Thinking about cultural democracy, part one

Cultural democracy is an idea that emerged in the mid 1970s, in response to the challenge of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In June 1976, the Council of Europe held a conference of Ministers of Culture in Oslo so that they could ‘compare problems of cultural policy in relation to their shared acceptance of democratic values’. The conference considered several reports including one by J. A. Simpson called Towards Cultural Democracy, which suggested that:

‘Cultural democracy implies placing importance on […] creating conditions which will allow people to choose to be active participants rather than just passive receivers of culture.’

The idea was quickly picked up by the community arts movement, which saw it as giving political legitimacy to thinking it had been developing for a decade (or, as I argue in my forthcoming book, for 150 years). It was developed by many community arts activists. Some, like Owen Kelly and Arlene Goldbard wrote important books on the subject. Others contributed in less visible, but still influential ways. But there was never agreement about what ‘cultural democracy’ meant nor how it could or should be implemented. That disagreement was at the heart of the last conference of the National Association of Community Artists, held in Sheffield in 1986, and it contributed to the organisation’s demise the following year. By the end of 1980s, the term had largely fallen out of favour as neoliberal politics cemented its ascendancy with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the USSR.

1993 South Asian Dance Workshop
South Asian Dance Workshop led by Bisakha Sarker in 1993

In subsequent years, the terms ‘cultural democracy’ and ‘community art’ faded from view, to be replaced by the more innocuous ‘participatory art’. But the idea did not. Cultural democracy remained a founding ideal for many people, myself included. It’s one reason why I’ve always called my work ‘community art’. Now, a generation later, the idea is being revived, both in practice and in debate. And as before, it is providing shelter for a very wide range of interpretations. It speaks to the people behind grass roots campaigns like Fun Palaces and 64 Million Artists. It speaks also to politically engaged artists, including those behind the Movement for Cultural Democracy and The World Transformed. It speaks to academics too. It speaks to many individual artists and activists who interpret it largely through their work rather than public statements. As in the past, they don’t agree about what it means or how it should be implemented, but that’s to be expected. It’s (cultural) democracy.

What has changed is that the Arts Council is now willing, apparently, to embrace the concept. Thirty years ago, Sir Roy Shaw used several pages of his memoir of his years as Secretary–General of the Arts Council to explain why Owen Kelly’s ideas were unacceptable and wrong. I wonder what he’d make of the institution he once led publishing Cultural Democracy in Practice, a guide for ‘Chief Executives, boards and staff of arts organisations in the UK’. Some on the other side of the fence find that equally unacceptable but for other reasons, seeing it as the seizure of a radical idea intended to challenge the existing structures of power by those very structures. There’s some truth in that. Indeed, you could see the gradual normalisation of practices invented half a century ago by the community arts movement as an example of institutional appropriation. But nor is it possible to ignore those institutions. Artists today must decide how to deal with power, why and on what terms, as they always have. If you can live without any support from power, it’s probably because you already have some.

The argument about cultural democracy cannot be settled because it is not only about interpretations of art, quality and value, but about who has the right to make those interpretations. The key claim of cultural democracy—as of other progressive voices in the 1960s—is that the answer to that question is ‘everyone’. All citizens have an equal right to make art, to define its meaning and to argue for their vision of reality. It does not follow that all those visions are equally good or true: democracy is the right to express a view, not a guarantee that all views are universally acceptable. On the contrary, we use democracy because we accept that our right to say what we want means that others have it too. What matters, then, is how well we conduct that democratic process.

'Bus Ride' (Performance Ensemble).jpg
‘Bus Ride’ by The Performance Ensemble with Leeds Playhouse, 16 September 2018

One reason why community artists responded to the idea of cultural democracy was because they were interested in process. I still am. In the 1980s, I watched as cultural democracy was driven into the ground, at least as a policy idea, by people with good intentions but too much belief in the primacy of their own vision. I hope that its revival will not lead to the same outcome. There are some reasons for optimism, because in very different times, the place of art in society and our ideas about it have changed profoundly. The arguments about power, authority and resources are still legitimate, but they start from a different place, which is why the Arts Council welcomes an idea that, 30 years ago, it condemned.

I’m glad we’re talking about this again, even as I recognise the tensions and the risks. Over the coming months, as time permits, I’ll write more about what cultural democracy means to me, in the hope of contributing something to the debate. It will be informed by years of thought and practice, but it will still only be my perspective. In the meantime, here is a somewhat philosophical talk I gave in Tasmania a few years ago about the democratic basis of cultural policy. It concludes  that ‘The quality of a democracy is not just a matter of its governance and representation. It is also about the freedom, richness and quality of the parliament of its dreams.’

Here too are some links to earlier writing on the theme from this blog (you’ll find others by clicking on the ‘cultural democracy’ tag below):


Photos on this page by François Matarasso