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The role of academic institutions in culture industry discussed at Alexandria Theatre Festival
Published in Ahram Online on 07 - 12 - 2019

On Saturday, a panel discussion titled “Development of cultural industries” took place at Alexandria's Grand Plaza Hotel. The discussion is part of the events organised within the inaugural audition of the ongoing Alexandria Arab Theatre Festival for Specialised Institutes and Colleges (3-8 December).
The discussion aimed at defining the role of artistic institutes and departments in shaping and developingthe cultural map. The topic also involved clarifying the role of young students, graduates of mentioned institutions in the social and cultural development and social awareness in regards to artists working in the cultural field, treating it as a job that provides income.
The discussion was attended by Rami Haddad, dean of the Faculty of Art and Design, University of Jordan; Hisham Ben Issa, director of the Higher Institute of Theatrical Art, University of Tunis; Muhammad Al-Hajj, secretary-general of the Association of the Faculties of Arts in the Federation of Arab Universities and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Lebanese University; and Mohamed Refaat, head of the festival's Symposiums Committee.
Each of the participants on the panel gave his point of view on the matter, focusing on shedding light on the current developments in the cultural scene in their countries as well as on the international scale.
Opening the panel, theatre expert from Lebanon, Muhammad Al-Hajj stressed that any cultural production is directly linked tothe social and economic development of the country and that it reflects and pushes forward those changes.
“We need to be aware of our expectations,” he addressed young people who produce theatre art. “There is a difference between a profit-oriented thinking and the idea of creating art which will eventually generate income,” he said mentioning that this concept is equally important within the artistic institutions and how the educators deal with it.
When speaking about culture, Al-Hajj underscored that the term is broad and applies to life at large, pointing out that social awareness and behavioursare generated by education.
“There is the cultural awareness, not cultural production. Culture – as expressed through art – can be translated to financial gains, however we should not confusecultural investment with cultural production. Investment is in the fabric of human development.”
Al-Hajj also spoke about the need to develop curricula that address contemporary issues and expectations, which in turn reflect the historical moment we live in and social development.
Hisham Ben Issa from Tunisia further developed Al-Hajj's ideas, stating that while each artistic institute should have its own vision and procedures, it also needs to define the traditional and non-traditional approaches to theatrical arts as products which speak to the society.
“Theatre is at the heart of all arts,” Ben Issa explained referring to the long history of this art form, one that was born at the hands of ancient art practitioners and for a socio-political reason of the time, hence reflecting the needs of that time.
“Today, a large part of the audience is no longer interested in classical formats, neither looks for commedia dell'arte, for instance. Theatre formats must reflect the social expectations,” Ben Issa continued, providing examples of theatre icons such as Konstantin Stanislavski (Russia) or Jerzy Grotowski (Poland), who in their works revolutionised the relationship between theatre-makers and theatre-recipients. It is in those practices that the theatre-makers were no longer producers of art nor disconnected from the viewer, he said.
Going to the wider audience, Grotowski for instance, did not treat theatre as an art form addressing bourgeoisie but rather made sure that the viewers become an integral part of the theatrical experience.
When speaking about curricula and education of theatrical arts so it can reflect as well as serve the society, Ben Issa said that “in pedagogy there is a mixture of many views, there are no clear lines. Pedagogy should use the conscience and awareness of the historical and social components.”
Adding to the discussion, theatre specialist from Jordan Rami Haddad focused on the term “culture industry”, coined by the critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and presented by them in the chapter "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).
In this context, Haddad spoke about culture in the recent decades becoming part of the trade, meaning created for financial gains rather than a tool for distribution of thoughts and values.
“We are all surrounded by art and reach out to it on daily basis and this has been the case since the beginning of time,” Haddad said, pointing to music we listen to, our choices of home furniture, crafts we use, etc.
He underscored, however, a difference between art and culture being tools for change within the societal awareness and art as a component of trade. The latter is obvious in many productions, whether films, television, live events, where an artistic product is used to generate income whilst its value in creating social awareness is discarded. Haddad referred to artistic products which fall prey to trade as cheap art which aims to address large masses, attract financial investors, hence provide fast income without any cultural content.
“The advent of the internet has also reshaped our perceptions on culture, awareness and education. While it has many positive sides, including access to a large amount of knowledge, its educational fruits are also very superficial.” Haddad looked back just a few decades ago, when a person searching for knowledge and awareness had to read books.Today, however, access to broad information through the internet makes the absorption of data much more superficial.
“I am not against any art form. The academics, educators in artistic academies and departments should allow students the freedom tosearch for art and culture that speaks to them. However, it is also the educators' role to point out the many facets of culture, to explain the dynamics of art and its role in the society.”
Haddad stressed that the academia shouldprovide directions, it shouldwork on memory stimulation through presenting the many cultures and artistic trends and linking them to the results they brought to human development.
“The academia's role is to help young students understand reality, the dynamics of the historical and social moment they live in; yet this should be done without disregarding the broader history of art and theatre. The academia can help in the implementation and final evaluation. Of course, the final choice is in the hands of those young theatre-practitioners,” he concluded.
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