“Can art change the world? People can change the world“

The third debate of the European Match series took place on 8 October on the topic ‘Critical Cultural Production and Civil Society’. Moderated by Georg Schöllhammer, curator, writer, editor and director of tranzit.at, the discussion aimed at tackling the role and impact of art in society, as well as the current challenges that the contemporary cultural field faces, while also making references to a European future that lies under a heavy question mark today. Though starting from an art perspective, the debate broadened to include issues like human rights, minorities, the role of foundations, the need for alternative funding options, and others.

Depicting the situation in his home country, Barnabás Bencsik, freelance curator and lecturer based in Budapest, fears that the critical cultural production has decreased due to the radical changes in Hungary, and especially due to the public funding cuts. Additionally, the ideological control makes the situation even more difficult, and survival of certain institutions is endangered. Bencsik considers that a potential source of (financial) support lies with the civil society, which proved true and possible at this year’s OFF-Biennale Budapest.

Anna-Mária Bíró, president and CEO of the Tom Lantos Institute in Budapest, questions the idea that the Hungarian culture and society can be described as a unified actor that can be controlled easily by the government. Bíró also rejects the thought that her ideology and principles would be shaken just because the human rights organisation she is working for is partially funded by the state.

For Michael Thoss, director of the Allianz Cultural Foundation in Berlin, the role of private foundations could be to contribute to the European public sphere, to build it up, and to try to experiment it in an active way through their projects. However, this becomes difficult, since, as a result of the globalization, the public sphere is fragmented into micro-audiences – which is true for the arts as well.

Milica Tomić, artist and professor for contemporary art in Graz, brought up a series of critical questions: how to enable a free space for art in democratic societies? How much free space do artists have in order to perform, to be radical and revolutionary? In the same time, in authoritarian societies, art is taken very seriously, and, in critical cases, it faces censorship. But does art have a social meaning? Should artists take the responsibility of the state and government? Do artists have to take responsibility to translate between people and state?

Katherine Watson, director of the European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam, is of the opinion that big questions tend to polarize. Also, when we try to resolve big questions from a polarized perspective, we never come to a point of intersection. And it’s the intersecting spaces that are the most interesting, where change can happen. She sees the role of foundations in trying to reinforce and to enrich those places of intersection, as well as in supporting the independent voices and perspectives.

Back to the big question: Can art change the world? As Watson says, it’s the people who can change the world. And if we consider art and culture being part of what we are, and people being civil society, then that’s what is going to change the world.

If you were not able to attend the debate, watch the full video recording here.