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We need a department of culture ASAP

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By Oscar F. Picazo

Images by Pinggot Zulueta

Our culture is our soul, our identity. Our culture makes us who we are. It is the source of our pride. It is the core of our being. And yet the way we behave, we do not take our culture seriously. Indeed, we often disparage our own selves for being un-serious and shallow, lacking discipline and foresight, and tied to our feudal roots instead of being committed to a higher national ideal.  We suffer from cultural malaise, and we often agree with foreigners’ assessment that ours is a “damaged culture,” although most of us behave excellently on an individual basis when we are abroad.

We do not take pride in our everyday cultural productions (TV shows, movies), many of which are admittedly mediocre, meant for the CDE crowd. Our high art is elitist, and often unaffordable to the common person. As our economy grows apace, our cultural products seem to be getting more bifurcated between the thoughtful award-winning movie seen only by a few and the “pang-entertainment, pang-masa” one loved by the many.

GOVERNING OUR RICH CULTURE Creating a Department of Culture would hasten the development and enrichment of the already blooming culture of the Philippines

GOVERNING OUR RICH CULTURE Creating a Department of Culture would hasten the development and enrichment of the already blooming culture of the Philippines

Importance of Culture

How important is culture? You may find this question absurd, for I said that “culture is us.” But even though we know this to be true, cultural matters have been given short shrift by one political administration after another. Our national planning and budgeting have focused almost exclusively on the economic dimension (infrastructure, trade, and investments) and, belatedly, on the human dimension (education, health, social protection, and disaster risk mitigation). There has been little focus on cultural and social capital (the things that bind us together and make us who we are). Which should lead us to pause, Well, what are we living for?

But even setting aside the essentiality of culture in our lives, government officials have also largely ignored the fact that cultural industries have significant economic contribution and benefits. If one adds up all the Filipinos employed in cultural industries (writers, editors, artists of all types, entertainers, production staff), then it will come to a significant number. Cultural industries can also be poised for export and become foreign-exchange earners, including publishing, movies, theater, entertainment, graphic arts and design, animated movie production, and the like. Note that Filipino paintings are being sold at Sotheby’s and other auction houses abroad.

Our neighbors have made important inroads in the international scene in terms of their culture. Think of India’s Bollywood movies and music, Hong Kong’s Kung Fu movies, South Korea’s K-pop and telenovelas, Thai food, Indonesian batik, and Japanese and Chinese cuisine and culture. Sadly, our telenovelas shown abroad are sometimes referred to by foreign viewers as Korean!

Philippine tourism also needs significant cultural underpinning so it can gear up. Think of Bali, Thailand, India, Cusco (Peru), Mexico, Morocco, and South Africa. The rich cultural traditions of these emerging economies are used to the hilt to promote tourism.

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The Market for Culture

Since independence, cultural affairs have been like an unwanted ball being passed from one department or agency to another. Existing cultural institutions are fragmented, poorly coordinated, often working in isolation. As a result, in terms of culture, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Indeed, culture has been left largely to market forces under a laissez faire approach, i.e., privately funded movie, TV, theater, and other cultural productions, with nary a government subsidy. But market forces do not work efficiently to produce “culture” because of significant externalities, and that is why quality cultural productions are under-supplied. The guiding hand of government and some form of state subsidy are needed. Culture is too important to be left to the market to handle.

In matters of culture, supply creates its own demand. Give people trashy movies and teleseryes and they will watch them. There is also some form of Gresham’s Law at work in the market for cultural products: left to the free market, bad culture drives out good culture in circulation. That is why a cultural canon (determined by a community of critics and experts) is needed to ensure that the public somehow is led and helped to consume better cultural products. This works well in advanced countries through critics’ circles and awards for excellence, but in the Philippines, this system has been inchoate (mainly because majority do not read), and that it why the reading and viewing public are confused about which cultural products to patronize.

Culture should be dealt with as a “commanding heights” industry. In the 1970s, this seems to have been the case as culture was given prominence, including the building of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and other cultural infrastructure, setting up of the National Artist Awards patterned after the Russian model, holding of Metropop music festivals, requiring Original Pilipino Music (OPM) radio airplay, and the flowering of Filipino cinema, but this has waned since the 1980s and has not seen a rebirth.

Advanced countries subsidize high art even though it caters primarily—and sometimes, exclusively—to the upper class. The reason is that high art represents the highest achievement of that society and, therefore, reflects the level of achievement of the entire country. Because of this rationale, the state often subsidizes the opera, ballet, symphonies, the production of visual and plastic art, the maintenance of museums and galleries, and the sustenance of folk arts, including indigenous or traditional art. This does not imply that culture must be exclusive. On the contrary, the subsidy-giving body must make sure that recipients come from a wide swath of society, and that cultural centers, museums, and galleries have off-site cultural activities.

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Who Should Take Charge of Culture

If culture is important because it is at the core of our being, it gives us a sense of pride, it binds us together, and it also has significant economic benefits, then who should be in charge of it? I have argued that the status quo does not work; the institutions currently involved in its propagation and promotion are too isolated and fragmented, their activities are too few and too small; and their visibility is below the Presidential radar screen.

I have also argued that leaving cultural matters to the market is self-defeating because of the nature of cultural production and consumption.

This essay is a plea for the national leadership to elevate culture to a higher level of importance: that of a department, with its head having Cabinet rank. The actual organization of the department (including which government agencies it will cover) can be left for further discussion.

We sell ourselves short by undervaluing our culture. As our economy grows, so should the number and quality of our cultural productions, and this can be hastened by the creation of a Department of Culture.

The author is a retired economist having worked with the World Bank, USAID, and the Philippine Institute for Development Studies. He has written articles in health, tourism, and social policy. He lives in Quezon City and Caba, La Union.

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