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A divided European Union (EU), as emerged in the December 2023 leaders’ summit, combined with worrying signals coming from the ballots in several Member States, represent new reasons for concern across the bloc ahead of the June 2024 elections.

The victories of populists in The Netherlands, but also Slovakia, have sent yet another shock wave across Europe. Analysts widely agree that their success is rooted in a broader increase of populism in Europe and worldwide, revolving around anti-establishment and anti-immigrant sentiments, and more generally an increasing disaffection for the values of open societies. Geert Wilders’s emphasis on Dutch cultural identity and the defence of Western values has resonated with a segment of the population who feel that these values are under threat, and there is a key role to play for issues related to cultural preservation and identity. A look at the root causes of this electoral success forces us to delve deeper into the complex interplay between culture and politics, and the politics of culture.

The discussions that have dominated the overlap of these spheres in recent years have largely focused on the need for decolonisation of our cultural model, in which cultural and artistic achievements have often been achieved at the cost of exploitation and suppression. We need to ask ourselves what our alternative cultural agency is today: culture is not only about the privileged artist and the free time of a minority of privileged people, but rather it is a crucial aspect of human meaning-making, democratic agency, and, ultimately, survival.

Research has proven that cultural exposure allows us to live better, healthier, and longer lives. This is true not only for individuals but also for communities. The more citizens engage in cultural activities, the more democratic agency they develop, the more they feel heard, and the more they contribute not only to social cohesion but also to the building of new, sustainable, and democratic social structures.

Exposure to culture, however, is just a stepping stone. Participation in culture takes various forms and ranges from better access to cultural offers for all, to a more active role for citizens in cultural events, up to real co-creation and co-authorship of artistic processes and outcomes by communities. The latter requires a different perspective on culture, including a longitudinal approach, trust, and a profound empowerment of the artistic and cultural sector to take up the role of innovator. Futureproof, inclusive, and democratic societies require the integration of culture ‘back’ into all other areas of our societies.

The ‘detached’ role of the artist is a relatively recent phenomenon. In Europe, the concept of the artist having a distinct political function was ‘invented’ with the advent of democracy in Greece in the fifth century BC. Democracies distinguished themselves through artists who served as commentators on
social structures. Later on, this practice continued within the framework of royal courts and political powers, and when the bourgeoisie arose, their social privilege was underscored by their embrace of the artist as innovator. That image of the isolated artist in an autonomous sphere is still dominant in public opinion despite the reality of the many socially engaged art movements.

Today, the distance between the artist and the people, between art and other areas of society, prevents us from unleashing the power of culture for the benefit of all citizens and from taking collective responsibility for our future. Cultural agency today must be about overcoming this distance. This is especially necessary if we are to face the triple challenge of greening our societies, digitising without dehumanising, and capitalising on plurality not as a threat but as a positive force. Our cultural agency must be about the participation of all.

With regard to the social role of culture, Europe could learn much from the Global South. While the elitist status of artists was a colonial import, the authentic meaning of cultural production in the region is that of an engine for social innovation. Its approach is based on integrating art with activism for sustainable development, new forms of economy, and governance. Europe is taking baby steps in this direction but would benefit immensely from embracing such an approach.

Supporting cultural participation, not only within art institutions but throughout society, must become the backbone of all policies in the future. To do so, however, we need to act now to introduce new cultural policies, for instance with an appropriately empowered and funded EU Commissioner for Culture, and a related, clear role for culture in all other policy fields. In other words, we need a Cultural Deal for Europe. Just like the Green Deal was needed to address climate change and the loss of biodiversity, an overarching Cultural Deal is needed to address the rise of populism and threats to democratic structures, to allow us to remain human as we face the development of artificial intelligence, and to ensure that we ‘leave none behind’ in the context of ever harsher social realities.

We must give culture a central role in our political debates and consequently embed it in all public spending envelopes – including making a quantum leap in better support structures for artists and cultural organisations – if we hope to be able to counter the success of populists and right-wing extremists.

Let us make sure to choose our direction wisely and put culture at the heart of policymaking. The cultural and creative sectors at large stand ready as partners to a Cultural Deal for Europe.

Documents and manifestos such as the Porto Santo Charter, which was born out of a collaborative effort by cultural stakeholders and policymakers during the 2021 Portuguese Presidency of the Council, offer guidance. They show how culture can serve as a powerful counterforce to the divisive rhetoric and policies of populism and right-wing extremism, harnessing the creative potential of culture to foster unity, tolerance, and inclusive governance in a continent at a crossroads. Let us make sure to choose our direction wisely and put culture at the heart of policymaking. The cultural and creative sectors at large stand ready as partners to a Cultural Deal for Europe. With European elections coming up, the ball is now in the hands of the political parties to choose their priorities.

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