Paul Shafer interview

28 Oct 2015

 When we treat cities as wholes rather than parts, the priority is on what brings people, groups, and institutions together


D. Paul Schafer has worked in the cultural field for more than four decades as an educator, advisor, administrator, and researcher. He was Assistant Director of the Ontario Arts Council from 1967 to 1970, a founder and Director of York University’s Programme in Arts and Media Administration from 1970 to 1974, and Coordinator of the Cooperative Programme in Arts Administration and the Cooperative Programme in International Development at the University of Toronto from 1984 to 1990. He has taught arts administration and cultural policy at York University and the University of Toronto, executed a number of projects for Canada’s Department of External Affairs, and undertaken several advisory missions for UNESCO to different parts of the world. He was originally trained as an economist, and taught economics at Dalhousie University and Acadia University before entering the cultural field, specializing in international development, principles of economics, and the history of economic thought.
Paul is the author of many books and articles on culture and the arts in general and Canadian culture and the arts in Canada in particular, including most recently The Secrets of Culture (Rock’s Mills Press, 2015) and The Age of Culture (Rock’s Mills Press, 2014).
Earlier works include Revolution or Renaissance: Making the Transition from an Economic Age to a Cultural Age (University of Ottawa Press); Culture: Beacon of the Future (Greenwood Publishing); Aspects of Canadian Cultural Policy (UNESCO); Culture and Politics in Canada: Towards a Culture for All Canadians (World Culture Project); Review of Federal Policies for the Arts in Canada: 1944-1988 (in conjunction with André Fortier; Canadian Conference of the Arts); A New System of Politics: Government, Governance, and Political Decision-making in the Twenty-first Century (World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution); Culture and Customs of Canada (Greenwood Publishing Group, World Cultures Today Online); and Arguments for the Arts (Arts Scarborough). Revolution or Renaissance was translated into Chinese and published by the Social Sciences Academic Press in China in 2006; the Press also translated and published his earlier work Culture: Beacon of the Future in 2008.

What are the most relevant differences between an economic age and a cultural age?

In an economic age, the central objective is to develop economics and economies, which are concerned with a specific part of the whole or the total way of life of people. In a cultural age, the central objective is to develop culture and cultures, which are concerned with the whole and the need to achieve balanced and harmonious relationships between the parts and the whole, especially when culture and cultures are perceived and defined in holistic terms. This is the main difference between the two ages. Emanating from this principal difference are a number of specific differences. In an economic age, the focus is largely on goods, services, and the creation of material and monetary wealth, and consequently on products, profits, production, consumption, materialism, the marketplace, and economic growth. In a cultural age, the focus is primarily on people, the natural environment, achieving more equitable distributions of income and wealth, realizing a better balance between the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of development, living a cultural life, and creating harmony between human beings, nature, and other species.

Why is economics not sufficient to serve as the sole framework for society?

Economics is not sufficient to serve as the sole framework for society – and the foundation for public and private policy and decision-making I might add – because economics is concerned with a part of the whole – albeit an extremely important part – and not the whole. When economics is given priority over the whole as it is in the economic age, this creates imbalances and shortcomings in this age and the world system that are difficult if not impossible to correct, especially with respect to the relationship between human beings and the natural environment.

These shortcomings and imbalances result from the fact that when the economic age was being developed and gathering momentum in theoretical and practical terms in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the natural environment was treated as a given and ignored. Now, after all these years, it is not possible to insert the natural environment into the economic age and world system after the fact. The best that can be achieved in this area is to open up a certain place for the natural environment in a few sectors of the economic age and world system but not at the centre where it belongs.

This is one of the main reasons why I believe we must pass out of the present economic age and into a future cultural age. When culture is seen in holistic terms as “the complex whole” – as it was in the nineteenth century by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and numerous anthropologists and cultural scholars who followed in his footsteps – it possesses the potential to open up a commanding place for the natural environment at the very centre of the cultural age and world system.

