Kultur neu denken Arts, Markets and Development in Our Times

695x300_Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe ©Goethe-Institut/Lerato Maduna & Bhekikhaya Mabaso

Over the past few years, the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg has firmly established itself as a major partner in the landscape of cultural institutions in our City and in the Continent. It now aspires to become a mobilizing network, a creative mediator and facilitator for intra-African and Germano-African cultural, intellectual and artistic dialogue. At a time when globalization seems to go hand and in hand with the reinvention of difference and the closing of borders, this is precisely the kind of project many of us, intellectuals and scholars from this Continent, are willing to support as long as it does not favor the uncritical transmission of standardized models and meanings, but a genuine circulation of cultural forms.

Multiple ways of inhabiting the world

The time when Africans used to romanticize difference and local particularities is over. So is the time when we believed that as far as cultural expression was concerned, all that mattered was “authenticity” - the strong imprint of “sources of origin”. The anxious search for something essentially ours, and ours alone, of our own essence – that search has, in most instances, led us into a cul-de-sac. It is true that cultural power still mediates economic and geo-political relations. Cultural power still trades on difference and exclusion. It still engenders or sustains deep inequalities. These are realities we still need to reckon with. But, in various parts of the world – Africa included - arts and culture in our age are more and more powered by transnational flows. Indeed, from the strict point of view of cultural history, this has always been the case in our own Continent.

African forms of creativity and innovation have always been the result of migration, displacement and the crossing of forms and boundaries. We have always been capable of creating original, genuine and radically new things when we made our own forms speak in and across multiple cultural languages; when we were able to put to local uses that which we had borrowed from our neighbors or from long-distance relations; when we were able to make things ubiquitous, that is, translate them, and in so doing empty them out of their absolute authority and certainties and invest them with meanings of our own making. As Frantz Fanon argued not so long ago, nothing in the world we live in can any longer be said to be exclusively European, American, Chinese, Indian or African. What we inherit is the world at large. Cultural expression, creativity and innovation today is less about clinging on dead customs than about negotiating multiple ways of inhabiting the world.

Our age is also one in which some of the most original and the most compelling forms of cultural and artistic creation are happening in conditions of movement or mobility – and, for those of us who live in Africa - of, at times, extreme fragility, of uncertainty, and even of emergency. Under such extreme and volatile conditions, creativity often manifests itself in the most empirical way as a capacity to manage provisionality, to improvise and to constantly readjust in a world of motion and, more often than not, of turbulence. Creativity emerges as a result of a constant engagement with temporariness. Practically, this means creating art while, at the same time, trying to build cultural institutions almost from scratch, to animate them, to raise funding in a very harsh environment - in short, making it from today to tomorrow.

Overall, these are, if not for south Africa at least for most of the Continent, some of the conditions under which the struggle to express, to voice, to create and represent - which I understand to be the work of culture - is taking place.

Five global trends

These conditions should be read against five powerful undercurrents or major trends that are affecting cultural expression, artistic innovation and social authorship in our world today.

The first is the neo-liberal drive to further marketize and privatize all forms of art and life. This has resulted in the endless commodification of culture and its permanent translation into spectacle, leisure and entertainment. This is a very significant development. It comes at a time when global capitalism itself is moving into a phase in which the cultural forms of its outputs are critical elements of productive strategies. Because arts and culture have become an integral part of the economic, their capacity to engage critically with the velocities of capital can no longer be taken for granted. Spaces of culture are no longer just aesthetic spaces. They are also commercial spaces.

The second is the collision of culture, market and identity. It is an irony of our age that culture is more and more understood as “heritage”, “custom”, “the ancestral” and it is in this sense that many would like to view it as a creative source of innovation – and more and more, a set of practices reducible to cash. Identity on the other hand is understood as “difference” – religious, ethnic, racial, gender, national. What we are witnessing is the transformation of both “culture” and “identity” (as described above) into commodities that can be transacted, bought and sold in various markets.

Evidently, I am not suggesting that whatever we mean by “culture” and “identity” has lost its affective, auratic and expressive potential. Nor am I suggesting that the objectification of identity and the commodification of difference are peculiarly African phenomena. I am simply drawing our attention to the ongoing negotiations, worldwide, of what is “culture”, “identity”, “authenticity”. I am suggesting that maybe more than ever before, these negotiations and transactions are happening within something we could call the cultures of the market. Marks of otherness (now called culture, identity, authenticity), even meaning itself, are more and more exchanged, valued and allocated as a function of the market. And as Jean and John Comaroff have shown, “just as culture is being commodified, so the commodity is being rendered explicitly cultural”.

