Culture as a first necessity investment

Territorial development
Culture as a first necessity investment

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”C. S. Lewis (In The Four Loves p.90).


The word “culture” has many usages, not much clarity. For some culture is a reference to institutions and activities which serve an elite looking to impose a set of preferences on the masses and whose subsidized nature demonstrates that they are of little value to the general population. For others culture describes an activity essential for citizens to develop their inner-self, to understand and interact with their community and territory as well as with other social groups.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this differing vision of culture found its expression on whether culture as a sector is worthy of priority support (economically) to the same extent as the aviation, tourism or the automotive industries. Many public authorities take the view that culture is secondary or even a luxury. They gravely misunderstand the true value of cultural investment and the consequences of neglecting culture as part of recovery policies. According to Eurostat, the official EU Statistical body, the CCS employed 8.7 million people in 2018, equivalent to 3.8 % of the total number of persons employed within the EU-28 .  Eurostat values the total value added of CCS  to Euro 290 billion in 2016 equivalent (4% of EU GDP). The sector is as large as the ICT sector in Europe.  The industry has been growing steadily after the 2008 economic crisis, witnessing an increased demand for entertainment and culture: in 2017, according to Eurostat, there were 1.1 million cultural enterprises in the EU-27.  The fastest growing sectors are audiovisual, video games and music driven by the demand of digital networks and change in consumption accelerated by the pandemic.

In this context it is appropriate to characterize “the cultural necessity” and the contribution of culture to individual and societal development. It is not an easy task considering the multiple meanings of the word.


What is “the cultural necessity”?

Foremost culture embodies human myths, stories (religion, ideologies, memories) and activities (art, design, architecture) which form a set of shared values, aesthetic and ideas facilitating social interactions and living together as a collective. Then, culture enriches humans as a form of knowledge, nourishing the mind, reinforcing the sense of belonging to specific roots and identity. Cultural activities mix reason, imagination and emotions, leading to creation encapsulating humans’ inner world and subjective realities. Culture finds its expression in poetry and beauty. It is an activity conducive to conviviality and well-being.

Culture is an essential element of civilization in several dimensions, acting both as an agent for change as well as the guardian of the status quo, as it enables:

  • social organization and cohesion (today challenged by excessive individualism, fake news, communitarianism, social injustice, migration and integration issues),
  • knowledge (enlightenment) and innovation. Culture embodies artistic and creative endeavours which nourish the arts, the culture and creative sectors but also a large number of industrial activities (manufacturing, tourism and the tech industries),
  • the expression of memories (heritage) and values (faith, ideals),
  • to question technology, scientific progress and political orders,
  • exchanges with other cultures as part of diplomacy and trade policy (through intercultural dialogue and cultural exchanges).


Culture a driver of political and technological transformation

Culture is a main actor of on-going political transformation. It is instrumental to policies whose goal is to promote intolerance and xenophobia, to nourish collective passions and ancestral conflicts. On the other hand culture can also be critical of ideologies and political orders (when basic human rights of freedom of expression and consciousness are denied). Cultural goods and services are also a key component of influence and domination when powerful economic players act as cultural gatekeepers, promoting only certain forms of cultural expressions to the detriment of others often for reasons that they have less market values or because they are detrimental to the established order.

As the history of nation States shows, political integration requires cultural consideration and narratives. This cultural differentiation poses a challenge for new political set ups aimed at confronting regional (economic and technological sovereignty) or global challenges (climate change, migration, pandemics). The European Union (EU) is the most advanced supranational organization attempting to coordinate the policy actions of 27 States. From a system to resolve conflicts between States, the EU is gradually transforming into an organization promoting solidarities and mutual understanding between different cultures. Without the development of cultural empathy and understanding, economic solidarities and political integration remain difficult to achieve.

Culture is of extraordinary importance today, and of necessity as it shapes values that determine our future, notably in relation to powerful disruptive technological and scientific development (linked to progress in biotechnology, genetic or data processing). A future without culture would be a cause of great concern as nothing would prevent humans from being shaped like machines (a neuronal being) devoid of autonomy, ethic, freedom, values, convictions and consciousness. In such a future, the human species would be denied any specificity, incapable of establishing a distance with “reality”. As put by Professor Yuval Noah Harari: “in the twenty first century, fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selections. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meanings to the world” (Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow,  Vintage Publishing, 2018).

In post-industrial societies culture is everywhere. As a territorial resource stemming from language, history, talent, industries and heritage producing singularities, it reaches out well beyond museums, heritage sites or traditional cultural institutions. Because it nourishes innovation, social and creative entrepreneurship as well as new working practices, it inspires and drives technology hubs, creative clusters, health provisions, popular festivals, digital networks, new manufacturing and services. Powerful social media channels use cultural goods as main resources to generate precious data exchanges (music, fashion, TV series , games, performing arts and sport). In addition to its economic significance, cultural activities support social interactions contributing to making places attractive, peaceful, and contributing to improve well-being (culture as the industry of happiness). The sanitary crisis serves to highlight the importance of culture in sustaining urban life (notably large urban centers). Any lack of cultural offering has a negative impact on attractiveness (thus affecting real estate, the hospitality sector and the overall organization of cities ranging from transport to policing).


Towards a Modern Cultural Policy

This capacity to shape our daily lives requires a reassessment of cultural policy goals originally set for a different world. A world that was less globalized, flat and connected, more hierarchical, less urban and focused on managing flagship institutions. Modern cultural policy should be designed to help culture work as a stimulant, an agent of change  steering a new enlightenment and collective will. This means essentially that culture should be considered as a resource requiring:

  • protection from standardization trends degrading cultural richness and diversity,
  • promotion to enrich, to innovate, to challenge, to connect with a view to empower communities as well as individuals,
  • elevation to nurture solidarities and empathies across cultures to develop a collective-will to confront global challenges.

On the basis of our unique international experience in advising public authorities in the field of cultural policy KEA proposes a Manifesto for a Modern Cultural Policy aimed at implementing the above principles.


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Philippe Kern

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