Modernization and mass culture: challenges and prospects

28 September 2017


What is the role of the national Kazakhstan’s mass culture in the light of the modernization of the country? What measures should the state take to develop and support this sphere, taking into account the specificity and needs of the Kazakhstan culture? The roundtable held September 28 in Almaty by the Institute of World Economics and Politics (IWEP) under the Foundation of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy was called “Modernization and Mass Culture: Challenges and Prospects.”

Theater and cinema actors, well-known film critics, artists, representatives of radio and art studios, as well as political scientists, took part in the event. Among them were Akylkhan Almasov, Irene Aravina, Chingiz Kapin, Oleg Boretsky, Karim Kadyrbayev, Andrey Manuilov, Murat Muturganov, Diana Snegina, Arman Sain, Saule Suleimenova, and also Zhuldyz Almatbaeva and Zamir Karazhanov.

From the very beginning, the organizers called on the participants of the roundtable to hold an open dialogue, exchange of views, expressing the hope that all participants of the event will be able to contribute to the discussion, aimed at reaching an understanding of the situation and finding ways of improvement.

The actor of the “Artishok” theater Chingiz Kapin started with a provocative question about whether there is theater in Kazakhstan in general or is it just an illusion. He noted that currently there is no competition in Kazakhstan in the theater art, there are only 2-3 independent theaters that create space for the development of the youth, people who are interested in art. Kapin believes that the problem is due to the lack of information coverage of the activities of theaters, the high cost of advertising and posters production. “I am surprised when I find out that people know about our theater,” said the actor.

At the same time, Chingiz Kapin has noted the importance of the state’s non-interference in the modern theater’s artistic repertoire. Since the natural trajectory of the theater art development directly affects its success, which, in particular, is proven by the success of “Artishok” theater.

The premises situation and the availability of stages for showing performances has remained the problem. The actor of the German theater in Kazakhstan Akylkhan Almasov pointed out that due to these issues, which have not been addressed for a long time, the actors are forced to rehearse out in the street. At the same time, the productions of this theater are quite in demand. The situation is the same for many other Kazakhstan theaters, including “Zhas Sakhna.” “We are practically in the underground,” Almasov notes. The status of the state institution does not always guarantee the theater’s financial well-being. Especially when the funds allocated by the state are insufficient, and the various foundations that theaters turn to for help are powerless due to internal restrictions not allowing them to finance government agencies.

According to the actors of the theater, the solution of these issues may have a critical impact on both the state and the population, since contemporary theater art is quite in demand among the Kazakhstan audience.

As for Kazakhstan cinema, the situation looks even more critical, because there is no practical marketing and the understanding of what are the Kazakhstan viewer's interests. Entertainment content dominates the market. This was one of the issues addressed by the critic and philosopher Oleg Boretsky. Due to the lack of the cinema sociology, the comedy genre is intuitively highlighted, based on the mass demand. A film critic questions the extent to which the mass culture in these conditions deals with spirituality, teaches, educates, creates a positive mythology. There are no Kazakhstan-produced films for children from 6 to 12 years old, that is, the issues of the future generation education are neglected.

Boretsky also noted that the slogans and official ideologemes spread today are not well formulated and therefore do not fulfill their objectives. In this context, he suggests, the state should allocate grants and provide financial support to organizations professionally engaged in mass culture. Since today’s mass culture exists on leftovers, which directly adds to the situation where, without knowing the passions of the audience and using exclusively ideological trends in the mass culture, Kazakhstan's art is rapidly losing its audience.

The film critic notes that the film industry today is dominated by the approach “demand creates supply.” As a consequence, the industry itself is “erased,” and cinemas become a place where you go to eat out. Therefore, he has emphasized that this approach is not applicable in the sphere of culture. On the contrary, the supply should generate demand, and only this approach will raise the “bar” for national cinema, which will in turn influence the modernization of public consciousness.

Boretsky’s presentation was corroborated by the data provided by PR-manager of the Chaplin Cinema Network Andrey Manuilov. He said that in the film distribution industry is dominated by the western film production. Russian cinema is in weak demand in the cities of Almaty and Astana. The national Kazakhstan cinema, which enjoys some success with the domestic audience, is mostly represented by comedies. Also, in his opinion, the Kazakhstan cinema is interesting exclusively to the local audience.  

The film critic Karim Kadyrbaev posed the question: what are the conditions that allow the messages of Hollywood cinema, which is the flagship on a global scale, reach our viewer faster than those of Kazakhstan movies? He notes that the Hollywood’s mass culture is built on a simple foundation, called the American dream – a self-made person, a character who stubbornly moves towards their goal, rises above society, overcomes obstacles, becomes “higher, tougher and better than others.” While the Kazakhstan hero does not strive to become better than the rest.

On the contrary, the intention is to blend with the society, “to be like everyone else.” This factor, according to Kadyrbaev, lies at the basis of the entire Kazakhstan film drama and is partly due to the anthropological core of our society, the fear of standing out. “There is no modern, local hero of Kazakhstan, who would set an example for the future generation,” argues the film critic. Besides, most films send the viewers to some historical period of the times long gone, while modern interpretations of characters, successfully offered by Western films, do not exist. “Where are our great descendants, where are our great contemporaries?” asks Karim Kadyrbaev. These are the reasons, he believes, the young generation watches Hollywood movies, and not Kazakhstan, which they deem unattractive.