Third is the hyper-technological enframing of the life-world and the growing implication of art and culture in global systems of militarization of consciousness. In the militarized landscape of our times (with its obsession of surveillance and security), this points to the challenge to “de-militarize” culture itself.

Fourth is the relentless pressure from African governments to consider art and culture as a kind of “social service” whose function is to cure the ailments of poverty and underdevelopment. Not many African governments believe that arts and culture bring any special worth and meaning to life. They do not believe that all artistic endeavors, especially those that do not make it in the marketplace, are worthy of public support.

Finally there is a tendency to conflate African art, culture and aesthetics with ethnicity or community or communalism; to deny the power of individuality in the work of art creation. The dominant but false idea – shared by many Africans and many donors – is that the act of creativity is necessarily a communal act; that African artistic forms are not aesthetic objects per se but ethnographic objects that are expressive of Africa’s ontological cultural difference or “authenticity”. It is this African “difference”, these marks of otherness most donors are searching for. This is what they want to support and, if necessary, they will manufacture it.

Taken altogether, the combined effects of these processes on the relations between “donors” and “recipients” and on African cultural creativity and autonomy have been devastating. Without a new ethics of recognition, solidarity and mutuality, the way most Western cultural funding (or for that matter development funding) agencies operate will become ever more destructive of the Continent’s capacity to culturally and artistically account for itself in the world.

Culture and Development

I would now like to turn specifically to the relations between culture and development since the role of culture in economic development is once again on the agenda and “culture and development talk” has now largely become global. Since the 1960s, development as an ideology (and eventually as a practice) has been a cornerstone of strategies of State legitimation in most of the formerly colonized world. Development has generally been understood to have two components.

The first has been “economic” (the logic of the market) and the second has been political (“nation-building” and the logic of nationalism). In the vocabulary of African postcolonial States in particular, “culture and development talk” was always a vernacular language of discipline and control. If it translated at all into policy, most of the times it was the policy of policing.

When African postcolonial States refer to “culture and development”, they seldom have in mind the enhancement of the creative and expressive possibilities of their people. What they generally have in mind is a technology of compliance with the official rules of the new ruling élite. In the name of “culture and development”, authorities can for instance increase scrutiny of artistic expression, curtail various freedoms, attempt to impose ways of thinking and behaving on behalf of official value systems or official ideologies.

Today, “culture and development” is a popularized buzzword within international development agencies. Some Western governments have adopted this slogan to justify their own interventions in the Third World. Even the World Bank has joined the chorus. Despite the evident lack of clarity of the terms being used, “culture and development talk” has seized the attention of policy makers and has now colonized the normative field. Meanwhile, it has escaped serious critical scrutiny.

In its most simplistic form, “culture and development talk” assumes that: [1] the logic of the market is all that it takes for arts and culture to function; [2] arts and culture should play a key role in the alleviation of poverty and the curing of social ills. Somehow, arts and culture must supplement the inherent limitations and failures of market mechanisms in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and equity. In both instances, the assumption is that: [1] market forces are able to deliver the right and the good; [2] culture is not in and of itself a form of value creation with intrinsic social worth; it only acquires value through the mediation of the market; [3] investment in cultural projects and programs should only be justified on economic criteria alone.

In fact, there is more to the relationship between culture and the economy/market/development than such simplistic semantics suggest. In a democratic society, culture cannot be measured along an economic calculus alone. Not every single cultural activity or practice can deliver economic returns. If there is any role for the arts and culture in a free society, it has to do with the enhancement of human capabilities, starting with the capacity of self-representation, the capacity to voice, to aspire and to imagine alternative futures. This having been said, we have to reckon with the fact that culture has become a commodity that can be shaped by the media and bought and sold like any other in the market - a form of property over which it is possible to exercise monopoly rights.

This is why we need to develop a continental art market that is properly connected to the international network of cultural industries. Artists, writers, designers, musicians and composers, photographers and stylists should be able to make a decent living out of their work. Professional galleries should be encouraged and private banks should devise innovative mechanisms to extend credit and financial support to cultural consortia. In order to promote creative expression and artistic careers, we need to be able to provide direct funding to artists. Our major cities must set up metropolitan cultural districts with tax benefits for artists and purchasers.