This is because the word “culture” derives from the Latin verb “colo” meaning “to plant, grow, nurture, and especially cultivate.” This means that there has been an intimate connection between culture, nature, and the natural environment dating back to classical times, despite the fact that this connection has been severed in the modern era. If we don’t capitalize on culture’s capacity to re-establish our connection with the natural environment and capitalize on it fully and soon, I believe the consequences will be disasterous for people and countries in all parts of the world and the world as a whole, especially as the world’s scarce resources are used up and climatic conditions and environmental circumstances continue to deteriorate. This was the main conclusion I arrived at in Revolution or Renaissance: Making the Transition from an Economic Age to a Cultural Age following an intensive examination of the historical development and contemporary character of culture and economics and the complex connection between them. It is also why I am convinced that culture in the holistic sense – rather than economics in the partial sense – provides a more effective framework and foundation for public and private decision-making. It is a framework and foundation that make it possible to see the big picture and realize that economics is part of culture rather than culture being part of economics when culture is visualized and dealt with in holistic terms.

You pointed out in “Revolution or Renaissance” that there is an inherent tendency in highly developed economic systems to produce substantial disparities in income and wealth between rich and poor people, classes, and countries. In Spain, the economic crisis seems to have aggravated these disparities. The last elections in Spain revealed that people are demanding change. Is a new way of contemplating society and policy-making coming?

It is a well-documented fact that economic systems have a tendency to produce substantial disparities in income and wealth if specific actions, policies, and programs are not created to prevent this, as happened, for example, in the mid-twentieth century when the welfare state was created in certain countries to counteract this tendency. While this tendency is inherent in all economic systems and has been from the beginning of time, income disparities and inequalities can be strongly influenced by political ideologies, policies, and practices. It is not coincidental in this regard that increased disparaties and inequalities in income and wealth have tended to coincide with conservative ideologies, policies, and practices in recent years in many parts of the world. This is because conservative ideologies, policies, and practices depend to a much greater extent on laissez faire economics, self-interest, and the marketplace to work things out, thereby giving much more attention to the production and consumption of wealth compared to the distribution of wealth. This is contributing to the shift that is going on in many parts of the world today back to the old two-tier class system, with a small coterie of exceedingly rich people owning and controlling the lion’s share of the world’s income and wealth and then everyone else.

This could be yet another advantage of a cultural age. In a cultural age, a much higher priority would be placed on people compared to products and profits, as well as on the non-material dimensions of development and life rather than the material ones. This could lead to a great deal more caring and sharing in the world – caring and sharing as it relates to jobs, income, wealth, and resources – through much more preoccupation with the arts, humanities, history, education, and social justice. This would certainly lead to more concern for the less fortunate people and countries of the world, as well as the expression of a great deal more sensitivity, humanity, and compassion in the world. In the end, I believe more equitable distributions of income and wealth are more likely to come about through culture and the desire to share, cooperate, and care for people than through economics and the marketplace. Hopefully this will become the new way of contemplating society and bringing about more effective redistributive. policies and practices.

The economic age has tended to destroy the social fabric of society and sense of community that binds people, institutions, groups, countries, and cultures together. How can we reestablish these bonds and connections?

Many of these bonds and connections will have to be created through the arts, humanities, education, and the “cultural industries” of publishing, radio, televison, film, video, the social media, and modern communications. Bonding, networking, and making connections are the essence of these activities and what they are all about in the final analysis. Creating and developing these bonds and connections is especially important at the community or local level. While one of the great things about the social media and modern technology is that they dramatically increase the capacity for bonding, communicating, and connecting at the regional, national, and international level, there is no doubt that there is a dire need for much more bonding and connecting among people and groups in communities and cities throughout the world. This is necessary given the demographic and ethnic shifts that are taking place throughout the world, as well as the fact that more than half the world’s population is living in communities and cities of various shapes and sizes.

This is one of the reasons why I believe a cultural rather than economic approach is needed to the development of communities and cities in the future. Many years ago, I developed a “culturescape methodology” that I felt was required to achieve this. It was based on getting to know communities and cities intimately in holistic terms through such activities as exploring the cultural characteristics, capabilities, and neighbourhoods of communities and cities through the development of “cultural profiles” – artistic, social, economic, ethnic, gastronomic, environmental, recreational and so forth; exposing the “cultural statements” communities and cities make to themselves and the rest of the world; creating “culturescape centres” at the core of communities and cities; getting citizens actively involved in urban cultural development, change, and decision-making; and the like. Is there be a better way to do this than by making it possible for people and groups to intermingle and interact on an active, dynamic, full time, and comprehensive basis in their various community environments and municipal habitats?

