and periphery. That conflict cuts through the entire north-west of Europe today. It is perhaps most pronounced in Sweden, since Sweden is one of Europe’s most centralised countries, along with France and Hungary. The centre-periphery issue has partly been aggravated by the disintegration of old power structures. For many years, modernity was associated with the national centres. If you wanted to be modern, you either moved to the centre or applied the centre’s values on the periphery. But it’s not like that any more. Even if they are still growing, national capitals are no longer the obvious focus. Digitalisation and migration have led to new ways of interacting. There are now millions of people in the Nordic countries whose first reference isn’t Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki or Copenhagen, but who consider Somalia, Uganda or Syria to be their “catchment area”. They relate not only to the surrounding geography where they live, but also to totally different communities all over the world that link them to distant places.

How should a functional cultural policy be built for the future you foresee – without a given centre and with an unfathomable, vibrant diversity?

We need to dare think of cultural policy in the plural, as in “cultural policies”, and we will need to alternate between different political structures for different sectors of society. The cultural sector is a highly complicated field, in fact consisting of many different sectors. To think that one uniform cultural policy can deal with that complexity is a mistake. Therefore, we have to allow more diversity also in the societal sense. We can’t have a municipal system that is the same for all, when the basic prerequisites
for sameness are missing. The political method for solving this is compensatory measures in the form of subsidies, special support and tax equalisation. But these compensatory measures are ultimately used to make people comply with this single, uniform system. That old mindset probably won’t work much longer. Society doesn’t have the same old boundaries, we have moved on to new horizons. People’s worlds have expanded in so many directions, both on the individual and group levels. We need to embrace the idea that society can stick together and still become even more diversified. That’s going to be very hard, especially in Sweden, where citizens are treated as individuals who should preferably be all the same and have equal access to everything. But citizens aren’t all the same, we think differently and we need different things. We are different in so many ways and on so many levels. One single cultural policy will never work for the society we are living in today.

Are there any examples of a functional, diverse social order?

No, not that I know of. But one inspiring example is Åland, where they have tried to form various political catchment areas for specific issues. Education can have its own context and catchment area, healthcare another. As for languages and culture, they tend to turn to Sweden, but when it comes to, say, management and business, they relate to Helsinki and Finnish society. They need to navigate several differentsized groups. This means that Åland gets more politicians per capita, that many citizens participate in the democratic system and do some kind of political national service. It may be hard to get an overview, but social stability will grow very strong. Power is distributed for real. The example of Åland could help us see that there are many ways of distributing power to culture, for instance. So far in Sweden, we haven’t looked for alternatives, since centralism has been so extremely hegemonic. Now that this is changing, people will need to start finding other ways of relating to power and resources.

What, then, will unite people in a more overarching way?

There is one issue that unites us all, the character of which is as fundamentally universal and all-encompassing as the mediaeval Catholic church or today’s Islamic fundamentalism: sustainability. For the first time in modern, relativist history, we have to consider something that we can’t relativise, something that is imperative, collective and global, and thus forms a new basis to stand on and work from – our survival on the only planet we have. We are living in very dramatic times. Against this background, it is fairly clear that cultural policy in its current form will be entirely obsolete in the near future.

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