To the Ministry of Culture: culture is about more than events and entertainment

Culture. It’s a fairly amorphous word; difficult to pin down to a simple meaning. Slippery to define, except perhaps by looking at various characteristics that have come to be associated with it. For me, it is essentially the way people live.

That is big and broad and open to all kinds of interpretations, I know. And that abstract nature opens the door to either very narrow definitions, or treatises that become so expansive that they overwhelm themselves.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago soca star Machel Montano performs after the CPL final at the Brian Lara Cricket Academy in Tarouba on 10 September 2017.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

A few points alone might be relevant to what I want to raise in this public submission to the Ministry of Culture (and Arts and Tourism). It is worth repeating that it is about the way people live; about their values, their attitudes, their traditions, and learned behaviours.

Of course, one can find many other attributes, but this is not a treatise. It is actually my way of imploring the Ministry of Culture to broaden what has been the conventionally accepted way of defining culture in the context of what it sees as its role and responsibility to our society.

We do not live in a stagnant pool; we could not survive if we did not have the capacity to adapt to change. The world of the pandemic alone is living proof that disruptions occur on scales large and small all through time. Those who can adjust adroitly will land on their feet.

(The laments about Fifa and the TTFA and the price of sovereignty will hopefully give way to a focus on how to land on strong feet. Perhaps we might come to appreciate that many monolithic institutions are being toppled globally and that TT might be the little pebble that cast the first ripple in a movement that might become a tsunami. Fifa, the ICC, the WICB—not CWI—have had monopolistic holds in their realms, but challenges have come, and I genuinely believe this generation is far more capable of changing things around than their predecessors. But that is talk for another time.)

Photo: Fifa president Gianni Infantino (right) bears gifts for then President Anthony Carmona in a courtesy call at St Ann’s on 10 April 2017.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

My point is that the old ways of doing things are not necessarily the best ways, and even if they were good and useful at one time, they will not be relevant or even beneficial in another. As the old Marx man would say, beware of the assumption that the word culture is automatically endowed with goodness and grace.

The most powerful elements of a society—the dominant classes—can wield inordinate influence on what passes for the cultural norms of that space. I only have to mention the word slavery and you get what I am saying.

If one were to look at the traditional relationship that the state has had with its various articulations of ministries of culture, one could easily see that it is restricted to an interpretation of the performing arts. It focuses on the production of entertainment, and on material symbols of the things we identify as representations of ourselves—a monument here, a statue there. 

I have no objection to these being an aspect of the state definition. But in the same way that ministries have been erected to look after portfolios related to community, youth and social development, arts, tourism, national service, and sport, the way they are resourced and the narrowness of their focus suggest that they are not seen as ministries of major significance.

Photo: (From left) Then Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Housing Minister Randall Mitchell open a homework centre in Carenage.
Mitchell is now Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts while Gadsby-Dolly is Minister of Education.
(Copyright Ministry of Housing)

If we could re-imagine the roles of these ministries, I bet anything we could find ourselves in an eventual position where budget allocations for national security (crime) could drop to being the smallest billion ever.

We have to stop doing things back to front. This is the time to reinvent ourselves, to have a different perspective on what it takes to develop our nation. What was at the heart of the independence project nearly 60 years ago is no longer relevant.

Sadly, the things that will always be vital to building strong foundations seem to have slipped away under the burden of expediency—and corruption. I’ve barely heard anyone say it was the principled thing to do with regard to Fifa. We prefer to say that massa has the power and we are foolhardy to challenge it.

Anyone who has fought for change will tell you that it does not come without sacrifice. But the right thing remains the right thing to do.

It is not unreasonable to assume that, likewise, the new minister of culture would be unwilling to rock any boats. But he has to if he is going to make any impact at all on a population that is jaded, but alert.

Photo: The Christopher Columbus statue in Port of Spain was defaced again on either 13 or 14 June 2020.
(via CRFP)

Half of our population falls within the age cohort defined as young people, and they are looking intensely and critically at what politicians are trying to do with their heritage. All the major movements of protest globally in the last decade have been orchestrated and sustained by this age group.

Look at Thailand. They know they have the power to change things.

The first thing the Ministry could do, is to facilitate national conversations about race and identity. If there is to be any attempt towards reducing the tension that lies at the heart of so many of our maladies, then there has to be some entity that has the resources and the reach to engage the majority of the population.

It is a responsibility.

Culture, Mr Minister, is about the way we live; not the way we party.

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About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh
Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is currently working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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