Culture Wars as Clashes of Identity

Corina Lacatus

Cora (Corina) Lacatus is a Career Development Fellow specializing in Quantitative Cultural Methodologies at the Institute for International Cultural Relations in the School of Social and Political Science. Cora has worked across disciplines in the fields of International Relations, Cultural Studies, and European Studies, investigating topics related to culture, human rights, global politics, and research methods.She is currently working on a book that investigates institutional design in the case of national human rights institutions. The book builds on multi-method research carried out during the doctoral work at the London School of Economics. Her first book, The (In)visibility Complex was published in 2008 (Stockholm University) and explores identity and the artistic representation of the migrant experience in Sweden. Cora holds a doctorate in International Relations from the London School of Economics (2017) and a second doctorate in Germanic and European Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles (2007).

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.33

This essay seeks to address one main question: Why do we have culture wars?

Culture wars are clashes of identities. Embedded in the historical and political contexts of their time, rival identities contest and renegotiate the meanings of culture and the signification of art. Culture wars occur when group identities clash, whether at local, national, or international levels. But rivalries between groups can only be understood, however, by recognizing the multifaceted implications of cultural identities that range from anthropological to hierarchical classifications.

The term culture is rooted in the Latin “culturare,” meaning to “tend” or “cultivate” a piece of land. The sense of “cultivation of the soil” from Middle English gave rise in the sixteenth century to “cultivation of the mind, faculties or manners” (Oxford Dictionary 2017). This definition highlights the relationship between individuals and the communities that they constitute, which makes it possible to differentiate groups from each other on the basis of characteristics such as religion, ethnicity, geography, language, and race.

I first discuss the definition of culture, encompassing two dimensions of the concept—culture as a “way of life” and as object of anthropological inquiry and also culture manifested in different forms of elite artistic creation—after turning to a discussion of culture wars as encounters between opposing identities. Two cases of culture wars—the early history of the Edinburgh Festival and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis—seek to illustrate the complex interplay of politics and art in contemporary culture wars. The essay does not seek to give a historical overview of the Festival (for a comprehensive historical overview, please see Bartie 2013) or an exhaustive analysis of the refugee crisis, but rather it aims to bring to life the complexity of meaning and artistic representation that constitute “culture wars.”

Throsby (2001:4) defines culture as a “way of life” made up of “a set of attitudes, beliefs, mores, values and practices which are common to or shared by a group.” But there is also meaning that dates from the European Enlightenment, which uses the term to group “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (Oxford Dictionary 2017). The use of the adjective “cultural” in the more functional sense of the word is dated to the later part of the nineteenth century (Williams 1976:81). The second definition highlights the performative aspect of identities through certain activities as well as the cultural products of these communities that affirm and consolidate group identity. Throsby identifies three main characteristics of cultural endeavors: “activities concerned involve some form of creativity in their production; they are concerned with the generation and communication of symbolic meaning; and their output embodies, at least potentially, some form of intellectual property” (Throsby 2001:4). This definition informs the recent intellectual efforts of a number of international political economy scholars to investigate cultural outputs and activities as social variables in causal relationships with economic and political indicators.

The two main definitions discussed above are by no means exhaustive of the semantic complexity of the concept of “culture.” Importantly, the conceptual distance between the two is not always as visible in the following examples. These two cases seek to illustrate the cultural politics that underlie two cases of culture wars motivated by the two different understandings of culture.

Clashing Ways of Life: Syrian Refugee Crisis

Anxiety lies at the center of culture wars. Art and other forms of cultural expression can be the materialization of these culture wars. In his book on the international cultural policies and power, J. P. Singh articulates the impact of art and politics on identity “(…) the marriage of art and politics reveals powerful agendas regarding identity” (Singh 2010:xxiii). In the case of the refugee crisis, both policy and art responded to the anxiety; artists have set up voluntary and charitable art projects in cities around Europe, in order to raise funds to be donated to refugee camps and organizations. One such example is 2016 Art Basel, which introduced activism in the world of art dealers and very wealthy art collectors, in order to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and the importance of art to participate social action. With their activist intent, these projects seek to create a link between visual arts as elite forms of cultural expression and the everyday reality of refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Europe as they flee the civil war in Syria. They raise awareness among European and international art dealers of the cruel reality of war and the refugee crisis as the most visible consequence of war on European territories. Importantly, these artistic representations by elite artists present the refugee crisis as a deeply and fundamentally European and international problem. These artistic representations of the refugee crisis highlight the failure of trans-national responses to the crisis and call on the elite cultural practitioners to engage in a much-needed civic to the everyday reality of the crisis across Europe.

