Giving a helping hand to culture

  • 2001-10-11
  • Mike D. Walford
The October issue of BBC Music Magazine ( features several articles on Estonian classical music, along with a free CD of works by Estonian musicians Part, Kapp and Tubin. There is also a Baltic music festival being held on BBC Radio 3 in Feb. 2002. Music from the Baltic states is finally gaining recognition in the wider world.

Works by Arvo Part have become something of a cult in Britain and have probably introduced many British people both to other Estonian composers and also to Estonia itself. For other fans of classical music it was the conducting family of Jarvi, particularly Neemi Jarvi, who introduced the Estonian repertoire to audiences worldwide.

Many Baltic politicians have a musical background, and frequently they are involved with more strongly nationalistic politics, often appealing to a sense of culture that concentrates on place and nation.

But at the same time, globalization is causing difficulties for cultural policy-makers trying to stabilize cultural identity in the Baltics. Globalization can have contradictory tendencies. It opens up a range of previously unavailable culture to the wider world - yet a stronger tendency is that it has a very strong negative impact on the cultures of smaller nations.

So what sort of cultural policy is most appropriate for the Baltic countries?

Since independence the rapid introduction of liberal economic policies in the Baltic states has hit the arts and cultural sector hard. This is part of a general trend that has affected the arts in the United States and the rest of Europe.

The editorial in October's BBC Music Magazine by Martin Anderson argues that, "The Estonian musical establishment tends to be too dependent upon state aid ... rather than looking for the money it needs from richer sources further afield." This displays a lack of understanding of the need to develop a national culture in which all people living in Estonia can take part, and the role of the state in protecting this.

State investment in culture is essential. Culture is too important to be left in the hands of large companies or politicians, neither should it be focused on money-making projects that aim for a mass market at the expense of quality.

Cultural policy should be at the heart of establishing a strong civil society, which is essential for democracy. A new cultural policy model should include the recognition and support of a wide range of "amateur" cultural activities as well as a strong professional core that can provide inspiration, quality, and a local and international profile to both arts and nation.

The arts should at times be contentious. This is fundamental to the development of democratic civil society, by opening up a social space to discuss difficult areas. This means that direct control either by the state or the market is unacceptable.

Instead an independent institution that is publicly accountable and which has a good level of state-funding secure enough for organizations to plan effectively is the best way forward. This structure would help protect the Baltics' national cultures from erosion by the globalizing "Macdonaldization" of cultural industries only interested in the profit motive.

Culture should be seen as an investment in the strength of a country.

A lot of time and attention must be spent in developing long-term cultural strategies and influential artists such as Neemi Jarvi should respect the conclusions of any independent body that comes out with a clear and widely accepted consensus for action.

For this reason it is impossible to say whether Jarvi's vision of a new high-quality opera house is necessarily the best way forward for Estonian cultural investment at this moment. The arguments need to be assessed in the light of a wider vision.

BBC Music Magazine reports that Jarvi is appealing to the vanity of nationalist politicians to try and get the project through. This approach should be criticized not for being reliant on state investment but on how the project is being promoted.

It would be useful if the Jarvi family threw their considerable cultural weight in providing a lead in promoting a much wider and deeper cultural vision than just an opera house.