INTERVIEW: Valner Valme, Head of ERR's Culture Website ({{commentsTotal}})

Last autumn, Estonian Public Broadcasting launched a culture website at kultuur.err.ee - close on the heels of the entertainment-oriented menu.err.ee. Besides original features, the site serves as a clearinghouse for news from the world of theater, film, literature, art and music. The site's editor, Valner Valme, talked to ERR News's Kristopher Rikken about recent developments in the cultural media and his vision.

It wasn't long after the kultuur.err.ee came into existence in November that big news broke on the cultural front - Kendergate. How did this impact you as a state-funded culture portal? Sackings at a sibling outlet like Sirp are a serious matter, but I understand that the whole event had its upsides, too?

It was our baptism of fire. As a freshly established website, with technical glitches yet to be ironed out, we did our best to keep that "gate" swinging. We approached the issue from different sides, published interviews and opinions with the Kender team and Kultuurileht [the publisher] directors. It was a hot topic, brought in many new readers and put us on the map as a new media outlet. So those were the benefits: it made the situation faced by the cultural media a broader news topic, and added one more cultural publication - us - to that landscape.

There were a number of conspiracy theories at the time, did kultuur.err.ee figure in them?

People joked that we were behind the entire Kender affair so that we could get our foot in the door in the media world. Well, that is a joke. In general, we we tried to stay neutral, although sometimes our own views did peek through when we conducted interviews; we ran a few comment pieces, too. In any case, our views were not uniform. As to conspiracy theories in general, some people have them in their blood and they thrive on seeing the hairy hand of someone behind some meaningless bit of daily news.

Of course, I don't want to talk only about Sirp, but summing up your own views on the scandal: I understand you didn't have anything against the reforms proposed by Kender, and you felt that both the old guard and Kender were to blame for there being no dialogue?

The issue wasn't black and white but there were many half-tones, I don't want to say shades of gray for various reasons! I think culture needs wake-up calls and Kender made cultural life more lively.

But we also need culture papers that devote space to in-depth analysis. The Sirp scandal boiled down to dialogue - a lack thereof. Dialogue can't develop if one bunch of people have their mouths taped over, while the other side is forced to stay on the defensive and neither side talks about the content. The main problem was that no one was able to stomach the firing of Doris Kareva; they didn't see past that.

You're known as a music critic. I don't know how much you follow what's going in classical music, but culture ministers have been coming under fire for years and there's a battle with the National Symphony Orchestra over how much administrative control the state should have. What should a good culture minister do, how should they act, and what hasn't been done?

Well, I'm actually a cultural theoretician, music criticism is one part of theorizing. My studies in the humanities institute [later merged into Tallinn University] had the weight on literature. But I do keep track of cultural processes on the everyday level. The new culture minister Urve Tiidus is extremely congenial. There has been no reason to criticize her activity to this point. I think a minister would prove her fitness in the eyes of cultural people if she remained true to her vision and was not just an appendage of party politics. [...] Culture is such a sensitive area, it isn't wise to over-politicize it. At the same time, it's important that the minister have a clear vision, as you can't cater to everyone all the time in the cultural sphere. Rather the minister has to have the big picture even at a time when the big narratives don't count for much. The big narratives must remain important for a minister.

With my American background, I've noticed that "high culture" is often emphasized in Estonia. There is no Secretary of Culture portfolio in the US, for instance. Does good rock music (let's take some band that is more like an improvisational string quartet) get enough attention and respect? What about video games as an art form?

The term high culture is indeed ubiquitous in cultural discourse here, but it isn't defined with any sort of finality, as you can't draw a boundary line between high and low vs. popular and folk culture. There is constant crossing of the boundary and everything comes down to the observer's judgment. Beethoven can played crassly and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno can't be called empty-headed pop musicians. It seems that serious music is undoubtedly a high form that always gets attention, and rock or pop have to do double duty to justify itself and be taken seriously. How would you categorize the [classic progressive rock] band In Spe? Clearly it's in both categories, pop and high culture. Or Sven Grünberg... I personally don't like pigeonholing, but to a certain extent, the universally accepted terms must be taken into account.

And video games...well, they can be an art form, but they has been overrated as such. Fun and art value can't confused and every new medium can't automatically declared an art form. Video games are a tiny pebble in the of structure of cultural education/socialization and it's a question of taste whether it is needed there. But my kids play video games, and more power to them. They have a time limit, of course.

Think of this one as a hitmakers' "what's your favorite color" question. You mention In Spe; some of its members are still active. Any other, current bands who are in both categories, high and mass culture?

There are a few. Some alternative artists such as Kali Briis are making quality music with heart, soul and mind, so that is high culture for me. And Hortus Musicus is a pop band, even though they perform Baroque music. Neither of these examples can be pinned down, and the fact that they blend genres gives their art an additional dimension and even a raison d'etre.

What's the most important thing that could be done to keep culture vital? It could be a tax change on the state level or some more philosophical aspect.

Society could accept cultural discourse as natural. Currently culture comes up only during scandals. None of us can imagine a book review or theatrical performance review getting more attention than mainstream news. But this is not something that could be changed with something like tax policy. The cultural sphere means the contribution of every individual and an immediate relationship. Here we media people can do something too; right up to getting children to read books, taking them to the theatre, cinema and so on, from the time that they are very small.