Culture ‘must not become a servant to the order of the day’

Dear Editor,

On June 12 John Mair offered his take on what can only by now be described as the Caribbean Press scandal in which serious questions have been raised about financial and other dimensions of accountability (and whatever one’s position on this matter, one cannot but be completely blown away by the degraded and shameful level to which the holder of one of the country’s top diplomatic positions descended in his letter to the newspaper defending the press. In fact in the numerous responses I have heard and read, it was significant that most people remembered not the substance of the argument but the vicious and highly unprofessional tenor of the letter). In his letter, Mr Mair noted that “The Caribbean Press was set up in 2008 after noted regional writers like Derek Walcott petitioned then President Jagdeo at Carifesta.”  In September 2008 I wrote a diaspora column called Carifesta and culture, after the conclusion of Carifesta X in Guyana. I reproduce some of that text here, to hopefully offer some context and clarification to John Mair’s effort to contribute to this ongoing saga, and also to add my voice to those who both recognize the importance and potential value of the Caribbean Press and emphasize the imperative for an independent, transparent and accountable process (one that is not subject to any single individual) if it is to live up to its promise:

“In a presentation made at the Caricom Heads of Government Conference in July, Barbadian novelist George Lamming took Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo to task for the following comment “…and now we come to the lighter side, Carifesta in Guyana.”
There is one way to
interpret these remarks, as seeing culture as entertainment to engage in when the real work is finished. It is a view that allows ‘culture’ to fall by the wayside, to be addressed only after the ‘real’ priorities of so-called development are attended to, like building roads and paying off the foreign debt.

As Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott observed in his exchange with the President at the opening Carifesta symposium, we have heard politicians rehearse these tired arguments for years. Walcott expressed his ambivalence about a festival that asks us to celebrate the wanton disregard for our artists in a region where with few exceptions artistic endeavour is not seen as a serious vocation. Here is the ongoing lie of Carifesta, illustrated by the profound gap between rhetorical pronouncements and the woeful state of our institutional infrastructure supporting the arts.

But is it simply a matter of resources? This was certainly the ‘practical matter’ that David Dabydeen addressed when he asked for support for a regional publishing house, a call which the Guyana government answered when it apparently announced it will contribute $20 million to its establishment. Easy backslapping aside (as Cheryl Springer asked in her ‘Through a woman’s eyes’ column, beyond impulsive responses, what about a well thought out and comprehensive plan?), this is an important step. Yet there is a key issue that we miss, that goes beyond the necessary matter of sustained regional public investment in cultural production. Is it simple enough to call for Caribbean governments to resolve matters by setting up, for instance, a regional publishing house, or does this miss the point if not raised in conjunction with this more fundamental issue?

What happens when, as Martin Carter poignantly observes, “the mouth is always muzzled by the food it eats to live?”

This is where George Lamming has been making a fundamental point for years, which has to do with seeing culture as the way in which we continually define ourselves, making meaning out of our existence. It begins with the daily work we do to reproduce ourselves individually and collectively. The transformative element of culture is crucial here, for what distinguishes us from animal and plant life is our capacity to reflect upon what we do in order to engage and change not only our surroundings, but ourselves.

Culture, then, is the source of unending critique and re-invention. And here is where we come to a more worrying interpretation of those flippant references to Carifesta as a light matter, if we think of light as not challenging, not critical. In this reading, ‘light’ is not just mere description, but warning to our cultural practitioners to remain firmly within acceptable limits in relation to their work.

This is the dilemma, where public investment is essential to sustain cultural production but where such funding comes with strings attached.

If by culture we mean creatively re-imagining and transforming our world, how do we reconcile this with political investments in maintaining the status quo? If by culture we mean ongoing and compassionate critique, how do we nurture this where political cultures across the Caribbean insist on shoring up their legitimacy?’ We need to stop thinking that public funding for the arts is a gift, something that can be doled out to secure partisan loyalty and silence criticism. It is a right that we should demand from our governments, and we need to vigorously resist efforts to sanction dissent, because it is all of us who are ultimately threatened. If culture, as Lamming notes, relates to how we define and present ourselves, then it cannot be disciplined, it has no party, “it must not become a servant to the order of the day.”

Yours faithfully,
Alissa Trotz

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