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Hypocritical Outrage

img  Tobias

A public referendum in Münster on April 27th has sent waves of national importance through Germany. In a poll last Sunday, 70% of the city’s electorate voted down plans to errect a hall intended for cultural events and symposiums. This effectively means that roughly two decades of lobbying for such a space have been in vain and that Münster, contrary to most other cities in its direct proximity, will have to remain without a central concert house. What does this tell us about the state of music in Germany – and potentially about the importance awarded to it generall on an international level?

The death of Culture?
Even though some of the hall’s proponents have now proclaimed culture dead in Münster, the pre-birth demise of the “Kultur- und Kongresshalle” does not demonstrate that its opponents weren’t interested in the arts at all. For months, the city was plastered with election posters, while radio and local TV dedicated ample time and intelligent debate on the subject and even the occasional pub talk doted on the pros and cons. In fact, one could argue that the arts were never more in the public focus than in the time leading up to the decision.

Rather, the vote uncovered a lot of the contradictions inherent to the general discussion on culture as part of a community’s political responsability: The entire “left” and “alternative” scene of the city (usually quick to demand more live performance opportunities for music) was firmly against spending money on the project, while the conservatives (usually happy to cling on to the status quo) were in favour. All political parties (save the extremists) were bizarely united in its favour. And the peculiar phrasing of the topic meant that you actually had to vote “no” if you wanted the concert hall and “yes” if you did not.

Voting for a phantom
Financing was at the heart of the opponent’s argument. The plans involved millions of public money to be spent on construction, with uncertain revenues and potentially endless follow-up costs. The city of Münster had pledged to rent the hall for a specific amount of time each year, guaranteeing an annual income of 150.000 Euros. Yet no political party was able to come up with a serious projection of whether these costs were realistic. There was no preliminary building plan nor a tentative notion of its design available. Even if you wanted the hall, you were basically voting for a phantom.

Also, the opponents argued, the city had cut down on culture everywhere else. Schools needed to cope with smaller budgets and so did theatres, cinemas and local radio stations. A friend of mine had to suffer the regional government first reducing air time for his radio program by 50%. Now, the entire financing of the civil broadcasting station is in doubt. How, he asked, can we even discuss a multi-million Euros project, if we are allowing existing ones to die because of a mere 25.000 Euros.

Astoundingly bad arguments
With this background in mind it is no wonder, that even some astoundingly bad arguments managed to gain momentum and importance. Reasoning that Münster already has a hall for big events (the “Halle Münsterland”) is ridiculed by its program of schlagerstars, ultracommercial pop and huge bowling parties. The proposition of simply using an empty church as an alternative ignores the fact that the hall was intended for a much wider range than classical music alone. Last but not least, a huge group of people formed around the “danger” of the city’s fun fair having to cope with less space than previously, as the the hall was to be built right next to it.

Most importantly, money could hardly be counted as an argument in this case. Münster’s debts have by now ammassed to almost 800 Million Euros. None of the hall’s opponents wants to cut this mountain, nor will it grow noticeably by constructing it. The alternative was therefore never between whether to build the Kulturhalle or to start reducing the debt. So, despite their often justified and honest outrage, the critics were mostly hypocritical.

A war of intermational dimensions
Underneath these regional specifics lies a general war of international dimension between those who demand politics to support the arts in depth and those who feel it should concentrate on rather making sure basic demands are met. Increasingly, the latter camp is gaining ground and with some justification. As long as each financial year brings cuts in spending on books for libraries, the case for generous arts subsidies is getting harder. There is a widespread sensation that governments are willing to spend lavishly on prestigous objects, while ignoring their responsabilities in the most urgent field of daily needs. The vote on Sunday was as much a statement aganst a concrete endeavour, as it was an outcry at a system perceived as elitist and cynical.

This in itself is not problematic. What is, however, is that there is a borad sentiment among citizens that there is no need for such projects either and that things are fine as they are. Münster, with its notoriously self-satisfactory stance towards its achievements, is not a singular case. The city still regards itself as some sort of cultural paradise, while some of its main events, such as the vast Eurocity Fest, have deteriorated into cover band parties in which music serves as aural wallpaper because of monetary cuts (much to the despair of its organisors). Likewise, many communities feel their obligations are fulfilled after they’ve invited a local bigband or a DJ playing rock n roll oldies once a year.

The defenders of the concert hall caught on to this sentiment much too late. Their final draft was promising and offered a unique blend of classsical and popular music, of professional events and amateur performances – and could have resulted in a unique compromise. But their PR campaign was sluggish and strengthened, rather than loosened the antipathy of the electorate. And then the fact that even this proposal was regarded as too much reveals how deep the aversion runs.

Lost in every way
Strangly enough, the most important aspect of the debate never surfaced: Münster, like many other medium sized cities, has a decentralised cultural landscape.It has never built a huge opera house, because it does not want its small concert spaces to vanish or its niches to be destroyed by the vortex of a monopolised event location. The Kultur- und Kongresshalle would most likely have been an alien object here. What the town needs much more urgently than a concert hall is a policy of wel-dosed subsidies and a support of music cafes and small clubs.

Unfortunately, this thought never came up in the election campaign. Now, the city has lost in every way. The Kulturhalle will not be built. And the city’s bureaucracy can hide behind the vote to keep spending less and less on the arts: If citizens are content with what they have at the moment, after all, then there is no need for more. The anti-concert hall campaign has ventilated a lot of cropped up anger and inspired some interesting exchanges on an important issue. After the dust has settled, however, it will have to realise that their have been no winners in this battle.

By Tobias Fischer

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