This article is part one of a two-part series. It was first published in the June 2021 edition of Critical Stages. Dr John Elsom has been a writer since leaving university. As a member of the British Liberal Party, he stood for parliament and chaired the party’s arts and broadcasting committee. He is a theatre historian and an authority on arts policy and cultural management.
The ministry of culture in the UK is known by its acronym, DCMS, which stands for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. In 2017, this replaced the department for Culture, Media and Sport (CMS), brought into being by Prime Minister Blair’s Labour government in 1997, which raised the money for the London Olympics in 2012.
The CMS took over from the Department of National Heritage, Britain’s first ministry of culture, which was formed in 1992, from various smaller offices, scattered around bigger ministries, such as Education, Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Home Offices.
What do we mean by ‘culture’?
These names, departments and different occupations illustrate the wider area of doubt as to what is meant by ‘culture’. In the UK, the word can be applied narrowly to ‘the arts’ or broadly in such phrases as ‘street’ or ‘Chinese’ culture.
These extremes have their political dimensions. Right-wingers usually apply the word ‘culture’ to the ‘high arts’, as opposed to ‘entertainment’. Opera is ‘culture’: rock ‘n’ roll is not. Left-wingers are inclined to embrace ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures, but can be pernickety when it comes to social content. Can ‘racist’ literature be considered ‘cultural’? Only, they might argue, in a historical sense…
In 1978, I wrote a consultation document for the Liberals, our third political party, which first proposed a British ministry of culture. I chaired the consultative committees to explore the potential range of the new ministry, and what should be included in its remit. Sometimes, I acted as the party’s spokesperson or drafted speeches for senior politicians.
In 1988, I resigned, when a key proposal to introduce broadband across the UK was rejected at a party conference. It was blamed for alienating the media. That, I argued, was the point.
Another political career ended in abject failure, but I do not regret the years of debate, writing minutes and reports, the hard work (unpaid) and the shame of making well-publicised mistakes, because it taught me that government is a messy business.
Perhaps it has to be.
A tidy government leaves too many harsh edges, where the duties of one department end and others begin, but offers no space for the deserving misfit. Governments are formed in the haze of good will after an election, when the victors heave a deep breath, look at their in-trays, piled high with problems, and hand the poisoned chocolates around.
The British Ministry of Culture
This helps to explain the chaotic title, DCMS, of the British ministry of culture. This verbal combination makes no logical sense. ‘Digital’ is an adjective, not a noun. Does it stand for the ‘digital industries’? Which are they?
So many areas of human activity have been digitalised over the past 50 years that it would be absurd to limit the title to the internet or big data, when it equally applies to the local betting shop. Might digitalisation itself be described as an expression of Western culture, whose history stretches back through Leibnitz to Pythagoras? Yes, it can, but few politicians would dare to be so retro.
‘Media’ is another problematic word. In the UK, it is used as shorthand for the press, broadcasting companies and some news websites, but, strictly, it is the plural for ‘medium’. It applies to the means through which a message is conveyed.
The wall upon which Banksy paints is also a medium; and in his case, the medium is certainly part of the message. Can we distinguish between the vision of the artist from the canvas on which it has been painted? This has its wider implications. Can a website like Facebook claim to be a ‘platform’, and not take responsibility for what is being said on that platform?
The jury is still out.
Such verbal muddles may seem pedantic, but when they are turned into policies and applied to many kinds of activities, they can generate an absurdity of their own. As a generic word, ‘sport’ is more coherent, but sits uneasily with the other items on the list, unless we assume that they are all ‘leisure’ activities. If we do, we clip the wings of what we mean both by sport and culture, which are surely more than things that we do in our spare time.
In 1978, the ‘high arts’ were tucked into the small Office of Arts and Libraries within the Department of Education. Its practical arm, the Arts Council of Great Britain, had its own headquarters at 105 Piccadilly.
‘Broadcasting’ was not ‘culture’. It belonged within the postmaster general’s patch, the communications department. The record industry was not ‘culture’: it belonged within the Board of Trade. Festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Festival, were not ‘culture’. They were supported by the city council, the British Council, tourism and even the Foreign Office. Military bands were financed through the Ministry of Defence, royal ceremonials through the Sovereign Grant.
The very phrase, ministry of culture, was pejorative. It was associated with brainwashing, propaganda and totalitarian foreign powers. It was un-British. In a ‘free’ society, the government has no right to dictate its ‘cultural policy’ to the people.
In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution transformed what was still Czechoslovakia, my friend, Milan Lukacs, a member of the AICT/IATC board, became the new Czechoslovak minister for culture. One of his first tasks was to appoint four bishops. I was rather shocked. Surely, the Church with its divine inspiration was above mere ‘culture’.
I lived in a country, where the head of the established Church was her Majesty the Queen. Was ‘culture’ above the monarchy as well?
Culture as an all-embracing concept
Nowadays, however, this all-embracing use of the word seems very hard to avoid. Is there any other way in which ‘culture’ can be defined? The internet has made us aware of how religion, politics, myths and national narratives are deeply entangled. They are expressed and explored through the arts.
Culture can be summarised as the way in which we have been taught to think. It is acquired, rather than innate, and applies to our habits of mind rather than the neurological functioning of the brain. It derives from many different sources. Some may be personal, but others come from the societies in which we live.
Are all national cultures good?
It would be a mistake to assume that national cultures, however different they may be, are equally ‘good’. Some are violent and terrible, others are weak and fanciful, which is why ministries of culture, if they are to live up to their titles, are not minor adjuncts of larger ministries, but are the key to the success (or failure) of them all.
In countries that have democratic structures, their cultures drive the national debates. To what extent is there or can there be ‘free speech’? Are dissidents tolerated? Are majority decisions respected?
If we accept these wide-ranging parameters, the remit of a ministry of culture becomes huge and unwieldy. Its task would no longer be just to sustain the institutions – museums, theatres, concert halls and libraries – but how to regulate (if regulation is needed) the processes of culture. It is not ‘the economy, stupid’ that wins or loses elections, but how we choose to define our economies, by the stock market or the homeless on the street.
Almost every facet of government would come under its aegis.
In the second part of this series tomorrow, John looks at the cultural divides currently seen in our society, and at the role the installation of the internet has had in perpetuating these divisions – and how in future, the new world of the internet may eliminate them.