What should intellectuals expect from ministries of culture in the Arab world?

Ministries of culture are there to support cultural activities for the benefit of the society as a whole.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy (Top C) poses with cast members during the opening ceremony of the first edition of the El-Gouna Film Festival in Hurghada, last December. (AFP)
What role for artists? Egyptian actor Ahmed el-Fishawy (Top C) poses with cast members at the El-Gouna Film Festival in Hurghada, last December. (AFP)

Being a minister of culture in an Arab country, especially in one with limited means, is an exacting job. Nobody knows exactly what a minister of culture should be doing.

Everywhere in the world, government ministries are public service institutions whose essential role is to provide services to the population. How does this logic apply to the ministry of culture? Should artists and intellectuals expect the ministry of culture to provide them with an income?

To fulfil its role, the ministry of culture needs the services of men and women of culture. They are its means for providing cultural services to society. A writer enlightens the population by writing and an artist entertains.

A library is a must in a modern society while cinema allows exceptional relief for the eye and the mind. Our daily life is taken up by work, reading and watching television. Except for the news, anything shown on TV, even a cooking show, counts as culture.

Another major role of the ministry of culture is that of shielding society from the endless flood of extremist ideas. The ministry can cooperate and coordinate with citizens and intellectuals alike to turn its programmes into engines for raising awareness and re-examining social norms and values.

Societies immunised through culture can safely withstand the onslaught of ideological or religious intolerance. When the cultural fibre becomes weak in a society, it makes it easy for dubious ideas to gain the upper hand in a gullible environment. All we have to do in the Arab world is look around to realise the total absence of ministries of culture and of intellectuals.

The cultural renaissance of the 1950s through the 1970s is history and yet it was thanks to the dynamics of culture that the Arab world extricated itself from the Middle Ages and ushered in the age of modernity. That same world is back in the Middle Ages with an added dimension of violence and savagery unwitnessed before and coming from the availability of new weapons and technologies. This descent to the depths of hell was made possible by eclipsing over long stretches of time the role of culture in society.

Intellectuals in the Arab world have a long list of complaints about ministries of culture in their countries. Most of those complaints are justified but the real problem emanates from the lack of clarity about the role of the ministries.

Ministries of culture have never been employment offices. They are there to support cultural activities for the benefit of the society as a whole, not for the material benefit of only intellectuals and artists. Allocating subsidies and financial awards to artists and intellectuals cannot be seen as an obligation for the state. These are forms of generosity from the state and society.

Governments can do a lot to support intellectuals and artists. In a rich country, such as Britain for example, the government is not able to subsidise all cultural events. Quite often, a government initiative to restore a historic theatre or building using public funds gets blocked in parliament. So the government has turned to indirect financing through the creation of a national lottery dedicated to financing cultural activities and non-profit cultural programmes. Thus, everybody wins; theatre people and restoration artists have a source of income and Shakespeare has his festival.

Charities also participate in this financing effort. Thanks to generous donors, artists and intellectuals can continue to work and produce without worrying about their next meal. Wealthy people deliberately pay premium prices for works of art and compete in sponsoring cultural events without expecting a profit in return. When it comes to finding donors, churches must be quite jealous of theatre houses. In this system, the state is there to just keep an eye on the organisational side and prevent corruption.

In this kind of system, the main role of the minister of culture is to find the right balance between the cultural needs of society, the state’s resources and the productive capacities of artists and intellectuals. To succeed in that role, should the minister of culture come from the world of art and culture or should he or she be a shrewd politician? This is a question that remains unanswered in the Arab world because its governments have yet to determine what they want from culture.

Artists and intellectuals in the Arab world need to look objectively at their demands from the state. They can be egocentric when it comes to their work but need to be objective when it comes to deciding which role national culture should play.