Syria/ 4. Current issues in cultural policy development and debate  

4.2.1 Conceptual issues of policies for the arts

The following topics were based mainly on observing the controversy amongst workers in the cultural domain. In which we aim to present different readings related to the reality of current issues in the cultural domain in Syria, and elaborate various perspectives that are resulted from current development of the cultural field.

Public Cultural Institutions

The adoption of the Syrian official speech by official cultural institutions before and throughout the uprising has led to boycotting them by a wide group of specialists who see them as institutions working on cultural affairs in favor of the political ones as well as practicing the policy of having independent organizational work absent and which is practiced by the political authority. This convinced those who are working in the cultural sector that the official institution with its current state is incapable of continuing further as it is, during the appearance of cultural assemblies and institutions that work on creating a different definition of culture in the societies that have witnessed dramatic changes.

The Credibility of the Public Cultural Institutions (Culture and Institution - Culture and Individuals)

The Public cultural institutions in Syria are not carrying out a review of its structures and work mechanisms. This leads to slow and an intangible institutional development. Several institutional applications has convinced workers in the cultural field of inefficiency of the Public Cultural Sector, thus believing that the institutions currently are incapable of carrying out the developments and the changes that have to be done in the structures as well as the mechanism of the cultural activity. This can be seen as an indispensable stage of chaos towards comprehending new forms and mechanisms of the cultural domain. Consequently, this results in a wide gap between the work of the official institutions, on one hand, and the needs of individuals, their knowledge and ability to develop, on the other hand.

Laws and Legislations:

In general, the laws and legislations that govern the cultural activity in Syria, as stated in Chapter5, are old and incapable of covering all aspects of the cultural activity. Therefore, these laws and legislations curtail and undermine the cultural activity with the aim of controlling it. This constitutes one of the main problematic issues that predate the crisis in Syria, for which in the past few years efforts have been made to overcome.

Prevalence of the Individual’s Role in Cultural Institutions:

The ability of the directors and the active persons in official cultural institutions to activate their institutions and to implement their programs are based on their personal attitudes and the level of their relations with the decision-makers, as well as their ability to achieve balance within and outside the institution more than on their independence on the feasibility of their project.

The Credibility of the Non- Governmental Cultural Institutions

NGOs concerned with culture and arts started to play their role in Syrian Cultural life a few years before the uprising in 2011, being considered new bodies in the Syrian society. Workers in the cultural field say that these organizations do not work with clear visions, strategies, or goals. In addition to that, and most often, these organizations have started to become commercially-oriented due to the difficulty of having the required funding to carry out their activities. Some of these organizations have stopped their activities with the beginning of the popular movement, or shortly after its beginning, and some others have left Syria for neighbouring countries. In the background of the crisis organizations were created that claimed to be independent or non-governmental, but carried out activities sponsored by official political institutions.

Cultural Financing (Official, Private, External and New Partnerships):

The Syrian society has been accustomed to the fact that the state is the body patronizing culture and art. With the introduction of new concepts and different production forms in partnership with the private sector and with external financial support, artists and workers in the cultural field show different responses towards this approach, ranging between complete support and expressing scepticism in the intentions, goals, and agendas of the financing bodies.

There is a structural difference between culture and Syrian society on one hand, and cultures and societies of European countries on the other hand, which leads to big differences with regard to vision, role of culture, basic needs and role of culture and arts in society. Thus, many programs that are implemented upon agreements with foreign agencies of institutions are far from basic pillars and needs for progress and development in Syria.

Entry of Artistic Products to Economic Market, the Feasibility of the Cultural Production Independently of Consumptive Commodity (The Phenomena of Artists Monopoly)

Some private galleries in Syria, which are few however rapidly spreading, work towards the monopoly of the plastic artists through exclusive agreements with them. These contracts allow the monopoly body to impose its own viewpoint on the artist work as well as the topics he/she chooses, in return to a financial compensation that guarantees a continuous and stable income for the artist. These institutions work on propagating the works of this artist and holding exhibitions of their work inside and outside Syria.

The main controversy in the artistic circle in Syria revolves around the absence of the artistic criteria for the sake of the commercial ones in addition to a major factor which is the rising price of the artistic production. This poses another question: who are the possessors of the artistic works?

