How can the value of culture be defined? This question is simultaneously both easy and complicated. Culture plays a significant role in our society. It forms the basis for our identity. Culture includes everything we see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Culture is everywhere – from music to the visual world. It’s a natural way in which to communicate.
Even the earliest people known to science devoted time to expressing themselves and creating paintings and sculptural works, of which Michel Lorblanchet and Paul Bahn remind us in their recently published book, The First Artists. In Search of the World’s Oldest Art (2017). Only the circumstances have varied. During the Palaeolithic era, our ancestors painted figures of bison on the walls of the Altamira cave. Today, we see how the walls of imposing buildings or abandoned shopping centres are covered in graffiti. Both examples show how art and culture bring people together. It involves a way of communicating and displaying its idiosyncrasies.
It is interesting how culture builds identity irrespective of time, location and socioeconomic background. Creating a relationship with what we see and experience does not require a platinum card or a PhD but rather time and curiosity. For some individuals, it awakens a desire to not just look but to collect and possess. It doesn’t matter what is collected. A collection may consist of stones washed ashore, ballpoint pens or valuable first editions. Whatever you choose, it involves thinking and structuring your thoughts.
The theatre of memory of the renaissance is an excellent example of this. The world started to be structured in a curiosity cabinet. Samples from the mineral, plant and animal kingdom were acquired, along with instruments for measuring time and distance but also the masterful achievements of man. Art belonged to the latter category. The collections were a way on which to manage knowledge of the world. The routes that were opened to the new world were expressed in exotic objects, for example coconuts and ostrich eggs, which were considered so valuable that they used to be embellished with precious metals.
The collections also become sought after targets for plundering, i.e. instruments of political power. Thus, owning valuable works and objects of great symbolic value in itself became a way in which to evaluate the power of a Regent. Just think of Queen Kristina’s looting in Prague during the very last stages of the Thirty Years' War or Catherine the Great who understood the political meaning of art and built the Hermitage for her growing collection. A state of importance should include possession of a collection and a cultural life.
National museums were later founded throughout Europe, particularly during the 19th century. It became the golden age of museums.
Some works of art used to seek idylls and harmony…landscapes, still life and even portrait art to name a few. The other extreme is represented in works that wanted to show the dark side of mankind: the evil of man, the destruction spread by war or political aberrations. Typical examples of this are The Disasters of War series by Francisco de Goya (1810–1820), The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1818–1819), Édouard Manet's The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867–1868) and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Art is needed to illustrate and give words to insufferable events and phenomena so that we can start talking about them.
However, society does not always tolerate criticism from the artists. The Nazis burned books on bonfires and banned ”degenerate” art. And if we are to believe that the disgrace after the events of World War II caused the cessation of censorship, we would be wrong. Even today, socially critical artists are sentenced to prison. Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei and the Russian anarchist band Pussy Riot are good examples of this.
What role do art and culture play during this time? In the 19th century, culture was needed to raise the majority of European countries to the cohort of civilized countries and to create a history for the country and its people. Today, culture is one of the building blocks of our individual and collective identity. We understand on a national scale that what we see is not a uniform story but several parallel, overlapping and even contradictory stories, all of which nevertheless enrich our surroundings.
Culture is a way to stand out from the crowd, structure the world and even address painful issues. Culture is meetings, experiences and thoughts. It is knowledge and understanding of phenomena around us. Culture is still also politics. It is not by chance that most museums today are built in countries such as the United Arab Emirates or China. But culture should also be understood as a socioeconomic engine in which experience and education meet the economy.
In other words, culture influences. Understanding the social importance of culture should therefore be something obvious. The cultural offering has an enormous impact on the financial status of the cities and individual entrepreneurs. Thanks to the offering, tourists choose their travel destinations. Attention has also been given to this. At the beginning of the year, Nationalmuseum received the ’Boosting the Capital’ prize from the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. It is just one example that clarifies how important it is for us to have a wider perspective all the time ... not just for what is closest to our own activities.
I’m used to say that the best cities understand the value of culture. And they know exactly how to profile themselves through the cultural offering. Everyone knows that Barcelona is a Gaudi city. That Bilbao represents the Guggenheim. That London and New York have an offering that includes the world’s best musicals and exhibitions. The same applies to Stockholm as a city that has everything from Skansen and the Vasa Museum to the ABBA Museum, Moderna Museet, ArkDes and Hallwylska, to name but a few from the list. And of course, Nationalmuseum, which displays art, applied art and design from the 16th century until today.
Culture creates more new jobs than traditional industries and it has a direct effect on health and well-being. Despite this, culture is glaring in its absence, for example in the visions of the think tanks on the future welfare society. It should not be so. We are now already learning to redistribute time. Our way of working, moving forward and using time has changed. People need increasingly meaningful ways in which to occupy themselves.
Culture creates platforms that open doors for philosophical and existentialist issues. About life, about values, about what is good and about what worries us the most. By reading a book, listening to music or looking at art, we can confront our nightmares ... or get hope back. The sense of recognition reinforces the authority of society. It creates links between different traditions and ways of thinking. It is important to create space for different interpretations. Art does not know of a single ”right” way of experiencing or understanding. Art is of course open to everyone.
In the 19th century, it used to be said that art and culture are needed in order to raise the status of a country to something called ”civilised”. Today, there is a need to build a better society in which everyone is visible. And every visit is appreciated.
We are the culture.
The voice of art and culture is the voice of the people.
This text is a version of a party speech given by Susanna Pettersson at the University of Helsinki annual party on 26 March 2019.