What are the most poweful forces of a cultural age?

The most powerful forces of a cultural age would be holism, the holistic perspective, caring, sharing, cooperation, creativity, sustainability, harmony, happiness, and spirituality. While economics and the material dimensions of development would continue to be powerful forces in a cultural age – it would it be foolhardy to deny this or contend otherwise – a cultural age would enable the aforementioned forces to flourish more frequently and fully because they have to do with achieving the balance and harmony that are required between all the diverse dimensions of development. It is not a case of abandoning economics and the material dimensions of development. Rather, it is
a case of transforming and trancending economics in order to situate economics and economies in a comprehensive cultural context, as well as take a broader, deeper, and more fundamemtal approach to life, living, reality, the human condition, and world system. Ultimately, this is what culture and a cultural age are designed to accomplish.

Your new book The Secrets of Culture paints a compelling portrait of the new world that awaits us. What is that world?

It is a world in which people and countries in all parts of the world and all levels and sectors of society can enjoy reasonable standards of living and a decent quality of life without straining the globe’s scarce resources and finite carrying capacity to the breaking point. In order to reaize this, it is necessary to develop a reverence for nature, get in tune with the natural environment and work with it rather than against it, redistribute income and
wealth more equitably, conserve rather than consume resources wherever possible, and make it possible for all people to live safe, healthy, creative, and meaningful lives.
This highlights another fundamental difference between the economic age and a cultural age. It dervies from the fact that economics manifests itself in the world in one way and one way only – as the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services and creation of material and monetary wealth – whereas culture manifests itself in the world in many ways, most notably as the arts, humanities, heritage of history, complex whole, relationship between human beings and the natural environment, and the organizational forms and structures of different species.
While this makes culture a much more complicated matter than economics, it also makes it far more vast, valuable, flexible, and versatile. In fact, there is very little in the world that is not explained by the many different ways culture manifests itself in the world, which is probably why Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, selected culture as its “Word of the Year” for 2014. I believe we have only scratched the surface of the rich potential culture possesses to come to grips with all the complexity and diversity in the world and create the conditions for a better world. Realizing the full potential of culture and all the diverse cultures in the world is imperative for this.

What role should cultural policy play in the development of cities? Should it be concerned largely with the administration of programs and management of facilities and buildings? Or does it have a much larger role to play?

Consistent with comments made earlier, I believe cultural policy should be concerned first and foremost with the development of all the resources of cities – from the artistic and historical to the ecological and contemporary – as well as achieving balance and harmony between and among them.
I know this is a tall order, daunting task, and ideal, but it is imperative to get the fundamentals and foundations right because everything follows and flows from this. As Ruth Benedict, the renowned American cultural scholar said many years ago, “the whole determines its parts, not only their relation but their very nature.” Seen from this perspective, change the whole – in this case from economics to culture – and you change the parts. When we treat cities as wholes rather than parts, the priority is on what brings people, groups, and institutions together, not what splits them apart. What is especially important in municipal cultural policy is the actual and potential points of contact between the component parts of cities. For cities, like people, institutions, cultures, countries, the world system, and so forth are dynamic and organic wholes made up of many different parts, not smorgasbords of independent and disconnected pieces.

Despite our penchant for dividing wholes up into parts in order to study the parts in detail, the crucial challenge in the world today is to create wholes that achieve harmony and balance between and among the parts. This makes it essential to ensure that all the parts of cities and communities are connected, interacting, and engaging on a frequent, sustained, and full-time basis, which for me is the most important task in developing cultural policies for cities.

What is the role of technology in a cultural age? Is it capable of overcoming all the problems humanity is faced with now and in the future, or does it have its limitations?

There is no doubt that developments in modern technology have opened up incredible opportuities for people, cities, countries, and the world over the last few decades. Like economics and economies, technology has been instrumental in expanding the realm of choice, creating the ability to work in many different locations, developing entrepreneurial skills and abilities, creating works of art, science, and scholarship, sharing knowledge and information, communicating with friends and colleagues close at hand and far afield, tapping into the tanagible and intangible cultural heritage of humankind, learning more about all the diverse cultures and civilizations in the world, and so much more. These opportunities, and countless others, are exciting, rewarding, and virtually limitless.

