Culture is…
楊陽 (Yang YEUNG)
at 5:03pm on 16th July 2012


1 Asking the right questions

In an interview on May 22, Undersecretary for Home Affairs Florence Hui Hiu-fai likened cultural policy to a tree growing out of the ground. It is a poor metaphor in two ways. First, it fails to address the current state of health of the soil; it assumes it is still good for growing. Second, it assumes that human deeds are comparable to nature’s deeds.

To free up our thinking so that the relevant and perennial contexts for such a thing as cultural policy can be introduced, let’s stop pretend that our current institutions of a bureaucratic kind could suddenly be vital, bountiful, and all-embracing the way trees can be. Let’s not pretend that the damage we have done to nature can suddenly heal like nature does to itself. Let’s start examining our culture as matters of human devising, be it for creation or destruction.

We already have and are in culture. We were born not an isolated self, but into communities of fellow beings and fellow species. Together we develop habits and ways of life. Therefore, the idea that one has to wait to be cultured is absurd. Culture is to do with meaning making. When everyone does it freely and in communities of others who are equally free, patterns take shape. Culture is constantly created and re-created. To make meaning alone in the reciprocal presence of others is an ordinary but transformative act. In the essay “The Fight for Culture” (The Times, jeanettewinterson.com, accessed May 24, 2012), British writer Jeanette Winterson says that “meaning is much more than a bank of information.” Something as basic as language, she says, is information at first but we quickly move beyond information into the realm of meaning – employing pattern, form, image, metaphor. We can do so as long as we are not interrupted. “All individuals share this instinct for meaning – that doesn’t make us all artists and poets, but it does make us all receptive to art and poetry – unless interrupted.”

Culture gets interrupted a lot these days, the way public spaces get interrupted and discontinued. Corporate culture interrupts culture. Consumerist culture that makes surplus production predictably obsolete interrupts culture. This is called compulsory obsolescence, sometimes known as expiry dates or lifetime warranty. Eradicating crowds and hawkers on the streets while letting in salespersons of property, cable tv, and internet companies interrupts culture. Bureaucratic culture that serves inertia and the status quo interrupts culture. The cult of instant gratification and instant disposal interrupts culture. Apathy interrupts culture.

However, when culture is recognized to be about meaning-making, we can start asking questions like what it is in our culture that has created conditions for those meanings we value, and those we do not. We can start asking questions about how culture could be free from those interruptions and free to create. To situate culture in the pursuit of freedom is to embrace everything on the principle of justice, not on the slogan of diversity that glosses over routine power hierarchies. The latter has generated an apathetic kind of tolerance that has corrupted the original idea of tolerance as a condition of living together, just as plurality is a condition of human life, not a social status, not an added value, and not a cultural capital. When Hui talks about cultural policy as finding a place for Hong Kong culture in the “international stage”, we see culture being interrupted precisely because it is confined to particular ways of producing, exporting, and distributing culture. Whether she knows this directly contradicts with the idea of letting the tree take root, and whether she knows that without much help from the government, numerous art and culture practitioners have already established vital, stable, continuous, and dynamic international connections with organizations on various levels in the world, we may never know. But for sure, we need no reminding that roots grow by penetrating, intertwining, stretching and reaching deep. They do not grow by marking territories, nor do they fly on airplanes. Roots grow freely, if they have adequate access to sunlight, fresh air, nutritious soil, and an occasional massage by earth worms. Internationalization on an institutional and policy level deliberately channels the roots in a slanted way. This is not a cultural vision. This is not a principle that articulates a value. This is merely a management of resources based on received conventions that are disguised as principles, clothed as economic, even cultural inevitability and (therefore) priority. Culture is about ensuring there are the widest available options for everyone to express who she is and how she is, not just one model of distributing resources. Culture is about everyone’s right to flourish and to attain a kind of well-being she autonomously chooses. Culture understood in this way can only be sustained as an explicit and visible, not metaphoric or fetishized relationship with nature.

The last point I will make here regards the demand from the culture sector that the position of Secretary of Culture be taken up by a professional. Head of the Chief Executive-Elect's Office Mrs Fanny Law says, “No one can know everything; no one can be the expert of everything in culture because its definition is very broad.” What she says cannot be truer, but it applies not just to culture, but life. No one can start to claim she knows how to live. In other words, the question on the professional is evaded. I would like to take it up here because it is important. I propose that to be professional isn’t to earn one’s living being in a certain profession. To be professional is to be fully aware at all times the potential and limits of the knowledge that informs and substantiates the relevant field, constituted by many other professionals. To be professional is to know where one stands, and how far one may go. A professional knows what she knows and what she doesn't. She knows her line of responsibility and the conditions that govern her code of conduct. In this sense, a professional is truly so only when she is not stagnated by a fixation on specialized knowledge, so much so that she becomes prejudiced towards her own expertise. Instead, she has a sense of the meaning of her expertise in the larger context, with a vision of the common good. Any doctor, for instance, who is an expert in her field, cannot be called a professional if she cannot ground her knowledge on the value of human life. A professional in culture cannot be called professional if she cannot see culture as an issue of justice, as an issue about recognizing everyone’s right to cultural expression. A professional is a specialist, but she knows where this specialization is situated. A professional may or may not have the relevant qualifications granted by some institutions. A professional may or may not be financially rewarded for her work. But for sure, a professional abides by principles, not routines.

2 Doing the right thing

Do we know how to talk about vision these days? Do we know how to engage in discussions about values and virtues?

Cultural policies with a vision are not about making exhibitions or producing full-house concerts. They are about making way for values to be nurtured. They are to do with what kind of life is worth living. We need a Secretary who is committed to protecting the right for everyone to be able to make meaning of their lives uninterrupted. When our everyday surrounding is over-spilling with advertisements pushing the property-owning dream, ideal homes articulated as hotels, and perfection articulated as slimmed bodies, our right to pursuing a life well lived is violated. To be able to defend this right despite social isolation, she needs to be informed by knowledge that is active, not stagnated. She needs to be aware of its limits and able to transform it into the desire and capacity to keep learning. She needs to be educated in the sense not as having degrees and qualifications, but who thinks about thinking and enjoys thinking.

A cultural policy respects plurality because it is a condition of human life. From the position of culture, plurality is not the strategy of pluralism employed as an incentive for economic growth. It is the condition for the expression of everyone’s individuality. As humans, we flourish in plurality. A cultural policy ought to commit to the continuity of public space. It is principled not on segregation but facilitating human locomotion. As humans, we walk; our bodies meet.

I would like to end with Joseph Beuys’ utopian dream that “Everyone can be an artist.” It is a dream carried on from Karl Marx, who believes in equality. Scholar Boris Groys argues this is implausible, and it is only because it is implausible that it could be a dream. Groys says, “the de-professionalization of art undertaken by the avant-garde should not be misunderstood as a simple return to nonprofessionality. The de-professionalization of art is an artistic operation that transforms art practice in general, rather than merely causes an individual artist to revert back to an original state of non-professionality. Thus the deprofessionalization of art is in itself a highly professional operation.” Now, if there is any suggestion from the Chief Executive-Elect's Office that “Everyone can be a minister, as long as she goes to the exhibition once in a while,” we ought to demand that it be done professionally, in the spirit of the avant-garde.


An abridged version of this review was published in the South China Morning Post, 30 May 2012.