Kadyrbayev also pointed out that along with talented filmmakers, many non-professionals emerged in the Kazakhstan film industry. Cinema is not their main area of expertise, they just have enough money. Their one-off productions, which do not have any artistic value, discredit the whole of Kazakhstan's cinematography. According to him, there should be regulations in place, and there should be a commission that could determine the level of artistry of a film.

Artists face similar problems. According to the artist Saule Suleimenova, the state does not pay attention to the development of modern art in Kazakhstan, whereas it is the vanguard of culture, and its level of development allows the world to conclude about the cultural state of the country as a whole. At the same time, art objects are not always objects for sale, therefore, in her opinion, state support would be desirable.

Artist Arman Sain, supporting the position of his colleague, stressed that it is important for Kazakhstan today to reconsider the very concept of art, the perception of artists, which is still based on outdated concepts. “We live in the digital era, the era of meta modern, in fact, in a completely different reality and the artistic problems should be tackled by artists using techniques appropriate to this era,” emphasizes Sain.

The consequence of the domination of old approaches is that new forms of art do not grow in the country. These are multimedia arts, video installations, advanced masterclasses of conceptual art, etc.

In this regard, artists place some hopes on the implementation of the program “Ruhani Zhangyru.” They hope the program will allow for establishing of connections and allowing for cooperation with famous foreign artists, curators, art critics, and the establishment of an international advisory council for the promotion of Kazakhstan artists on the world stage. In general, the hope for the availability and accessibility of quality knowledge.

Nevertheless, the artists believe that the implementation of the program today is not transparent, which negatively affects both the image of the country and the development of art in general. In this context, it is important to eradicate the monopoly in the distribution of funds, to introduce various mechanisms in the funding distribution.

According to Irene Aravina, a singer, musicologist, and teacher, the author of TV and radio projects on the history of jazz, the musical art in Kazakhstan is rapidly losing its positions. In particular, the Union of Composers is no longer functioning; four orchestras have ceased their activity in Almaty, there is no philharmonic society, music theater, sound recording studios, no quality TV programs dedicated to musical art. Schoolchildren are deprived of the music education that was given to children who studied in schools during the Soviet era.

In this context, she has suggested that educational lectures in schools should be conducted, providing greater access to musical instruments because the ignorance of musical instruments repels schoolchildren, makes them reluctant to try themselves in art. In her opinion, this is the only way out of the “deep crisis” of Kazakhstan in the sphere of art.

Performer, circus artist Murat Muturganov also expressed the opinion that circus art is in grave condition, remaining a hostage to the traditional concept of the circus. The circus existing on state subsidies, in his opinion, is in the comfort zone, which gives no impetus to take any actions to improve the quality of its activities, increase the audience's interest, expand the repertoire, become profitable for the city. In this context, he considers the solution is transfering of the circus to trust management, analogous to the Almaty zoo.

TV presenter Diana Snegina noted that the radio, which is the “background for all,” drifts to commerce, entertainment content dominates here as well. In her opinion, there is no radio station in the country where it is possible to discuss pressing issues, such as “Echo of Moscow” in Russia. That, in her opinion, is a significant omission, due to the coverage and audience of the radio. Because of the commercialization of radio stations that refer to the announcements of cultural events as advertising, the leading programs do not have the opportunity to support the national artistic community and to inform listeners about city events.

Political scientist Zhuldyz Almatbayeva noted that today art is something in which Kazakhstan could depart from Russia, creating its agenda, national content and reflection. In this context, in her opinion, art can act as a partner of the state. To protect their interests, artists could help themselves by creating a union.

Political scientist Zamir Karazhanov also stressed that the representatives of art need to create a consortium, unite to defend their interests. He also noted that self-financing, competitiveness is the objective requirement of the time both in art and in any sphere today.

Thus, cultural figures perceive the general state of culture in the country as being on a decline and place some hopes in the state. Nevertheless, the approaches of cultural figures vary from the unwillingness of the state interference in this process due to the domination of propaganda and pseudo-moralizing, which negatively affects viewers’ preferences, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the need for state intervention in order to cut off amateurs with finances and bring content closer to the real needs of the society.

In general, experts agree that the support of the state should be targeted and take into account the specific nature of the particular direction and genre of art.

In this context, the authoring teams express their dissatisfaction with the fact that the state renders assistance exclusively to academic institutions, which, in their opinion, do not reflect the needs of the modern spectator. In turn, subsidized cultural institutions are dissatisfied with the fact that the funds allocated are small and insufficient for survival.

Artists, representatives of contemporary art in Kazakhstan, emphasize that it does not receive adequate support in the country, although, the program article of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan “Ruhani Zhangyru” stresses that in Kazakhstan’s “modern culture should be the one that is created by our contemporaries.”

Artists and representatives of creative community invest high hopes on the initiative “Ruhani Zhangyru” that may increase the state’s awareness of the field and will create new opportunities in the creative and financial terms. Proceeding from this, the creative community raises questions about ensuring transparency in the implementation of the program “Ruhani Zhangyru” and the respective funding. Among the crucial issues regarding the effectiveness of the program, according to experts, open discussions are also of the best ways to implement it on Internet resources and in the media, establishing links, creating an international expert council with the participation of Kazakhstan art representatives.

Underlining the need of creating entertainment content in popular culture, art and culture experts point out to the lack of the educational aspect development. Without it, the national mass culture cannot become potent enough to affect the modernization of public consciousness, nor would it be able to formulate a positive ideology and perspective.