We have to tap into the growth of African diasporas and the way in which this diaspora has historically contributed to the expansion and export of African-hybrid forms of popular culture. We need to encourage local arts fairs and we need to support a few major Biennales and at least one major Afro-diasporic Carnival in the Continent itself. That is partly how we will develop a credible cultural economy in the Continent. In order for this to happen, we cannot entirely rely on corporate willingness to provide sponsorship. Other powerful actors have to intervene as long as the end result is not the creation of new markets of dispossession for artists.

But art cannot flourish in isolation. Creative synergies should be established with other disciplines – especially critical theory. Without a cultural infrastructure made up of cultural media, journals, magazines and a tradition of serious reviews and without a major investment in critical theory, our artistic production will remain in the domain of artisanship, and it will always be left to others to dictate the intellectual, theoretical and political terms of its recognition in the international arena.

At the same time we cannot leave everything to the market. There are various rational and equitable ways in which art and culture as public goods can be supported. We have to design a matrix that can attend to a plurality of needs and not only those of states, banks, private dealers and the market. We need, for instance, to keep reinventing the relationship between community and culture. Public art still holds the possibility of providing the necessary imaginary resources our cities need as they try to foster between citizens the sort of convivial and reciprocal relations without which there is neither a vibrant public sphere nor civic life as such.

It might be possible to deepen our understanding and conceptualization of the complexities involved in the relationship between arts and culture on the one hand and development or human emancipation on the other. What brings arts, culture and ‘development’ together is, ideally, the fact that each of these terms refers to the capacity, through imagination and invention, to produce something radically new and original. Without novelty and originality, culture and development mean nothing.

Ethics of Funding

I will end with a few words on the ethics of funding and questions of connectivity. The truth of the matter is that in the current context and in order to secure funding, cultural institutions have to constantly learn how to use the language of business. They have to devote unreasonable amounts of energy trying to present themselves or package themselves as vehicles to solve intractable social and economic problems. This is a very unfortunate development.

I dream of a time when funding agencies will see it as one of their fundamental tasks to change the ways of measuring the value and quality of art and of artwork itself. Such funding agencies would help us to distance ourselves from an understanding of culture as “pastness”, a matter of customs and traditions, heritage, monuments and museums. They would help us to realize that culture is not yet another form of “service delivery”, but the way human beings imagine and engage their own futures. Without this dimension of futurity and imagination, we will hardly be able to write a name we can call ours or articulate a voice we can recognize as our own.

Such funding agencies would help us to move beyond thin and functionalist definitions of “relevance”, concepts of “development” conceived in the narrowest of terms, in purely materialistic terms in which “to develop art and culture” (sic) is exactly the same as “to develop sustainable agriculture”.

We need to move away from this form of crass materialism and this empiricism of wants and needs in order to rehabilitate cultural and artistic critique as a public good in and of itself. The value of art cannot solely be measured on the basis of its contribution to material well-being. Nor is artistic creativity a luxury or an immoral pursuit that should be redeemed by its inscription in the official, state-sanctioned discourse of development and poverty reduction.

Artistic creativity and critical theory go hand in hand. They are an integral part of the immaterial and unquantifiable assets produced by a society. They are constitutive components of our communities and nations wealth in the same way as our physical and material infrastructures. Their value by far exceeds the means by which this value is counted. The management of cultural institutions should therefore pertain to a different order, one that takes seriously the “intangible” and “inalienable” qualities of culture and one that, as a result, is not dependent on purely quantitative measurements and indexes.


Arts and culture here and in these times should herald the new and open up a space in the imagination for alternative visions. The artwork should itself be an opening in both a temporal and a political sense. The time of the arts cannot be the same as the time of governments. Art’s function is to interrupt the continuity of perceptions and to estrange the familiar. This implies stepping out of the frame of existing order, rupturing the continuity of time, opening it up to new cognitive and sensory experiences.

Strategies to achieve this will vary - from critical negativity to utopian criticism and representation. What counts is that the aesthetic experience should teach us something new about our world. It should shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation. It should take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social imagination that characterizes so much of our lives here and now.