Through observation, it appears that those who buy the paintings of high prices are, most often, not Syrians. On the other hand, this mechanism creates an imbalance with regard to the standards of pricing the artistic product amongst those artists who are monopolized and the independent artists, and also amongst the monopolized artists themselves.

Most cultural activists in Syria see that these institutions are Bodies that do not enjoy neither the required background nor the credibility that permit them to enjoy the title “Sponsor of arts and artists” rather considered as an activity carried out by some big capitals for economic purposes.

Absence of Analysis-Development-Measurement Mechanisms, and Field and Statistical Researchers:

The Central Bureau of Statistics is the only body in Syria authorized to carry out field and statistical surveys. Reviewing the documents of the Bureau has proved the little interest paid to the cultural field with regard to carrying out statistical studies. Thus, the field researches concerned with the study of cultural activity are absent (Workers in the cultural field, the cultural product, and the recipient of cultural product).

The Absence of Monitoring and Evaluation:

The programs of monitoring and evaluation are completely absent with regard to the cultural activity carried out by the governmental institutions which hinder carrying out a study on the feasibility of the programs implemented, mechanisms of implementation, and means of decisions making.

Cultural Relation with the Sociopolitical Change and State Rebuilding:

Many believe that cultural change is part of sociopolitical change, and that cultural work is one of the reasons for the culmination of the Syrian society, as culture rules the process of sociopolitical change and its kind. It’s because of the society cultural rules that the mass ideas of the society it belongs to and moreover, the society’s beliefs, specify its reaction towards events taking place in the society.

Therefore, the massive changes happening in the Syrian society assign cultural activists and institutions with responsibilities and priorities, starting with studying the positive and negative effects of the movement on  the society to finding appropriate solutions for fixing the negatives and strengthening the positives, and lastly, approaching the desired positive change. This approach needs massive support and participation between individuals and institutions which were born as a result of the exceptional situation of the Syrian society and of the fundamental privilege that assures the freedom and dignity of people as the top intention of cultural work, along with having people become the top intention of the political work.

The “Independent Culture for Democracy” conference was held in Cairo from the 15th to the 17th of December 2012 in which participants (some were Syrians) asked for (in the countries that are facing dramatic political change), a transitional mechanism that should be set for the governmental cultural sector, in cooperation with independent cultural institutions, which guarantees the non-suspension of cultural services from citizens and spreading them to as many people as possible, as well as covering the needs of the sociopolitical change levels; at the same time, another mechanism should be specified for a long-term cultural policy.

The Relationship between Syrian Culture and Syrian Society

The relationship between the cultural practices and the public is problematic. Workers in the cultural sector set up their projects regardless of the spectator-consumer.

Many economic and social factors play a major role in keeping the Syrian audience away from the cultural product.

What draws the attention is that the controversy over this point has increased following the end of the festivity of Damascus as the Capital of Arab Culture for 2008. Many have come to the conclusion that the Syrian audience is close to the cultural atmosphere and that the problem lies in the small number of the activities and the poor financing as well as their low level. Moreover, the exhibition halls, theaters, and cinemas witnessed a big turnout in 2008 because the level of the activities was high. Others say that the activities presented, despite their high artistic value, are seasonal and depend to a great extent on hosting world celebrities through which Damascus was able to attract the Syrian audience throughout a whole year. Nevertheless, the sustainability of this phenomena and how it can be related to the domestic local product remains the crucial question.

A meeting on cultural policy and the challenges to cultural work in the Arab region[1] took place in the Tunisian capital in December 2013 by the initiative of the regional office of Al Mawred Al Thaqafy organization. At this meeting the role of culture and the arts was emphasized as an influential and essential factor in the social and political change that the region is witnessing; as wasthe importance of creating a National Group for Cultural Policy with the aim to develop the organization of cultural activity in Arab countries and strengthen cultural diversity.

Feasibility of Developmental Role of Culture and Arts

Developmental dimension of Arts and Culture which is concerned in social and economic development is considered one of the core issues of the role of governmental institutions, NGOs, and Externally-Funded Programs.

Developmental approach of culture and arts is becoming controversial issue, in the sense that whether prevalence of this approach means the absence of the pleasure resulting from the spontaneous creativity of the artist.

Chapter published: 06-05-2016