Nevertheless, technology has its shortcomings as well as its strengths. One shortcoming is that a great deal of contemporary technology turns people inward rather than outward, which is a rapidly escalating problem in most parts of the world today. Another is that most technology is materialistic, and does little to create spirituality and conservation in life. And yet another is that technology can and often does fragment communities and
societies rather than consolidate them.

What we are concerned with here is the fact that technology, like economics and economies, has its limits and limitations as well as its strengths and benefits. This makes it imperative to be ever watchful and mindful of the dangers of modern technology. If we fail to do this, we may end up with a problem not unlike the problem that was created when economics and the economic age were developing, which involved ignoring the natural environment and giving economics precedence over everything else.

You say that during the past sixty years, governments have become so immersed in the economic affairs of nations that their principal role is now economic rather than political. What is the role of government in a cultural age? What would constitute an “effective government” in your view in such an age?

While the vast majority of people and countries in the world are aware of how the economic age functions and what its principal priorities and objectives are, what is notwell understood is how deeply and fully we are immersed in the economic age, how totally dependent we are on it, and how it determines our individual and collective behaviour, attitudes, values, lifestyles, and overall way of life. This is why I believe it is imperative to stand well back from the economic age, assess it with a critical and impartial eye, and come to grips with its fundamental shortcomings as well as capitalize on its numerous strengths.

One of the things that is most obvious when we do this is that politics in general – and governments in particular – have become so preoccupied with economics, economies, and economic growth that their principal function is now economic rather than political. This development has its origins in universal acceptance of the economic interpretation of history and more recently the Keynesian economics, which focus largely on the production, distribution, and consumption of material and monetary wealth and the rolegovernments and politics play in this process.

These developments ignore one of the highest and most basic ideals of politics and governments of all, namely concern with the whole and not just a part of the whole – regardless of how important this part is. While politicians and governments have a valuable role to play in managing economies, generating material and monetary wealth, and stimulating economic growth, this should not be their sole function or their principal

This is why I believe politics and governments should be concerned first and foremost with culture and cultures in the holistic sense and not economics and economies in the partial sense. In order to achieve this, the development of culture and cultures in general and cultural developoment and policy in particular – should be made the centrepiece and principal preoccupation of politics, government, governments, and governance in the
years and decades ahead.

While there are many implications and consequences of this as documented in Culture: Beacon of the Future, Revolution or Renaissance, The Age of Culture, and now The Secrets of Culture, one of the major implications has to do with creating a new perception of people, citizens, and citizenship and their role and functions in society. This goes directly to the role of politics and governments in the world of today and tomorrow. Rather than relying on present perceptions of people, citizens, and citizenship that are concerned largely with the production and consumption of goods and services – that is to say with the concept of “economic man” – governments and politicians should take a cultural approach to the development of people, citizens, and citizenship that is based on what might best be termed “the cultural personality.” This raises one of the largest problems related to citizens and citizenship. It is preoccupation with citizens’ rights while simultaneously ignoring their responsibilties. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has achieved an enormous amount in terms of attending to people’s rights in many different areas of life and giving them the assurance they need that their rights will not be violated – at least in principle if not always in practice – it is time to combine citizens’ rights with citizens’ responsibilities in the creation and enactment of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Responsibilites.

Of what do these responsibilities consist? They consist, among many other things, of revering nature, the natural environment, and other species and doing as little damage to them as possible; respecting other people’s worldviews, values, beliefs, and overall ways of life; playing an active role in the development of one’s own culture and learning as much as possible about all the other diverse cultures and civilizations of the world; pursuing peace, unity, and harmony rather than war, disunity, and conflict; and helping the less fortunate and needy people and countries of the world. While these are not theonly responsibilities citizens should accept and carry out, they are consistent with the need to achieve harmony between citizens’ rights and responsbilities as one of the most essential and worthwhile aspects and assets of citizenship. This has a great deal to do with giving as well as taking, being concerned with “the other” and not just “the self,” and reating all people with dignity, compassion, and respect.

Emanating from this cultural perception of people, citizens, and citizenship, I believe governments and other public sector organizations such as educational institutions and civic associations have a key role to play in helping all people and all citizens to live creative, constructive, and fulfilling lives. This would dramatically transform and
transcend the present role of governments and politics in society, as well as put humanity on the right path to achieving more harmony, equality, peace, and sustainabiltiy in the world.

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