Exploring Cultural Interests and Values

J.P. Singh

J.P. Singh is Professor and Chair of Culture and Political Economy, and Director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.1

The political tumults of 2016 – especially the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States – have unhinged cultural assumptions about the world getting closer and the functioning of democracy.  The rise of political populism and the role of cultural anxieties in Western democracies, but also in places such as India and Turkey, entails a deeper examination of the formation of political, social, and economic values and interests. Equally the events of 2016 call into question the extent to which different types of values are shared across borders ranging geographically from local neighbourhoods to national and regional markers, or across racial and other identities in cultural terms.

What happened to the idea of universal and shared values of humankind?  How can arts facilitate our understanding about each other? This special issue brings 42 essays from all around the world to illuminate this question.  This issue is a catalogue of cultural conversations rather than a singular answer to the questions.  The essays utilize the arts to motivate a broader conversation about cultural interests and values.   They call upon the arts for the important function they have always played throughout history, namely as interpreters of our lives.

The 70th anniversary of the birth of the festival city of Edinburgh offers an important opportunity in 2017 to explore the values that created one of the largest annual cultural interactions in human history. From its beginning, the different aspects of the Edinburgh festivals have accommodated conflicting tenets between elitist and hierarchical values and organic and participatory visions. Rudolf Bing, an Austrian refugee, created the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947.  This evolved into the Edinburgh festivals celebrating their 70th anniversary in 2017.  The Edinburgh International Festival represented a hierarchical notion of culture and, in the words of historian Angela Bartie later in this issue, “the pinnacle of cultural production.”  The Edinburgh Fringe started as a counter-response this hierarchical vision, and today represents the biggest arts festival in the world.

The global ideas that informed the creation of the festival resulted from the vision of a few individuals and were fostered through a network of global and national institutions. Broadly, they reflected the values of the Enlightenment Project with an optimistic view of learning from human interactions.  Seventy years after the launch of the festivals, we ask ourselves how far we have come in terms of tolerance, understanding, respect, and the spirit of universalism.

The essays reflect the inaugural programme of the Global Cultural Fellows launched through the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh.  During the 2017-18 academic year, our Fellows will explore ‘cultural interests and values’, including 8 days of intensive activities in August 2017 during the world-famous Edinburgh festivals. The Fellows will attend pre-selected events at the festivals, as well as structured deliberations at the University of Edinburgh. Their cultural conversations, rooted in participatory research techniques, will explore the creation, contestation, and choices around our cultural interests and values.

To explore cultural interests and values, we have divided the 2017-18 programme for the Global Cultural Fellows into 7 subthemes: Highs + Lows, Voice, Witness, Empathy, Anger + Anxiety, Culture Wars, and Global Values.  A sub-group of our fellows examines each of these themes in short essays below.  Along with the short essays from the Fellows, we are also publishing longer essays from 5 Faculty Coordinators from the programme and 2 invited essays from the historian Angela Bartie and cultural producer Hannah McGill.  Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics has partnered with IICR for this year’s programme, bringing the expertise of 2 faculty coordinators and 10 Fellows for our 2017-18 programme.  The essays also include Faith Liddell’s interviews with 4 of Edinburgh’s festival directors on the theme of anger and anxiety represented through the arts.  In order to accommodate 42 essays, the long form scholarly essays and brushstroke articles are shorter than our usual format.

This special issue of Arts & International Affairs explores the cultural interests and values that resulted from the idea of 1947 festivals from both hierarchical and participatory perspectives.  The themes in this special issue move from the micro/individual levels to the macro/global levels.  We begin with what constitutes high and low art and how taste is internalized among individuals.  Then we move to how artists find a creative voice to represent their world.  The third and fourth themes deal with the role of art in witnessing human history, especially its evils, and the extent to which artistic empathy carries over into our everyday life and politics.  Next, we move to societal and global levels to examine how and why culture wars take place, and discuss the state of global values.

We cannot assert that the Global Cultural Fellows comprehensively represent all voices from around the world. However, they do represent important geographic, demographic, and intellectual diversities.  These 33 individuals, appointed from all regions of the world include cultural activists, artists and performers, and entrepreneurs, and they are well-connected with many communities.  The group of Fellows includes 4 practitioners from Scotland and 3 from Syria.  After their week-long immersion exploring cultural interests and values, the 33 Fellows will undertake projects upon returning to their home organizations and institutions over the course of their year-long appointment.

We will report back to you on the outcomes of the participatory deliberations from our Fellows and invite you to follow along their discussions starting in August on the IICR blog which can be found at  http://www.iicr.ed.ac.uk/blog.

In the meantime, here is a catalogue of cultural conversations to start this important project exploring our cultural values and interests.

Image Courtesy of Edinburgh International Festival: Photographer Mihaela Bodlovic.