Image: ©Stuart MacDonald

Can artistic freedom walk hand in hand with cultural diplomacy?

Svetlana Sequeira Costa
The much awaited European Cultural Forum took place in Brussels last week, on 19 and 20 April. Its aim was to bring European artists, cultural practitioners, academics and policy makers together to question whether culture has the power to promote change and bring about social cohesion at a time when Europe and its neighbouring countries are living through the most severe crises of fear, displacement and national identity in  recent history.
The Forum was therefore an appropriate platform for Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs to use as the launch pad for the first ever European Strategy on Cultural Diplomacy. The strategy which had been well trailed in the 2015 report on the Preparatory Action, nonetheless contained a few surprises – most notably an emphasis on inter-cultural dialogue and exchange as the key means to foster mutual understanding and strengthen diplomatic networks. In her keynote speech Ms Mogherini stressed that  “culture has to be at the core of our foreign policy. Culture can help us fight and prevent radicalisation. But it can also foster economic growth. It can strengthen diplomatic relations and mutual understanding. It can help us stand together to common threats”.
She went further, stressing the link between culture and economic development as tools to “strengthen the resilience of societies in our neighbourhood and in Africa”. She also spoke of the importance of protecting cultural heritage beyond Europe’s frontiers. “We should not be afraid to say we are a cultural super-power –  and it is our openness that made us great. Our culture inspired the world because it was itself inspired by the world.” Cultural diplomacy, she concluded, can help Europe “refuse any clash of civilisations, and work for an alliance of civilisations.”
The intent is certainly inspiring and will revive old notions of a lost European enlightened space, where culture had the power both to enlighten others and forge strong ties.  In today’s globalised world, however, power and influence are increasingly fragmented and values, including the universalist values of the European Enlightenment are highly contested. The other is more and more perceived as a threat, free circulation of people and goods – including cultural goods – are questioned, and countries are closing in on themselves.
In such a time it is right to call on culture to help bring people together within and beyond our borders. If we want culture to thrive as an engine to restore cohesion, then culture itself must be protected from the instrumental purposes of states, corporations and others who seek to use it to further their political, ideological or economic agendas. We must beware of the risk of using culture to serve our purposes, no matter how much we believe that what we do is for the good. Culture is all-pervasive but the freedom to create free cultural worlds is always at risk from the interference of legislators, zealots and bureaucrats. Yes to artists as leading inspiration for change but no, no, no to any instrumentalisation or appropriation of cultural knowledge production as a tool to fight a battle we have already lost.
To end on a note of hope, I was able to ask Walter Zampieri, Head of Cultural Policy and Intercultural Dialogue in the Commission how the new cultural diplomacy strategy would preserve the artistic freedom we say is one of our core values. His answer gives grounds for cautious optimism. He was clear. The new EU strategy would support the creation of a framework within which cultural exchange, collaboration and dialogue would take place. The creation of this framework itself would embody Europe’s values of free expression and the Commission would not interfere in artistic or cultural content. The strategy has the basic structure of the Creative Europe programme. It remains to be seen whether it will also have Creative Europe’s Byzantine bureaucracy.

Svetlana Sequeira Costa
Artistic Director, Arts Cabinet