Cultural free trade

Teamwork | Photo: Goethe-Institut/Loredana La Rocca

In recent weeks and months, you often read and hear different versions of the phrase “Culture is not a commodity!” (“Kultur ist keine Ware!”) across Germany, France, Austria, and other parts of Europe – but not in the United States.

Politicians, union representatives as well as cultural institutions and functionaries (including the General Meeting of Members of the Goethe-Institut) are warning about the detrimental consequences that TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, could have on our culture. More specifically, they are warning that our cultural sector, which has generally been characterized by state subsidies, could fall victim to the laws of the market. If someone were to shove a petition into our hands and ask us to sign it, we would do so without hesitation. Of course we are in favor of such things as fixed book prices and copyright law. We are also against any sort of classification that lumps film, radio, music, and new media into the “telecommunications” category. Even before TTIP we had problems with Google’s digitization of library inventories around the world and Amazon’s extortion of booksellers and publishers. We don’t want large, usually American corporations to gain an even greater influence on production and distribution in the cultural sphere. But is this why think culture is not a commodity?

Culture is not a commodity, but rather – as formulated in the Goethe-Institut’s position statement – a “public good.” We feel better about the idea of culture being a good rather than a commodity – and a public one at that. But commodities and goods still have one thing in common: you have to pay for them. This is also generally true for public goods. Sometimes cultural goods have already been paid for, such as Gothic cathedrals, which are free to enter even though we the taxpayers are still responsible for their upkeep. Normally, cultural producers (architects, filmmakers, composers, authors, etc.) bring a product to market in hopes of making a financial profit or at least receiving some sort of compensation. When this return shrinks or there is no return at all, for example with Spotify, then artists rightly complain – not because culture is a commodity, but because they did not receive compensation for their pre-financed – and in some cases even subsidized – commodity. Regardless of whether culture is a commodity or a good, this has to do with business models. There is no doubt that TTIP and, more generally, the digital revolution pose a great risk to some cultural business models.

It is hard to answer questions about whether culture is a good or a commodity and the detrimental consequences of TTIP from a bird’s eye view. Instead, it is better to take a detailed look at the individual artistic sectors (film, music, books, theater, visual arts, etc.) and assess the respective opportunities and risks. At the same time, making a transatlantic comparison is also worthwhile. Why is no one in the United States getting upset over TTIP? Could it be that artists who are using a cultural market model are doing better? Which cultural biases on both sides of the Atlantic are being manifested in the various attitudes towards TTIP and, beyond that, towards the idea of culture as a commodity? Taking a closer look at the effects that TTIP will have on culture will likely put the positions of hardliners on both sides of the issue (subsidy hardliners on the one side, market hardliners on the other) into a bit better perspective.

Over the next few months, this portal will capture the voices of various cultural players from different fields. In the end, we hope to have a better understanding of what we should rightly fear in the context of TTIP and which fears are perhaps unjustified. “Culture is not a commodity (anymore)” can certainly be an unsettling message for artists who previously brought their books or CDs to market in order to make a living. Yet protests alone will not bring back yesterday’s business model. We are excited to see what the people we speak to in the months to come will have say about the business models of the future.