As the on-going refugee crisis in Europe shows, cultural clashes can take place at the transnational level. Fleeing military conflict fuelled by religious extremism and the spread of the Islamic State, Syrians take the risk of travelling across the borders to seek refuge in Europe. The European Union sought to establish a common response to the crisis, and in May 2015, the European Commission proposed a European Resettlement Scheme, which was adopted the European Council in 2015. Member states agreed the resettle more than 22,000 refugees from outside the EU to European member states by July 2017 (NAO 2016:7–8). Despite the common scheme of response to the crisis, each participating government followed a different national strategy of policy implementation. In member states, national responses to the crisis have been largely informed by party preferences. Centre and left-wing parties, such as Podemos in Spain or Labour in the United Kingdom, have tended to propose a sympathetic approach and an open doors policy. Refugees are humans that flee religious extremism and the reality of terrorism. In their turn, European citizens’ lives are punctured by the horrific reality of repeated terrorist in their capital cities. In this sense, refugees and Europeans share a sense of fear when faced with the same enemy. Right-wing parties, such as the Conservatives in the United Kingdom or Fidesz in Hungary and even more strongly so far right parties like the Front National in France, view the refugees as a threat to European identity. The crisis is perceived as a large-scale social problem that ought to be contained by closing the borders rather than by taking shared responsibility and coordinating a response across governments in Europe and beyond. From this point of view, Syrians are Muslim, and their religious practices and way of life as fundamentally non-European. By equating the general practice of Islam with fundamentalist ideology and terrorist acts, the presence of refugees on European territories only increases the strength of religious extremism and ultimately raises the risk of terrorist attacks.

Art can bridge the gap between the elite art world and the traumatic experience of refugees crossing the Mediterranean in a boat, in order to begin new lives in Europe. In 2015, the Danish artist E. B. Itso traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the entry point into Europe for refugees travel on boats from North Africa. Upon the boats’ arrival, most people change the clothes from the trip and leave them behind, as they begin their new lives in Europe. The artist collected discarded garments, dipped the in an Yves Klein-bluish paint, and printed them on paper. The two paintings, called “The Shedding,” are framed with driftwood found on Lampedusa’s beaches. They were priced €10,000 at Art Basel, to be donated (Itso’s website). These works of art represent the materiality of the refugees’ arrival into Europe and make ever more visible the stark contrast between the harsh destinies of refugees that survived the journey across the Mediterranean and the elite culture world of art dealers and artists in Europe. In that sense, Itso immortalizes in paint the culture wars that inform the encounter between refugees and the European ways of life—the symbolic shedding of old clothes by the refugees who survived the boat ride across the Mediterranean speaks to the refugees’ strong desire to leave behind the reality of the civil war in Syria. Moreover, Itso’s works invite the audience to imagine what is not represented in the paintings—the new destinies that refugees take on once they have changed into their new clothes and being their lives in Europe. By presenting the works of art at Art Basel and pricing them as expensive works of art, Itso created an unmediated connection between the elite cultural world of Europe and the experience of refugees as new Europeans. In other words, the artistic elites whose everyday lives are otherwise far removed from the precariousness of refugee destinies are invited to partake in considering the roles that they play in shaping the lives of these refugees.

Participatory art performances aimed to represent the reality of culture wars in Europe and sought to bridge the divide between European citizens and the everyday reality of refugees living in Europe by engaging art audiences in participatory projects alongside refugees. To these performance artists, the culture clashes between refugees and Europeans art-goers can be overcome through participatory work and active efforts to provide financial support to organizations that work with refugees in Europe. As such, the projects are active invitations to help the refugee communities in immediate and tangible ways. For instance, in early 2016, Olafur Eliasson and Vienna’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary space set up the ongoing Green Light project that provides a safe creative space for refugees and the local community to collaboratively create lamps out of recycled materials. The proceeds are donated to Red Cross Vienna and Georg Danzer Haus (

A second participatory performance was Alfredo Jaar’s The Gift (2016) gathered volunteers around the Münsterplatz, to participate in a performance piece presented at the outdoor Parcours Programme. Participants hand out cardboard boxes on which the artist printed a photograph of the section of beach in Turkey where the body of toddler Alan Kurdi was found in September 2015. The small boy’s image was removed but the beach was still recognizable. The boxes came with instructions to open and refold them, turning them into donation boxes to collect money for the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a charity dedicated to saving lives at sea. The art project expanded on the message that the first version of the photograph published in La Stampa aimed to disseminate. The journal’s editor-in-chief at the time, Mario Calabresi, decided to publish the powerful image as a demand that we all “face what is happening on the beaches where we spent our vacations” concluding that: “This is the last chance for Europe’s leaders to live up to the challenge of history. And it is the chance for every one of us to take stock in the ultimate meaning of existence” (Art Basel).

These works of art represent the clashes of identities that are borne out of the Syrian refugee crisis. Moreover, they seek to bridge the cultural divide between the elite cultural world of a major European art festival with the harsh everyday reality of refugee lives. These works raise awareness about the need for accountability among cultural and political elites. Importantly, they also offer two main concrete solutions to the problems that they raise—first, direct engagement across communities helps to question biases about the refugee communities and bridge cultural divides. Second, fund-raising through participatory projects addresses a pragmatic and immediate need for both material support for refugee communities and the necessity to welcome immigrants and facilitate their integration in the labor force and everyday life in Europe.

