What cultural democracy meant in 1976

In 1976, the Council of Europe organised a conference of European ministers with responsibility for cultural affairs in Oslo ‘to compare problems of cultural policy in relation to their shared acceptance of democratic values’. As far as I know, it was at this conference that the concept of cultural democracy became current in European political discourse. It fell into disuse at the end of the 1980s but there are signs of renewed—and very welcome—interest in the idea.

The opening address of the Oslo conference was given by Kjolv Egeland, the Norwegian Minister of Church and Culture and a Labour politician. This extract from his speech is worth reading from several perspectives, not least his principled vision of the place of art, culture and truth in life.


‘Cultural democracy is—broadly speaking—the creation of conditions for everybody to establish a personal relationship with Shakespeare  and Beethoven and Rembrandt and all the rest. But it is more than that. Cultural democracy is the way to find opportunities and initiatives to play one’s own flute in life. Cultural democracy is, further, to understand and accept other values than one’s own. It means personal activity. Certainly too, it means to live with dignity and consciousness. And that means to live socially. But at the same time, life is a lonely affair. And culture is part of life. So culture is often a very personal thing, individually gained and appreciated.

Cultural democracy is having a hundred blossoms bloom. Different blossoms, yellow, blue and even ridiculous blossoms—but blossoms, nonetheless.

One of my hopes for this conference is that we should agree on, indeed insist on, the right to experience non-material values in a changing society as a common human right. A second hope of mine is that we may accept and affirm the vast versatility in the field of human values, often called culture—accept and affirm this as a fact as well as a moral and a political right.

Thirdly, I hope that we, as politicians, will agree on and stress an obligation to further these goals by all possible means, and accept the  costs they imply but refrain from converting into dogma the values we want adopted.

I shall not venture to define or explain what this means: but I will say a word of what it does not mean. Not being dogmatic does not mean that we cease to discriminate on the grounds of quality, for we should see the danger of nihilism in these matters. Beauty and truth are not greater or smaller in proportion to the number of supporters. A piece of art is still a piece of art even if I personally do not like it or understand it. As I said, I shall not go into discussion of this, but what I have in mind is, of course, among other things, the vulgar and ruthless exploitation of bad taste, often seen and feared in modern commercialised entertainment. I also have in mind exploitation of anti-intellectualism and irrational hatred of, for instance, arts and research. Those phenomena are there all the time, and we should be aware of them. We should especially rally to the defence of the most defenceless targets for commercial exploitation, namely the children.

No I shall not define quality. But it is there all the time.

[…]

But what is culture–really? Not an after-dinner pastime for affluent people. Not social therapy. Not that which comes after everything else. Culture is – well, it’s a matter for politicians.


Council of Europe. 1976. Ad Hoc Conference of European Ministers with Responsibility for Cultural Affairs. Oslo, Norway, June 15-17, p.12-13

4 comments

  1. This conference seems to have passed me (and much related literature) by; an interesting take and has raised some questions for me. Over forty years have gone passed and, despite recent renewed interest in the term, I fear we have not (yet) travelled particularly far on this journey in the UK.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. What strikes me is that the discourse in the 1970s was rooted in ideas about human rights (which I share). Today, cultural democracy is sometimes used to describe people’s everyday participation in art – which has always and will always exist – without much awareness of its deeper ethical and democratic importance.

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  2. As you say, “there are signs of renewed – and very welcome – interest in the idea” of cultural democracy. We have forgotten so much. Thanks for the post.

    Besides forgetting so much, there are many things that weren’t seen or were never got fully considered at the time because of a lack of information and vaster vision in our rush to get from the Baldry Report to Another Standard and ‘storming the citadels’. [as you touched on last year, in you piece on ‘Co-creation and collective action, then and now’.]

    So, yes, it could be both timely and interesting to reframe the cultural democracy agenda in terms of, say, Gustav Metzler’s two lectures on ‘The Social Relevance of Art’ at the Slade in 1969 and 1970, Robert Smithton’s 1972 ‘Cultural Confinement’, the 1974 Venice Biennale as cultural protest, the 1978 ‘The State of British Art’ conference at ICA, London, etc., etc..

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    1. I’m never sure about forgetting. Sometimes it seems tragic, sometimes necessary, sometimes inevitable. But I do feel sure that one generation cannot make the next responsible for caring about what it has cared about. The references you mention sound fascinating – I don’t know about the lectures or ‘Cultural Confinement’. Any further information you can share would be great.

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