Cultural management and transition: reflections during the pandemic

by Ana Agostino

On 29 April this year the Faculty of Culture from University CLAEH in Montevideo organised a forum to reflect on the role of cultural managers during the pandemic, where different approaches and visions were shared. I was glad to participate and contribute with some reflections. This text is the continuation and deepening of those first ideas.

The current crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic has transformed daily life in almost all countries of the world. In these four months, countless articles have been written in Uruguay and around the world on the impact of the pandemic, on the possible exit and future scenarios. If we could talk about the density of virtual meetings, we could certainly be facing a historical record, not only of simultaneous activities in the virtual space but also of the number of people on line. Most of them analysing the very meaning of the pandemic itself, a variety of aspects of reality and their relationship to the phenomenon. Perhaps the greatest coincidence in this babel of seminars, articles, videos and other diversity of tools used to try to understand and project, is that reality as we know it, to a greater or lesser extent, will change. It is changing. It changed. And therefore it is possible to say that the future, the sense of the future, is in dispute.

The crisis transparently revealed the inequalities and inequities of the system in which we live. It is enough to think of the many different possibilities of “staying at home”, comply with the protocols and navigate this time of pandemic; inequalities in a multiplicity of dimensions including economic, geographic location, gender ability, sexual orientation, ethnic and racial origin (and how these dimensions in turn impact on the access to services, healthcare, education and employment opportunities, etc.). Global statistics on infected and deceased people are just a sample of these inequalities: the sectors historically marginalised in various countries are the one hardest hit, while the pandemic reproduces and deepens the systematic violation of rights in important sectors of the population. The crisis also highlighted the seriousness of the environmental crisis, revealing that the consequences of the extractivist and predatory model, guided exclusively by profit, put life in its diversity at risk.

This discouraging panorama allows nevertheless to put on the table the challenge of imaging a different reality or realities. Coronavirus, its causes and consequences, stimulate “cognitive liberation”[1] that simultaneously allows us to identify the need for change and the processes to imagine it. Processes that are by no means linear, homogeneous, and much less conflict-free. The sense of the future is in dispute because the present requires transgression, and those who benefit from what has been portrayed and incorporated in the mainstream as “normality”, will also fight for its permanence.

Within this framework, it is possible to state that the role of the cultural manager in the pandemic has to do with the “becoming”, that is to say, with what simultaneously is and is projected, with what the present carries for potential transformation, with the imaginary of the future anchored in practices and knowledges resulting from stories, diversity, desires, and what it is not yet named but it will eventually be.

This transition that is taking place (but that requires a conscious effort that makes it evident and provides direction) can be seen as an ontological transition[2] in the sense that it calls for new ways of being in the world, of thinking of ourselves and our interactions in its multiplicity, including those we have with other living beings; also as a just transition that allows us to orient ourselves towards eco-communitarian horizons based on a new relationship with nature, human and non-human beings, the ethics of care and social and environmental justice. Embarking on the transition(s) requires an epistemic and cultural strategy that allows us to open spaces and reflect on reality and our relationship with our environment in its broadest sense, opening ourselves to other ontologies, other imaginaries, and also challenging ourselves to find a new language that enables us to name without depending on words, which by their mere enunciation reinforce the world as we know it.

How does cultural management relate to these statements and why does it have an important role?

“The best cultural services are those that are prophetic: those that build civic cultural future from the present. Those who do not intend a revolution but a continuous change in the emerging transformation of the city’s life, filling it with active cultural life”. This quote by Toni Puig, taken from a text in which he deepens on his reflections from a book from the early 90s, gives clues to answer the above formulated questions. And it is complemented by the words from Gonzalo Carámbula, who categorically stated that cultural policy is the social policy par excellence, that it does not aim at profound transformations quickly, but rather, it can be described as “waves that are carrying and that imperceptibly are generating a new situation.”

Both, Puig and Carámbula, even without saying it explicitly, highlight the importance of shared agency (doing with) in cultural management, which in political terms is nothing other than democratic participation. The imaginary is collective. But collective are also the actions that shape reality (present and to be built). In this sense, and based on what the pandemic has helped to unveil regarding the unjust system we inhabit, and to clarify, regarding the necessary liberation of the imaginary to move towards horizons that overcome these injustices, I share the following ideas / suggestions:

A first idea refers to what could be called “bringing novelty near”. We live within the framework of a diversity of ways of being in the world. However, the dominant modes of the capitalist production system are often presented as the only alternative, hiding away those other ways. In the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, it is not that there are no other valid practices, but that they have been actively created as non-existent, that is to say, as not relevant to the dominant form. How are those practices? What do they tell us? Specifically, in the framework of the pandemic, several initiatives emerged (or rather multiplied) that allowed responding to diverse needs (food kitchens and other forms of solidarity feeding; agroecology producers promoting the production of healthy food; barter practices guaranteeing the satisfaction of various needs independently of money; professionals from various fields who made their knowledge and experiences available to those who needed them; young people who made purchases for those who could not go out or simply offered their time to accompany people from high-risk groups, even from a physical distance; artists who shared their art electronically; solidarity transport; solidarity platforms that linked people, initiatives, services, etc.). A reading could be that these are transitory and emergency actions and that they will disappear with the overcoming of the crisis. Another reading allows us to recognise a substratum that speaks of another conception of the relationships between human beings and their environment, one that questions the utilitarian concept of nature and privileges reciprocity, among other aspects[3]. Helping to make visible these other ways of doing and to generate debate around their relevance is a possible task for cultural management. This in turn calls for cultural management to be decentralised: neighbourhood initiatives, small stages, screens (giant or small) that are installed in various parts of the city, where not only “shows are held” but the stage is shared.  Other stories are told, there are other audiences and other protagonists, and other possibilities for daily life are imagined.

