At independence 50 years ago, Algeria inherited the oppressive cultural structures imposed by France. Today things are worse: the government allocates a meager budget to promote culture.
A cultural policy is a public policy designed by the state to protect, promote and guide the cultural foundations of the nation. It is a logical component of the general policy on which it depends. Cultural activities (fine arts, painting, theatre, literature, tangible and intangible heritage, etc.) initiated by public and private institutions are the most privileged tool for the state to implement the national cultural policy.
CULTURAL POLICY OF FRANCE IN ALGERIA (1830-1962)
As soon as Algeria was invaded in 1830, France supported military action by a cultural policy to achieve the objectives of a sustainable colonization. During the first 40 years, France pursued a policy of ‘francization’ in mobilizing all the arts, architecture, urban planning (statues, street names, etc.), as well as tangible heritage (Roman, Latin, and even Celtic). This action was accompanied by the relegation of the Arabic language and the intangible heritage to legitimize the French presence in Algeria. Camilel Risler, in her book called ‘Cultural Policy of France in Algeria’ (L’Harmattan, 2004), explains that:
‘After 40 years of presence in Algeria, France had done considerable work, through the establishment of an extensive cultural and intellectual system which in order to support the action of the army ... Indeed, the creation of a civilian regime would prove that after a few decades, France did not need to use the force of arms. Algeria seemed definitively acquired.’
With the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870, France strengthened its policy of assimilation in Algeria as continuity of the ‘francization’ process. But this policy began to falter early in the 20th century for several reasons, mainly because of the differences that emerged within the political and intellectual class in the metropolis on the most effective way to settle permanently in Algeria. Thus, from 1901, ‘native policy’ replaced the previous one. This new policy tended to loosen the noose tied to cultural policy rule allowing substitute traditional identity. ‘The goal was to bring the local population to accept the colonial power voluntarily by demonstrating that such was its interest’, said Camille Risler.
In parallel, the cultural policy of France in Algeria continued to marginalize the Arab-Muslim elite culture, especially in worship places, while working towards the ‘folklorization’ of popular artistic expressions.
But for several economic, social and political reasons, at the national and international levels, from 1945 (massacre of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata) Algerians definitely made it clear that they were aware of the racist and dominant nature of colonisation, and the idea of emancipation spread quickly among urban and rural populations.
Also in parallel to this new direction of the cultural policy, the coloniser used censorship – especially against theatre and literature – when the authorities doubted about the political opinions of the organisers of artistic projects. France also used patronisation and ‘tutelage’ of the cultural activities of Algerian artists. Risler explain that, ‘Theatre was an increasingly dreadful weapon and administration undoubtedly preferred to use it rather than to suffer from it! Government recognized the ‘triple interest: political, cultural and economic’ of creation, under the direction and patronage of France, (possibly) the Ministry of National Education and Fine Arts’.
This situation remained so until November 1, 1954. Seven years after this date, the Algerian people put an end to one of the most genocidal, racist and cruel colonisations of the history of mankind. But France, with a sophisticated cultural policy of acculturation, designed and reflected at the highest levels of the state, left deep scars on what would be the cultural policy of independent Algeria.
CULTURAL POLICY OF INDEPENDENT ALGERIA (1962-2012)
Choosing the option of socialism at its independence in 1962, Algeria inherited many cultural institutions and infrastructures on which France relied to establish a cultural policy of colonisation. This cultural policy left scars in the depths of the Algerian personality.
Without any real break with the inherited methods and modes of management, the new Algerian state has tried to manage these institutions with existing resources and capacities. In 1963, it nationalized the ‘Opera of Algiers’ to create the Algerian National Theatre (TNA), an institution that had already become the symbol of a hegemonic cultural policy. Mohamed Boudia and Mustapha Kateb, respectively first administrator and director of the TNA, declared in the Algerian Theater manifesto: ‘The mission entrusted to the theatre is too important for our people to not only put it at its service. It is inconceivable to allow the theatre to be in the hands of private companies (...). Blocking the road to commercialization of Dramatic Art is imperative; it is avoiding its degradation to be only an entertainment, and with the game of competition, to fall into the trap of ease and vulgarity.’
Post-independent cultural policy remained ‘hegemonic’ until the 1988 riots, which were followed by a three-dimensional crisis: political, economic and security that put the country in turmoil for more than ten years. During this period, the state withdrew from the cultural sector. Paradoxically, it was between 1990 and 2000 that this sector was the most ‘free’ despite the lack of financial means.
But as the security and economic situation improved, the state redeployed its hegemony over the cultural sector since 2000, in establishing a set of explicit actions that have ‘killed’ any private or independent cultural actions from civil society. Among these activities:
1) The ‘institutionalisation’ policy of all the cultural and artistic events;
2) ‘Patronisation’ of these events;
3) Recovery of structures of local authorities;
4) Allocation of only 0.2 percent of the budget of the Ministry of Culture to cultural associations.
Thus, the consequences of this cultural policy have been detrimental to the cultural sector:
1) Emergence of an official culture to which citizens cannot relate themselves (empty museums, theatres, etc.);
2) Total marginalisation of the independent cultural sector;
3) Lack of cultural activities and denigration of all cultural activities initiated by civil society;
4) Generalisation of ‘invitation cards’ for officials.
France, driven by a destructive desire for domination, established a cultural strategy particularly advanced, based on a colonial cultural policy thought in its slightest details. This cultural policy was primarily based on a set of actions such as the ‘folklorization’ of popular culture, censorship and patronisation of all cultural and artistic activities initiated by the Algerians. But this cultural policy, even well-funded and well-structured, disintegrated when the Algerian people realised that it could no longer live under the domination of colonisers whose primary objective was to enslave Algerians.
After 1962, due to a lack of ‘clean break’ with the colonial cultural policy, the state produced the same reflexes and the same actions of hegemony which persisted with more or less intensity, depending on the period. Thus, in recent years, ‘folklorisation’ (popular festivals, exchanges between wilayas, etc.), censorship (cinema, literature) and blind ‘tutelage’ and patronisation are the main characteristics of the cultural policy of the State to which the Algerian citizen does not relate to. With only 0.2 percent of the budget of the Ministry of Culture – which was $ 450 million in 2011 – the independent cultural sector suffers from exclusion and marginalisation.
Today, the question is: arts and cultures in Algeria, will they be released one day?
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* Dr. Ammar Kessab is an international expert in cultural policies. [email protected] This was presentation at The Algerian Cultural Festival in London, October 21, 2012.