Creating culture in Poland resembles a survival school. It is a race for grants against deadlines in which exhausted contestants soon lose sight of the finish line. They focus on circumventing bureaucratic obstacles, or simply – on survival.
The moment the so called ‘taxpayer’s money’ is to be spent on the so called ‘independent culture’ (non-institutional, based on enthusiasm etc.), it goes through a grant-grinding machine, that is a system of awarding, spending and accounting for. The problem has been diagnosed several times; in fact, it has been termed ‘grant-art’ (the phrase popularised by Janek Sowa). The term hides a malady that is eating away out cultural life. Applications and red tape harness culture, muzzle it with forms and regulations. In the long run, they put independent culture in a comfortable drawer ‘non-governmental sector’. Simultaneously, a kind of pseudo-professionalism is being promoted, which actually means an addiction to various forms of grants and sponsorship through the development of an ability to win and account for them.
We usually perceive the third sector as a sphere of independent culture which is based on enthusiasm, a willingness to act and free will, where thoughts and critical ideas abound. In a country like Poland it is unfortunately rare. For what does creating independent culture in our daily practice mean? It is rather a repetitive, clockwork creating of grant art, within which the main unit of organising artistic productions is a ‘project’.
The day-to-day practice of producers of culture Anno Domini 2010 is a gloomy picture. Each of us knows that even the best conception stands no chance when facing the system of financing culture. Third-sector organisations, instead of being a bastion of enthusiasm and civil self-organising, are rather a way to make a living, a normal job, as a matter of fact usually badly paid. Many people from this sector are simply addicted to appealing for funds and carrying out projects. So instead of examining and changing the reality, these professional fund-raisers find various ways of obtaining money which determine the modelling of identical, boring and meaningless projects. In this way, a factor-driven policy formulated in cosy offices or international institutes of culture is being involuntarily implemented. Its utility to our social life is doubtful at best.
Short-sightedness, cynicism and an overproduction of trash projects are deeply rooted in this system. Competitions for grants are called too late and accounted for too soon, on a yearly basis. Therefore, creators of culture usually find out whether a project is to be carried out a month before it gets off the ground, and then immerse in nightmarish paperwork while it is in progress.
Thus, instead of coming up with ideas, we come up with projects; instead of writing poetry or manifestoes, we write applications. Step by step we are becoming officials of grant art, grass-roots and self-organised clerks of culture and art which carry the burden of idiotic regulations.
However, the main duty which follows is that only by adopting a given organisational form, abiding by grant-art rules of creating art, are we able to participate in creating culture for public money. Money from taxes, a form of de facto redistributing income earned within a capitalist economy, is spent either through a system of state institutions, or via grants available for societies and foundations. But we must think about the hidden assumptions and implications of this cultural policy.
First of all, it is connected with eliminating the sphere of informal enthusiasm, free thought, unrestricted conversation, critical discussion and experiment from the scope of public financing, and consequently from public life.
Sometimes we have to do with truly independent cultural centres and cooperatives, of left-wing, radical, avant-garde or anarchistic origins, whose aim is to create an autonomous zone of thinking and acting. They are like exercises in direct democracy, based on collective self-governing. But the main problem of this Pi Sector (as it is described by Janek Sowa in his texts) is that its functioning is still based on distributing the means earned in other spheres of life or professional work. The difference is that in this case the transfer is shifted to the level of individual decisions, without changing the rules concerning the functioning of the system as a whole. It usually results in the fact that people who are active on the scene of independent culture are simultaneously forced to work outside the Pi Sector, buckling under the yoke of work and trying to break up with the slavery of consumerism. More often than not such struggles for people’s hearts and mind are lost to other forms that organise social life and shape the public sphere – be it traditional communities, such as the family, the Church and the nation, or new ones, happy and temporary communities of consumers – which become reefs that wreck the life rafts of independent initiatives.
What is equally important for our public life is the fact that more and more often private initiative in the world of culture does not take on the form of grass-roots cooperatives, but rather a not-too-pleasant face of sponsorship, patronage or collecting. It de facto means addicting culture to good will, whims and caprices of rich people, be it oligarchs’ wives, bankers or CEOs. In this way, an exchange of means between the privileged and the creators of culture takes place, or, as Pierre Bourdieu put it, an exchange of economic capital into symbolic capital. The elites shape their sophisticated taste by surrounding themselves with beautiful things or contemplating conceptual jokes, whereas the thickheads plunge into ignorance, with its entire sphere of images, desires and aspirations shaped by the myths of nationalism, religion or commercial popular culture.
Yet another form of organising cultural life, which derives from private initiative and is profit-oriented, is the creative industries. They are often quoted as the optimal organisational formula of the entire system of culture. They are undertakings aimed at generating profit, organised according to the structures of a capitalist enterprise. Unfortunately, the paeans to their effectiveness usually fail to mention several details which make this model impossible to adapt in all situations and cause the social benefits from their adopting doubtful at best. Let’s take as an example the long-term time perspective necessary to work out meanings and values which would be important from the point of view of art or society. None of their apologists explains how to combine it with the typical for capitalist enterprises orientation at short-term profit. The question of intellectual property is much more serious. Creative industries are based on a simple idea: culture is turned into a commodity, which can be made, owned and resold at a profit. Unfortunately, the bulk of works of culture is created in a different way, generated in networks of enthusiasts, produced in various underground niches of the Pi Sector, only to be shamelessly appropriated by the creative industries.
It is impossible to point out all the weaknesses of this project here, and they are many. Even a brief inspection of the situation makes us look for different models of life and involvement in culture, which would not be bound by neither the bureaucratic paranoia of official cultural policies nor the caviar schizophrenia of oligarchic patronage nor the capitalist neurosis of constant profit orientation. The Pi Sector, which has been forced onto the defence so far, is still waiting for its silent revolution, for overcoming structural restraints which limit its development.
Let us remember: in the cultural survival school, only collective action can bring about real effects!
Independent curator, art theoretician
Fundation ‘Bęc Zmiana’