What good is culture?

What Good Is Culture, Anyway?

Spanish: “¿Para qué sirve la cultura?”

It is understandable that in times of crisis, all sectors of a society suffer budget cuts and reduced profits. It is not totally comprehensible, but it is easy to understand that the first casualty of these cuts is culture. We accept that if we do not read a book, or if we deprive ourselves of a classic film, we will not be as bad off as if we stopped eating or dressing. While in the short term this is true, in the long term it is a very dangerous trap. 
In what sense? Take for example the practice of “sunset” rules.  These were known to the legislators of ancient Rome and preferred by the great political strategists, the parasites of democratic systems: establish a law or a rule, such as tax cuts for investors with specific expiration date, which makes it appear temporary. Usually that date falls in an election year, which means that no one will propose a tax increase and the law will likely be extended again. However now it has the advantage of being consolidated within the political discourse and the social narrative.

The problem of what is superfluous and what is not becomes multiplied when we pass from individual to public life; from a time measured in days or weeks to a social time measured in years; or to an historical time measured in decades. 
The men and women who access governments all around the world always use the dreams and hopes of their voters, then justify their unpopular government decisions not as dreamers but indeed the opposite: they repeat, they have real responsibilities (but with whom?); they are pragmatic people and those who disagree are dreamers; delusional, irresponsible street protesters that have nothing productive to do.

Therefore, the weapons of these pragmatic people is to point at the weakest flank of any government: first culture, then education. Actually, there are countless more useless items than culture and education, such as large sections of the administration itself. Nevertheless, we obviously need a strong administration when we do not have enough education or we have a precarious and primitive culture. This is true both in the so-called developed world and in the never-named underworld as well. 
It is natural that in times of economic crisis, culture is the first victim of these snipers, since it usually is even in good times: for example, to strip or strangle public programs such as state television channels, radio, symphony orchestras, stimulus to the various arts, to thought, to the humanities in general, and science in particular.

Why? It is argued and easily accepted that it is not fair, for example, that a private TV program on the sexual weaknesses of some entertainment producer or the entire industry of popular entertainment  must cope on its own, while other programs that have a small audience, like a series about the First World War or about Hemingway novels, unfairly receive government support. That is money from the rest of the population that does not look or is interested these cultural programs . It’s not fair, they argue, that a government could favor Don Quixote to Harry Potter, Leonard Cohen to Lady Gaga, or Tennessee Williams to Big Brother, and so on and so forth.

That is what is eloquently called free competition, which is nothing more than the tyranny of the market forces on the rest of human life. In fact, the central argument, explicit or sweetened, is that culture must also submit to the same rules to which we all are subjected, we all who that are dedicated to “more productive” activities (as if the productivity activities in consumer societies were not, in fact, a tiny minority.) If we do a study to identify those items actually “productive” or essential to human life, we probably will not reach ten percent of all the economic activity revolving around us.

Now, I understand that leaving culture in the hands of the market forces would be like leaving agriculture in the hands of the laws of meteorology and microbiology. Nobody can say that excessive rains, drought, locust invasions, worms, pests, and parasites are less natural phenomena than the always elusive and suspicious “invisible hand” of the market. If we were to abandon agriculture to its own fate, we would perish of hunger. Just like this, we need to understand that if we abandon culture to the hands of the market forces, we would perish from barbarism.

Jorge Majfud

Jacksonville University

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