Another element that cultural management can contribute to in the context of the pandemic is the revaluation of leisure. And this is related to the possibility of questioning the imposition of the capitalist system of production without pause, of working long hours that limit the possibility of enjoyment, of encounter, of discovering new senses. A text that I understand illuminates the value of free time and calls into question the excessive dedication to production and profit, comes from one of the most famous economists in history, John Maynard Keynes. In a text from 1930, that is to say exactly 90 years ago, he shared reflections not in the short or medium term, but rather he asked: “What can we reasonably expect the level of our economic life to be a hundred years hence? What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?”

In this text he argues that in that future that he foresees, for the first time since creation, human beings will overcome the economic problem, and will be able to face their real and fundamental problem, how to use this freedom from economic concern, how to occupy the leisure and live wisely and pleasantly, how to find the real meaning and purpose in life. And adds:

“There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession -as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life -will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard”.

This text allows me to share some reflections related to cultural management. The first is the unfortunate modern tradition of compartmentalizing reality into the economic, the social, the environmental, the cultural. We think in watertight compartments, and we accept the prioritisation of the economy so that it will spill over, in spite of the fact that the repetition to infinity of that discourse is not reflected in reality, which has systematically showed that accumulation does not translate into equity. A major challenge, therefore, is to deal with the different dimensions of life simultaneously, because this is how they all happen in reality with an infinity of interconnections.  Well-being is not what happens after completing work, the deep meaning of existence is not a separate matter from the material reproduction of the life of each human being. Similarly, leisure is not exclusively what is done during “free time”. Without pretending to work on a definition of the term, leisure refers to rest, fun, social participation and solidarity, the development of personality in various dimensions[4].

In capitalist society, the propensity to consume usually takes up a large part of the time not linked to labour or other obligations. In the context of the pandemic, for some sectors of the population the hours “without obligations” have increased[5], generating new opportunities for leisure. In a scenario of overcoming the pandemic, it is foreseeable that we will move towards a decrease in the workforce requirement, due to the automation of various tasks. Although in principle this trend seems negative, what is undeniable is that it again puts on the table the availability of hours not linked to obligations. Undoubtedly, in order to enjoy these hours, it is necessary to have social policies and, in particular, an employment policy that reduces the working day without affecting either the levels of occupation or wages. This point requires deeper analysis of future employment policies. But the scenario of growing time for leisure is highly feasible and challenges cultural management. Not only in terms of offering shows and performances in various disciplines, but also and fundamentally, in terms of facilitating processes (which also include shows) to collectively think about the meaning of that time, including the network of tasks that are carried out and that contribute towards rest, fun, solidarity, personal and collective happiness, personal and environmental care, in a projection into the future that anticipates transformations by giving them new content.

A last point refers to the intertwining between ethics and aesthetics and to the privileged place of cultural management to provide practice and reflection in this regard. Cultural management promotes projects, initiatives and experiences that combine symbolic production and enjoyment of the senses. In a text on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, it can be read that his tradition is charged with the “polysemic wealth of the concepts of ethics and aesthetics as a unit of action of the concrete, historical and cultural subject”, and that it is nourished by the meaning of boniteza, which would be indicating the inseparability of good and beautiful[6]. The feeling of beauty, the aesthetic experience of everyday life, and the search for meaning that includes and transcends individual experience towards the common good, are embedded in that inseparability of those two words (good and beautiful) that far exceeds the meaning of each. Cultural projects can contribute with analyses that help to formulate questions related to the experiences of the pandemic and its consequences in multiple dimensions, while at the same time they can generate opportunities for boniteza, following Freire, in the imaginary towards the future.

The purpose of these reflections is to share questions and searching lines much more than concrete proposals for the action of cultural management. They are based on a feeling of trust regarding the possibilities that cultural management has to help narrate, challenge, build, project, invent, -and to do it collectively-, anchored in systematic knowledge, in knowledge under construction, and in the ability to embrace disorder, diversity and the unexpected. Like “waves that are carrying and that imperceptibly are generating a new situation”.

Ana Agostino is a lecturer in Cultural Management in Claeh.

The article first appeared in Spanish in La Diaria.

[1] Concept taken from the article from Maristela Svampa “¿Hacia dónde se mueven las placas tectónicas?, 

“The process of cognitive liberation, according to Mc Adam, ‘refers to a transformation of the consciousness of potential participants in a collective action. This one takes place in three meanings, which in turn are cumulative (that means, they should take place sequentially, in phases): first the system loses legitimacy; following, those affected by a problem come out of their slumber, overcome fatalism or resignation and demand changes out of their state of inaction; finally a new sense of efficiency is generated by perceiving expectations of success and achievement of result through collective action’. Quoted in N. Garcia Montes, available in http ://”. (Translated from the original in Spanish). 

[2] Escobar, Arturo: “Autonomía y Diseño. La realización de lo comunal”, Tinta Limón, BA, 2017.

[3] A great part of these initiatives belong to what Karl Polanyi called the substantive economy, establishing the difference with the formal economy, and analysing the importance of what this interdependence among human beings provides. See Polanyi, Karl: “The Great Transformation”, 1944.

[4] Sarla Pascual, Leticia: “Aproximación conceptual al ocio y tiempo libre: la recreación como herramienta de intervención social”, Social Work Thesis, Social Work Department, Faculty of Social Sciences, UDELAR, 1998.

[5] It is important to mention that the virtual work to which a large part of the world population has been forced to resort as a result of the pandemic, often requires more dedication than face-to-face work, in addition to not allowing a distinction between domestic, work tasks. and those of free time, besides representing an overload for those who carry out these activities, particularly for women, on whom the greatest burden of care responsibilities continue to fall worldwide.

[6] Translation note: boniteza, from bueno y bello (good and beautiful).