Culture War as an Intellectual Project

The Edinburgh Festival is the materialization of an inherently paradoxical intellectual project—it is at the same time the embodiment of European unity and the locus of a clash between two opposing views of art. Fueled by the anxieties of the post-war Europe and motivated by the drive to recover a renewed sense of shared cultural values, the Festival represented “a means of spiritual refreshment, a way of reasserting moral values, of building relationships between nations, of shoring up European civilization and of providing ‘welfare’ in its broadest sense” (Bartie 2013:2). The Festival is the exemplar of a cultural product that was created at a particular junction of art and politics in in European history. As the political context changed, and the means of artistic expression became more sophisticated and developed to incorporate more technology, the Festival adapted to make room for new types of cultural performances. These values transformed throughout the decades to follow, causing new cultural wars that reflected changes in social and political contexts at the national and international levels.

The initial project sought to unify Europe after the war through creating an international event that brings together prestigious performance artists. Yet the very creation of the Festival marked also a division within the arts as forms of social practice.

The culture war embedded in the Edinburgh Festival is visible in the contrast between the co-existing International Festival and the Fringe. In other words, two events are two types of cultural products, which are co-constitutive to some extent, that materialize the debate between “high art” and “low art.” The distinction between these two broad categories of art is ambiguous and often contested. John Fisher wrote a genealogy of the conceptual dichotomy and sought to explicate the cultural hierarchies assumed in this distinction. He identifies several overlapping but different distinctions that can underlie ordinary uses of “high art” and “low art.” One is the distinction between two classes of media or of art forms, such as between oil painting and television (media) or abstract paintings and television situation comedies (forms) (Fisher 2001:529). In other words, certain traditional forms of art associated with the modern system are thought of as high art, whereas the new forms tend to be thought of as low. The development of new media began in the eighteenth century, when the first mass-produced books were published, and continued with the development of visual prints, photography, motion pictures, radio, television, sound recordings, computers, the Internet, and so on. At first, movies were regarded as a form of low art by comparison to theater (Fisher 2001:529).

A second perspective on the distinction between low and high art considers microlevel distinctions within a pre-existing medium or art form. An illustrative historical distinction dates back to the eighteenth century and opposes folk and popular culture with aristocratic culture. The wide distribution and accessibility of cultural artifacts shaped both the tastes and values of popular audiences and also came to play a transformative role on the arts themselves. So-called “mass art,” (for instance mass-market romance and gothic horror novels, or certain kinds of rock music and hiphop), sought to appeal to a broader audience, while higher forms of art were perceived as more complex and sophisticated, responding to the interests of an elite few.

This form of culture war can help to understand the origins of the Edinburgh Festival. The International Festival represented a form of elite event presenting “high art” that was included in the program on the basis of an invitation to participate by the festival director. Rudolf Bing co-founded the Festival with Henry Harvey Wood who was Head of the British Council in Scotland, Sydney Newman who was Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and a group of civic leaders from the City of Edinburgh, in particular Sir John Falconer. The predominant form of art presented at the Festival was classical music, with one of its main highlights being the concerts given by the Vienna Philharmonic. These events offered the exiled conductor Bruno Walter opportunities to return to Europe, which he had fled during the Third Reich, and reunite with its Philharmonic orchestra.

Since its beginning, the Fringe has been an “unjuried,” open access performance arts festival to which anyone can participate with any kind of performance. In its first year, eight theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh uninvited and held their performance in smaller alternative venues during the same time as the International Festival. It took a few years before the events “on the fringe of the International Festival” developed a more formal institutional structure. In 1959, the Festival Fringe Society was founded. The creation of the Traverse Theatre in 1963 by John Calder, Jim Haynes, and Richard Demarco marked the formal establishment of the artistic credential of the Fringe through the presentation of cutting-edge drama to an international audience both throughout the entire year as well as at the International Festival and the Fringe in August of each year. One can argue, however, that the distinction between high and low art has lost its initial meaning. Today, the official Fringe is the largest event of the 12 that the Edinburgh Festival encompasses and the world’s largest arts festival. Undoubtedly, this contrast is not an accurate reflection of the scope or indeed of the quality of the performances included in the programs of the recent years. The remnants of this historical distinction are today visible merely in the formal features of the two festivals, such as participation on the basis of invitation alone for the International Festival, and their programs that different degrees of flexibility to certain forms of performative art, such as comedy.

This essay has offered a few reflections on the concepts of culture and culture wars. It first introduced them as concepts embedded in historical contexts, offering two main views of culture at the intersection of politics, artistic practice, and identity. In line with anthropological and sociological definitions, culture wars can represent clashes of ways of life, or of different cultural identities. To illustrate this distinction, the essay discusses the case of the contemporary Syrian refugee crisis and the European response to the refugee crisis as an illustration of clashing identities. The everyday problems of Syrian refugees living in Europe are distant and confined to refugee camps, and political and cultural elites fail to address them. A number of established artists seek to raise awareness of this very cultural divide and provide artistic solutions that facilitate engagement, dialogue, and the ultimate integration of refugees. At the same time, culture wars can also manifest themselves at the level artistic performance and production. In this sense, culture wars materialize in clashes between different cultural products. To elucidate this meaning, the essay discusses the distinction between high and low art in the context of the Edinburgh Festival, focusing on the early history of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe.


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By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons