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Maja Breznik, researcher

University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Arts

Aškerčeva 2
1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia

Maja Breznik

Culture in the Region and Beyond

(Through the Lens of Cultural Crisis)

The presentation will investigate cultural processes, trends and transformations in three
Slovenian cities, and with a comparative scanning of the situations and transformations in
three neighbouring cities in Italy, Austria and Croatia. The cultural sphere, as it was
constituted in the early modern Europe, is presently undergoing dramatic transformations
under the impact of contradictory processes. If, in the early modern Europe, differentiated
and heterogeneous local processes resulted in the same general outcome, the constitution of
an autonomous sphere of culture – when the emergence of "culture" was a non-capitalist
condition of the triumph of capitalist economy – its present "dissolution" may well indicate
the irruption of cultural practices into the heart of capitalist economy. Under these particular
tensions and conflicts, the paper will investigate manoeuvres of local cultural communities
within the contemporary field of culture production which seems to be articulated upon the
homogenous free-trade paradigm. Their manoeuvres will be studied in the perspective of
specific and general scepticism.

Central Europe, urban culture, field of cultural production, globalisation, artistic ideology,
specific and general scepticism

In the present study, we shall investigate processes and practices in the field of culture in a
small Central European region: in three Slovene cities (Koper, Ljubljana, Maribor) and in
three neighbouring cities Trieste, Graz and Zagreb.1 The research has been conducted along
three different axes: by direct observation; by the analysis of institutional arrangements;
through the interpretation of the processes and their own practices offered by the main

This presentation mostly depends upon the findings of the research project Contemporary culture in the crisis
of social cohesion, 2007-2009, financed by the Public Agency for Research, Republic of Slovenia. I have also
used findings and materials of the project Cultural development of the city of Ljubljana, 2006, financed by the
City Commune of Ljubljana.

cultural agents (artists, cultural producers, municipal administrators, activists). We shall try to
illuminate internal tensions and conflicts in the perspective of general global and particularly
European processes, and present mobilisations of available forces in response to political and
economical strains within the field of cultural production. The accent will therefore be upon
the interpretive and reflective ideologies of cultural agents.

Practically all the cultural agents, whom we interviewed, spoke about very similar types of
cultural institutionalisation and power configurations despite of the differing local traditions
and the divergent historical itineraries of their countries. Both in the countries with capitalist
past and in the post-socialist countries, interviewers spoke about similar political projects and
goals, mostly shaped after “European agenda” (we heard city administrators use the same list
of key-words “creative industries”, “flagship projects”, “cultural tourism” and so on, with the
minor exception of Trieste). They expressed deep worries for their local cultural production
due to intensive conflicts among various cultural productions and their agents. Conflicts
condensate along the oppositions like "international vs. local cultural industries", "national
culture vs. alternative culture" … City administrations are mostly unable to regulate these
conflicts since their financial means lag far behind the needs of cultural productions. Through
the interviews we identified four core systemic problems in the cities:

• The cities inherited gigantic national institutions for opera, theatre, dance, and
music production. These institutions represent the usual European package of cultural
production and, aesthetically identifiable as canonical and academic art, resemble
museum cultural production. Within the ideologies shared by the decision makers,
however, this kind of cultural production is considered to be of great importance as
European national heritage. These institutions spend far larger parts of the state,
regional and/or local cultural budgets than the "independent" “live cultures” whose
producers complain to be kept at the back.

• With the rapid growth of employment in culture (esp. if compared with the
falling rate of employment in other sectors), various small cultural institutions were
created across the region in great numbers. The number of independent artists also
increased. They all apply for the project-based financing and receive negligible
subventions if compared to the enormous demand and to their actual needs. The
system of project-based financing is moreover disadvantageous, since the decision-

making processes and actual allocations of subventions are usually late and cultural
producers often have to prepare events without knowing how much funds they will get
and when.

• Processes of globalisation are affecting local cultural production, like book and
music publishing, book and film distribution. City authorities have to take
responsibilities for the recovery of local cultural industries as well as for the new
cultural needs. For example, art cinemas that can nowadays be maintained only by a
stable financial support, offer an alternative to the low quality film distribution in the
multi-cinemas upon city peripheries. The number of bookstores is decreasing as the
premises are changed into stationery shops or even closed.

• Political elites press cultural administrators on the state and local levels to
implement specific policy orientations, like introducing market-oriented and corporate
modes of operation into cultural institutions, development of cultural tourism and of
creative industries, city regeneration and so on. These orientations are sometimes in
direct opposition to the manifested needs of local communities or at least they create a
need for new financial resources the already impoverished city budget cannot provide.

Municipal cultural departments therefore meet increasing needs to which they cannot
positively respond. Moreover, heteronomous pressures over local authorities tear apart the
eventual consistency of their cultural policy. To meet these problems, local authorities put
much hope into the development of cultural strategies, prepared in a “bottom-up” way that
would create a solid consensus among the subjects involved in the local cultural production.
Within the contemporary political sphere, characterised by a general “democratic deficit”,
such approaches can only exceptionally be practised. However, in the few cases where such a
process has been initiated, it did not work out as expected.

Failed co-operation

It seems that the invitation to prepare a strategic programme that would establish relations
of obligations among all the parties involved, including administrators and politicians, had
been quite a surprise to cultural producers. Even more astonishing, however, was their
response to it. City administrators, who had been involved in the attempt, speak about the

disinterest of cultural producers, their unwillingness to participate to debates and to other
activities of strategic planning: as a consequence, final documents did not fulfil the
expectations. They simply reflected present situations and replicated the conflicting interests,
without succeeding to advance toward a consensual cultural strategy for the near future.
Consultations, public debates, seminars did not work out and cultural administrators were
deeply disillusioned with cultural producers.

Contrary to the one-time attempts in most of the other cities, the city of Graz has already
had rich experience with the integration of cultural producers into public debates and
decision-making. Graz politicians and administrators consider that their city should maintain
high standards of large participation to the decision-making processes. Accordingly, since the
European Cultural Capital in 2003, the city department of culture organises once a year
general public debates to which all cultural producers are invited. According to the chief
administrator for culture Peter Grabensberger, these debates turned out to be less interesting
as expected, since cultural producers usually take them as a chance for self-promotion.
According to the same speaker, they are nevertheless important, since they make people talk
to each other. For this reason, Grabensberger is sceptical about the requirement, addressed to
his department by the politicians, to produce, in an integrated and participative way, a
strategic plan for culture up to 2020. He estimates that, besides empty phraseology and
political compromises, no real practical good is to be expected of such a document.

In Zagreb, the city department of culture organised seminars and workshops for cultural
producers between 2003 and 2005 to enable them to write a strategic plan for culture. The city
appointed teaching staff educated in West European schools of art management, and
composed the groups according to the field of their activity. After two years all groups
prepared strategic plans for their fields. However, the results were imbalanced. Cultural
producers in privileged positions, like national theatres and museums, approached the task
without interest, while the institutions in the worst position (like 13 local cultural centres)
took it much more seriously. The new city government abolished the programme and as a
consequence it has never been brought to the final stage.

The city of Trieste has not undertaken any efforts of the kind till now. Accordingly, its
policy in the field of culture is more “top-down” oriented. In Trieste a kind of strategic plan

exists in the form of a three-year municipal financial plan where, among other plans, the
development priorities for culture are determined.

In Koper, municipal cultural department claims to have prepared cultural strategy with a
certain involvement of cultural producers. We were not allowed to have access to the
document before the final approval in the city council, so we assume that, in fact, the
decision-making process was much more exclusive than in other cities. This has been
confirmed when we discovered that certain quite important cultural producers in the city were
not aware even of the existence of such document.

In Ljubljana the first serious arrangements for strategic planning are being undertaken
right now. The city department for culture has commissioned various research projects on the
related topic, asked cultural producers to contribute written comments and plans to organise
public debates.

The city of Maribor is actually the only city in the region that is already in possession of a
Cultural Programme for the period 2007-2011. The programme was prepared within the
framework of the city's candidacy for the European Cultural Capital 2012. In fact, the
Programme almost textually reproduces the application for the European Cultural Capital. It
seems that the involvement in the creation of the document had been somewhat imposed upon
the cultural producers and the city council under the spell of the enthusiastic atmosphere
during the preparation of the candidature.

From the point of view of cultural producers

While city administrators regularly complained about the disinterest and selfishness of
cultural producers, the latter did not spare their harsh criticism against the lack of equal and
fair treatment by the city authorities who introduce arbitrary distinctions among cultural
institutions. According to cultural producers, unequal treatment is the main reason that blocks
eventual dialogue among various agents of cultural production. Independent cultural
producers in all cities criticized the great disproportions in financing the state/national
institutions on one side and the independent institutions on the other; the same opposition was
sometimes referred to as the distinction between the traditional and modern institutions
(which one of the interviewers wittily described as “non-avant-garde institutions that deal

with avant-garde art”), and the contemporary “free scene”… While national institutions
(including cultural heritage) are everywhere allocated about 90% of the whole city budget, the
rest is distributed in the form of project-based financing among numerous independent
cultural institutions.

Besides the imbalance in financial terms, the next obstacle seems to be aesthetical.
Interviewed cultural producers volunteered judgements about each other that could be
described as those of the specific scepticism.2 They suspected other agents' honesty in doing
art while claiming to be fully convinced of their own sincerity in producing genuine artistic
works. The predominant theme in the interviews with cultural producers was the conjunction
of institutional and aesthetic divergences which, according to their opinion, structures the
field of contemporary cultural production. The thesis according to which a certain
combination of institutional arrangements and aesthetic orientations determines the relations
within the field of cultural production requests a more detailed analysis.

The contemporary field of cultural production

The analysis of the field of cultural production was carried out by Pierre Bourdieu in the
80-ies.3 Bourdieu developed a dual scheme with two opposing principles of hierarchical
ordering of cultural producers. On one side, there is a heteronomous principle of
hierarchization according to which the artists are driven by non-artistic goals, like economic
success and profit. On the other side, there is an autonomous principle of hierarchization
according to which the artists are driven by artistic goals and artistic recognition which they
can receive from colleagues, critics, art historians, academies, states, public and so on. The
second principle reverses the dominant principle of hierarchization, the heteronomous
principle, in denying the public and economic success, and differentiates itself from the large-
scale production. It is, for this reason, “the upside-down economic world”: while not

The opposition between the "specific" and the "general" scepticism was introduced by Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd in
Magic, Reason and Experience: Studies in the origins and development of Greek science, Cambridge, 1979.
Jack Goody uses the same opposition and comments on it as follows: "[…] Lloyd claims that while scepticism
existed before the Greeks, as well as among other peoples, there is a significant difference between general and
specific scepticism. He quotes the well-known passage from Evans-Pritchard's study of the Azande […] where
the author points out that while individual witchdoctors might be frauds, there was no scepticism about
witchdoctoring in general. […] It is the systematic recording (or even the possibility of so doing) rather than an
initial attitude of mind that allows us to be 'generally sceptical'." Jack Goody, The Interface between the Written
and the Oral, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1989, pp. 68-69.
Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.

completely annulling the economic interest and the desire for recognition, it is able to
introduce such considerations only in the way of Freudian denial (Verneinung). Or, in
sociological terms, the field of cultural production is rooted in the clash between two groups
of the dominant class whose confrontation re-enacts the main class conflict which structures
the general social context.

Bourdieu’s scheme of cultural production in the 80-ies can serve as a useful term of
comparison to describe the contemporary field of cultural production. The rational decisions
and practices of contemporary cultural producers were well described by the chief
administrator in Graz. He described the "ideal-type" of the contemporary artist as a person of
heterogeneous skills who “has to be good in public relations, in financial matters, at providing
political support and who is, nonetheless, good in making art”. Artist, who does not posses all
these skills, cannot expect to get a chance to make his or her art, unless she or he is able to
work in extremely poor conditions. Consequently, the spirit of entrepreneurship has pervaded
all cultural institutions. Little project-based financed institutions have to prove it each time
they submit applications or complete evaluation forms in order to receive grants. Not even the
big national institutions have been spared the need to behave in the entrepreneurial spirit. The
political reform aims precisely at bringing entrepreneurship to every public institution,
including national cultural institutions. Pursuing this goal, the region of Steyermark and the
city of Graz reformed in 2004 the Graz opera, theatre and youth theatre. They integrated these
institutions into one corporation, the Theaterholding Graz after the already existing model of
Bundestheater-Holding in Vienna. The corporation is now a "GmbH" (“a company with
limited liability”), while regional and city authorities remain the owner and the main financer
of the company. With a generous public financer it has not been difficult to acquire new
freedom and independence. However, administrations of the private publicly financed
companies (a nice non-logic of privatisation without privatisation) certainly have to prove
themselves also economically: either with the increase of the number of visitors or by
attracting private donations or by performing modern managerial wits, like “downsizing”.
Similar reform happened to the opera house Teatro Verdi in Trieste. In 1998 all Italian opera
houses were changed into fondazioni with comparable legal status as Theaterholding Graz.
Since then, Teatro Verdi has many founders: alongside the state, the region and the city also
figure private companies, like Assicurazioni Generali and power supply company Acegas, and
many private persons. Companies, moreover, have to provide twelfth percent of budget by
selling tickets, attracting donations…, otherwise the public funds are proportionally reduced.

In such a delicate situation the managers, as we were told, are often induced to take loans in
banks – and this leads to constant indebtedness and to progressive reduction of the public

Public policies

Entrepreneurship has been imposed upon cultural institutions by governmental and

municipal policies. Andrea Zlatar, ex-chief administrator of the cultural department of the city
of Zagreb, explained how artists and cultural producers perceive and behave toward “public
policies”. According to her experience, especially small independent cultural institutions
“perceive financing as unfair play, since they feel to be forced to participate in a sort of
market competition, while the competition itself is not conducted on equal terms for all the
participants” (italics mine). As the expression "financing" here refers to public funding, either
local or state, we can draw from her statement the conclusion that cultural producers perceive
their contest for public funds as a sort of “free-trade competition”. They do not distinguish
between public policy and the usual relations to donors or sponsors: the only difference
consists in the presumed anomalies of the public policy. According to their feeling, public
policy does not offer equal terms to all the participants. For them, public cultural policy is
nothing else but an extended “market competition” or an extension of the economic logic into
the public sphere. Their adaptation to the “free-trade” paradigm is therefore deep-rooted. For
instance, independent cultural producers in Zagreb, trying to balance the unequal treatment of
independent institutions in public funding, proposed to establish a foundation for non-
governmental cultural institutions. Among all the possibilities, they chose an institutional
form perfectly accommodated to the “free-trade” paradigm, where the only organised support
of culture is a private foundation.

Interviewed cultural producers mostly interpreted their situation in the terms that may
make us conclude that there is an institutional and aesthetic combat among cultural
organizations, similar to the transposition of the class conflict from the general social context
into the field of cultural production, as stated in Bourdieu's analysis. To a certain extent they
are right, since many alternative cultural practices are a constant target of repressive cultural
politics. Nonetheless, on the level of their practical strategies, cultural producers are pervaded
by the jargon of the “free-trade” paradigm. As a consequence, cultural and aesthetic
differences among them, even if they exist, fade out, since these distinctive features can only

be affirmed and displayed by the means of their managerial skills. The combat between
cultural institutions is less about their autonomous artistic ideologies and practices, and much
more about their managerial skills to make these ideologies and practices visible through the
“market relations”: through marketing strategies, through capabilities to get the support from
public authorities, private donors and political elite or through the capacity to turn their
artistic projects into profitable enterprises. The internal dialectics of the field of cultural
production that still existed, in the time of Bourdieu’s analysis, in the form of the tension
between heteronomous and autonomous principles, between economic interest and disinterest,
has nowadays faded out. Really rare are those who do not participate in the general stream.
They exist, as we will see later, but with their unwillingness to submit themselves to the
entrepreneurial logic of cultural field, they, at the same time, withdraw from the field of
cultural production altogether.

Operational ideology and formation of the field of culture

Transformations in the role of the state and in the way how it operates, and changes in the
functioning and understanding of the public sphere, contributed a lot to the radical submission
of the sphere of culture to the ideology of market economy which, as we have seen, so
decisively determines the behaviour of cultural producers and, indirectly, their practices.
Project-based financial schemes changed the public instance into a casual donor to whom
cultural producers relate as to any private donor. Not even national institutions, established by
the state or local authorities who still predominantly guarantee their financing, could escape
entrepreneurial revolution. As the cases of Theaterholding Graz and Teatro Verdi (Trieste)
show, they pass over to private ownership and/or to entrepreneurial management without
significant protest of the expropriated public.4

After the imposition of the market-entrepreneurial model in culture, the state creates
numerous supporting programmes designed to sustain the “fairness of the market economy”.
In this way, public instance introduces various heteronomous principles into culture. Tax
exemptions as indirect state support for the culture (like tax exemptions for private donations,

However, I should mention some remarkable exceptions: Salvatore Settis (Italia S.p.A., Milan, Einaudi, 2007
[2002]), Serge Regourd (L'exception culturelle, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2002), André Schiffrin
(The business of books: how international conglomerates took over publishing and changed the way we read,
London - New York, Verso, 2000) … In Slovenia, Aldo Milohnić, Maja Breznik, Majda Hrženjak, and Bratko
Bibič studied these processes in: Culture Ltd. (Ljubljana, Peace Institute, 2006).

reduced tax rates for certain cultural products or artists…) are playing an increasingly
important role in cultural policies. Such measures are intended to encourage private funding
of culture or to support certain cultural industries, like book publishing. Rewards for the
artists through the authors’ rights system are also a kind of indirect support that costs nothing
to the state. Since the early 90-ies, increasingly rigorous protection of authors’ property rights
has importantly escalated. Such protection benefits to authors who are commercially
successful; in this way, authors’ rights system deepens the anomalies already created by
cultural industries. New public supporting schemes operate in a way that introduces quite
radical principles of market economy even into the field of public culture. They also impose
non-transparent criteria of selection and promotion (like commercial success, individual tastes
and propensities of the donors – not to mention schemes of private enrichment practised by
members of various councils and boards of cultural institutions5).

Public support mechanisms fundamentally changed their forms by imitating market

economy relations, so the differences between the role of state, private donors and capital fade
out in the eyes of cultural producers. As a consequence, cultural producers spontaneously
perceive their relations to the state or local authorities as market relations. Basically, they
imagine the public sphere as a hunting ground where the prey is appropriated by those who
have succeeded to gain economical or political domination.6 (This is the most clearly visible
in the field of mass media). Apparently, nobody sees any problem in the changing nature of
public services and public sphere, although there is no other reasonable justification for this
except the intention not to spend public money on cultural practices and to submit cultural
institutions to the ordeal of commercialisation. In this way, the state could easily get rid of the
“losers” without bringing to the fore any painful political decisions and argumentation about
eventual reforms or closing of certain institutions. Imposition of the market and pseudo-
market mechanisms upon the cultural sphere basically aims at introducing selective

Described in: Chin-tao Wu, Privatising Culture. Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s, Verso, London –
New York, 2003; Raymonde Moulin, Le marché de l'art. Mondialisation et nouvelles technologies, Flammarion,
Paris, 2003.
One could say that cultural producers have a "Braudelian", not a liberal notion of the market as capitalist
market. Braudel draws a sharp distinction between what he calls "the market" (a sphere of moderate average
profits, of transparency and where the activities are "barely distinguishable from ordinary work") and
"capitalism" – a parasitic formation upon the market, a zone of exceptional profits appropriated with the help of
"networks [and] operations which already seemed diabolical to common mortals" (Fernand Braudel, Civilization
and Capitalism, 15th – 18th Century, vol. 1, Harper and Row, New York, p. 562); "The capitalist game only
concerned the unusual, the very special, or the very long distance connection. […] It was a world of
'speculation'." (Fernand Braudel, idem, vol 2, p. 456). In the eyes of cultural producers, however, there is only
Braudelian "capitalism" in culture, and no Braudelian "market".

mechanisms that decide about the survival of institutions while keeping politicians’ hands

The importance of certain differences among cultural producers and institutions that have
until recently been considered essential, is losing grounds and justification. The differences
concerning aesthetic and conceptual orientation, artistic ideologies and practices, no more
really matter, given that all cultural producers have to corkscrew their artistic practices
through the “art market” first. In this process, their positions and counter-positions are fading
out and their products are becoming more and more homogenous. They differ only as much as
the art market requires it. Contemporary field of cultural production therefore suppressed the
classical (Bourdieu-type) conflict between economic capital and autonomous culture, given
that the economic logic, with the great support of public cultural institutions, has been spread
all over the field of cultural production. Multinational publishing house and small alternative
organisation, they both have to develop survival strategies in the same entrepreneurial
environment, no matter what their artistic programmes or missions may be. Every cultural
producer has to justify his or her art by the number of visitors and rewards, with financial
reports, press clippings, etc. These are material conditions of cultural production, so – hic
Rhodus, hic salta! Cultural production is no more guided by an inverted economic logic,
according to which cultural producers have, with disdain or negation of economic profit and
success, created the very same profit and social recognition, in a process that had the form of
the "negation of negation". Cultural production has become a part of global entrepreneurship.

Although cultural producers compete with each other, despite of their specific scepticism,
they know how to act collectively, if they are menaced as a group. Peter Grabensberger gave
one such example. An inexperienced local politician proposed to commission an evaluation
that would show which organisations are worthy of receiving city support and which are not.
In a word, evaluation should divide “productive” cultural producers from the “non-
productive”. “Nobody is going to make such expertise”, Peter Grabensberger said,
“Everybody is going to say that all need more money and that all cultural producers are
important in the terms of cultural plurality”. Such an expertise had actually been done some
time ago, another interviewee from Graz confirmed, but the ensuing savings in the city budget
were minimal and somewhat awkwardly corresponded to the cost of the expertise. Instinct of
self-preservation that makes cultural producers forget their "internal" disagreements, is
triggered every time when the group as whole is menaced or when the autonomous field of

culture is in danger. An evaluation seems to be such a threat and a proposal for the city
cultural development plan another one. In the light of general complaints referring to a
presumed “democratic deficit”, an invitation to cultural producers to the effect that they
themselves prepare the city cultural development plan seems generous and forthcoming. So
what keeps cultural producers back?

Impossibility of collective action – or incapacity of cultural producers?

In order to meet the requirements of such a project, cultural producers should overcome
their mutual competitiveness, i.e., their specific scepticism, and substitute it with scepticism
toward arts and culture in general, i.e., with the general scepticism. They should open their
eyes upon their material conditions, upon the aesthetic practices and their effects, upon social
issues and so on. It seems, however, that cultural producers are not able to take a distant look
upon the art and culture in general; they cannot question their spontaneous ideologies if they
simply believe in art, i.e., in their own notion of the art. Cultural producers with their own
artistic positions and ideologies seem to be more hostile toward their peers, i.e., toward other
cultural producers with their own counter-positions and ideologies, than toward imposed
political decisions. Political decisions about material conditions of cultural production are
foreign to artistic practices: as a consequence, it is easier for a cultural producer to adapt to
heteronomous political decisions than to accept the dialogue with other cultural producers.
The logic of "specific scepticism" blocks the possibility of a collective action: cultural
producers "believe in art" in general, and criticise each other's work in the name of this belief.
However, the contents of this general belief are specific: it is each particular producer's
individual or specific notion of the art that is actually the contents of the general belief.
Modern aesthetic individualism has always more or less inhibited collective action. Modern
aesthetic ideology actually is one of the few domains where specific scepticism not only
survives, but remains constitutive. Nonetheless it was possible in the past that groups of artists
align themselves along a common aesthetic programme. This is no more so: it seems that this
impossibility is one of the defining features of what we call "contemporary" art as opposed to
"modern" art. The "market" that has been imposed as the main relational pattern within the
cultural sphere, has pulverised the field and transformed it into an agglomerate of isolated and
mutually competing individuals. As success, promotion, even survival depend upon
entrepreneurship, aesthetic programmes do not really matter any more. Paradoxically, it is
precisely because they do not matter that aesthetic ideologies block collective action in the

field of culture. From the promise of utopian authentic conviviality, aesthetic ideology and
practice have changed into an effective obstacle to co-operation.

This situation has devastating effects upon the behaviour, and perhaps even upon the
psychology of cultural producers. Convinced that only he or she knows what the "real" art is,
contemporary artist cannot discuss it with “heretics”. If cultural producer really believes in the
authenticity of his or her artistic practice, he or she is much more antagonistic toward other
cultural producers than toward administrators or politicians who entertain no aesthetic

According to this logic, the demand to question the political dimension of art is unjustified
from the artist’s point of view. If his or her artistic practice is really revolutionary, then its
aesthetic effect will necessarily have ideological and political dimensions, and will trigger
corresponding effects. Consequently, an artist is "political" predominantly through his or her
art, not through explicit socio-cultural engagements. For this reason, cultural producers easily
accept extraneous and heteronomous conditions that are imposed upon them: they really do
not care much about eventual cultural strategy. As each suspects the other of “forged
shamanism” and every one believes in his or her art, they cannot collaborate. While specific
scepticism is an acceptable part of cultural production, general scepticism seems to be

Commodity fetishism and socio-culture

Does this mean that general scepticism is altogether absent? We noticed it at least in two
particular practices. The first is the well-known commodity fetishism. Cultural production is
conceived as a part of “creative industries” that produce products for market like any other
industry. In this case, general scepticism consists in the presumption that a work of art is
nothing but a commodity. One of the consequences of this view is that it assigns no autonomy
to the artistic sphere and its practices.

The second practice has been variously described. In Graz, interviewees spoke about
socio-culture. The example they offered, showing a strong disdain, was an artistic event – a
public meal with homeless people. In Trieste, there are several cultural projects carried out in
a prison – a library project and a theatre laboratory. In the post-socialist countries Slovenia

and Croatia, however, socially responsive cultural practices are taken far more seriously. This
contrast requires further analysis. In the four post-socialist cities cultural and political activists
set up centres where cultural practices open a space of sociability, provide discussion
platforms, occasions for theoretical debates, social criticism, political activism and for
counter-culture production. These centres, like Metelkova in Ljubljana, Pekarna in Maribor,
Mama and Močvara in Zagreb, Mladinski in kulturni center in Koper and so on, confront a
strong opposition by the authorities who try to discipline and repress disobedient “youth”.
Police razzias, switching off electricity and water supply, demolition of buildings and other
sorts of annoyances are quite regular, since the authorities consider a number of these places
(or their parts) to be illegal squats, or hosting illegal activities or performing activities like
selling soft drinks and beer in an illegal way.7 According to Andrea Zlatar, authorities do not
recognise their social criticism, subversive cultural practices, political engagement, and
theoretical production as “cultural activities”.

The answers to the question we asked in the in interviews – “What are your cultural and
aesthetic positions?” – revealed what provokes so strong negative reactions against the
cultural centres which engage in socially responsive cultural practices. One of the answers
given by a producer in socially-oriented centres was that their institution does not establish
itself upon any aesthetic position, since they do not see culture as representation or identity,
but rather as a means of participation and openness and take it in a broad sense with all the
eventual social-political effects. Several cultural producers in these centres answered that they
do not take objects of art as fetishes but simply as means of communication. For instance,
films are not consumed as works of art, but viewed as conveyors of communication. Their
eventual “aesthetic approach” is just one among the elements of the message. Precisely this
position is highly questionable in the eyes of authorities and cultural elites, since it endangers
two dominant cultural ideologies, the art ideology and its fetishist notion of the work of art on
one side, and on the other the market ideology with its commodification of art-objects. For
these reasons, these cultural and social practices introduce radical scepticism, i.e. general
scepticism toward sanctified art as well as toward general commodification. They crash the

For a detailed and commented account of the history of the alternative space Metelkova (Ljubljana), see: Bratko
Bibič, Hrup z Metelkove. Tranzicije prostorov in kulture v Ljubljani [The Noise from Metelkova. Transitions of
spaces and cultures in the city of Ljubljana], Peace Institute, Ljubljana, 2003.

trap that, according to Rastko Močnik, lies in wait for the avant-garde artist.8 Situating the art
within the general processes of social communication and in the centre of social and
economic struggles, they give up the aesthetic presumption that situates artistic practices, their
products and "culture" in general within an autonomous social sphere. This is a strong
challenge to theoretical research on culture and to cultural activism, and opens decisive
questions about the public sphere, public domain, about social transfer of knowledge and
information, about political emancipation, and so on. Authorities and cultural elites respond to
the challenge with repression or marginalisation.


Cultural policies of the cities where we conducted the research, respond to cultural crisis
with intensification of cultural production and by increasing the production of cultural goods.
The authorities presume that the crisis is about the efficiency of production and accordingly
push cultural agents to intensify their activities. The demand for more and more representative
and prestigious projects drains financial and intellectual resources, while the crisis remains.
Endeavours to increase the supply of cultural goods and services only accelerate the vicious
circle in which the already breathless cultural institutions oscillate between "highbrow"
snobbery and commercialisation. During our encounters, administrators and cultural
producers gave clear impression of being exhausted and often uttered discouraged cynical
remarks. The field of contemporary cultural production swiftly proceeds toward a state of
chaos and dissolution. In these circumstances, only the autonomous cultural centres showed
clear vision, strength and enthusiasm. If the larger social context proves capable at least to
tolerate unconventional and subversive approaches, then there are chances for the cultural
initiatives based on general scepticism, i.e., practicing rigorous and reflective criticism, to
break out of the present vicious circle. If this actually happens, then new horizons and new
spaces may open for the whole field of cultural production.

"What is this trap? [A]vant-gardes are caught in a double paradox: in order to preserve a possibility of aesthetic
practice that reaches beyond ideology, they are forced to fight for the ideological status of art and against its
commodification. In order to preserve the 'exempt' social status of the 'arts and culture', they struggle for social
recognition: but this only means that they strive for their own commodification, i.e., for the liquidation of their
exceptionality.” Rastko Močnik, “EastWest”, Maska, Vol. XIX, No. 3-4 (86-87), Summer 2004.