Feeling at home

The democratic urgency of dialogue in a diverse world

Notes for a speech at the Nordic Dialogues conference, in Oslo (Norway) on 2 December 2019. The talk was filmed so if you were there or see the video online, you’ll notice differences between these notes and what I said, but the outline of the argument is here.

Opening of Nordic Dialogues conference; the talk starts at 27.20 and lasts an hour

Where do you come from?

How do you feel about this question? Does it seem normal or threatening? I wouldn’t usually begin with such a personal question, but it is difficult to speak about cultural diversity without recognising your own position. I will come back to this later, but for now, let me tell you where I come from, since I’m here in Norway for the first time. 


All m grandparents were born in different countries. They spoke six or seven languages and had three religious faiths. They spent much of their lives in other countries. My paternal grandfather was born in Thessaloniki, in Northern Greece. Today, it looks like a typical European city. In 1892, when my grandfather was born, it was called Salonica, or Selanuk, and was part of the Ottoman Empire. His family was part of the Jewish community, one of several religious and ethnic groups in a city with no majority population.

A page from an old calendar

This is a page from a calendar printed in Istanbul before the First World War; it survived by being used as a bookmark in a prayer book. It uses Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Ladino, French, Hebrew and Bulgarian. It gives the date according to four different calendars: Hebrew, Islamic, Julian and Gregorian. But the most important thing about this piece of paper is its ordinariness. It is just a tool, needed by everyone in a major port and trading city. After all, everyone needed to know when a ship was expected or goods were to be delivered. 

Diversity, nationalism and the end of empire

This piece of paper is ordinary also in the sense that it represents a city of a kind that existed all over Europe before World War One. In a world of Empires – Austro Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, German, British, French – ethnic, cultural and religious diversity was the norm. Empires are necessarily political constructions. As the EU understands citizenship depends on legal rights, not on ethnicity. The rise of nationalism put an end to empire during the 20th century (though there were attempts to create ideological empires). Nationalism’s ideal of a mapping a single homogenous group – a tribe – onto a geographically coherent territory proved to be (as it remains) very attractive. But nationalism’s central difficulty is in defining the tribe: who belongs?

Ethnic cleansing – a European nightmare

The First World War destroyed at least four empires and unleashed demons that ravaged Europe for decades. The only way to create tribal territories was to move people, or kill them if you couldn’t move them. The result was called many things: population transfer, ethnic cleansing, genocide.  It’s how Thessaloniki became a Greek city. Greece had taken it in 1912, but the city really changed after war Turkey. In 1923, the Lausanne Convention led to the expulsion of about 500,000 Turkish Muslims from Greece and 1.25 million Christian Greeks from Turkey. The ethnic cleansing and population transfers that began with WWI continued at varying degrees of intensity throughout the 20th century, always in the pursuit of ever-purer idea of ethnic nationalism. It led to unquantifiable suffering and it produced nothing but an illusion.

The illusion of a homogenous society

In the 1950s, when I was born, Western Europe could think of itself as made up of ethnically homogenous, stable and prosperous nation states. But that was a deception that rested on ethnic cleansing and genocide and was maintained by ignoring or silencing all those people who did not conform to that idea: women, people of colour, disabled people, the LGBTI community and many other minorities. The rise of identity politics is one result of these many people’s growing refusal of the subordinate status assigned to them in the past. It is not easy or coherent but it is a necessary struggle for equal rights and recognition.

Everything now depends on how we manage the reality of our human diversity.

Europe is reconnecting with its human diversity 

In the 21st century, after decades of genocide, ethnic cleansing and marginalisation, the actual human diversity of Europe’s citizens is returning. It is happening for different and complex reasons, and it doesn’t look the same as it did, but it is just the same reality as before: people are not the same. People may welcome it or fear it but it cannot be denied: we know what that leads to. So everything now depends on how we manage the reality of our human diversity.

The invention of Art

I’ll return to that shortly, but now I want to look at culture and its own processes of homogenisation. What we now call art – first in Europe, and then across the world – is an invention of the European Enlightenment. Of course, humans have always made art, using creativity to understand the experience of being alive and to bring into being objects, stories, sounds and performances that seek to make sense of that experience. Art, like language, is one of the things that make us human. 

The Enlightenment and the Fine Arts

During the 18th century, European philosophers, writers and politicians tried to free themselves from the authority of the church and the monarchy. They sought a new system of values derived not from the supernatural world of theology but the natural world of science, reason and humanity.  In doing so, they invented the idea of the Fine Arts – by which they usually meant painting, sculpture, music, poetry and architecture – an ideal of autonomy that freed the artist from serving existing structures of power. The artist gained authority from independence secured by a growing middle class and the industrial economy that slowly freed artists from patronage.

The revolutionary power of fine art

The idea of art as a self-conscious, socially critical and autonomous practice grew during the 19th century, and although many artists paid a heavy price for their emancipation, their power and social status rose steadily Their new ideas transformed the European imagination, making possible the modern world, driving social change – and fuelling nationalism. They also created an extraordinary body of art that continues to resonate across the world.

The ethnographic museum presents the anonymous art plundered from other cultures, where a single artefact is interpreted as representing an entire culture.

The down side of Fine Art

But there was a price for this. It is implied in the very concept of the Fine Arts. In creating the Fine Arts you necessarily create the arts that are not fine – or, as they have been variously called, folk art, traditional art, popular art, commercial, naïve art, or just entertainment. And, in the age of colonialism, you also create categories like native art, oriental art or primitive art.  The art museum presents the recognised work of dead white European men. The ethnographic museum presents the anonymous art plundered from other cultures, where a single artefact is interpreted as representing an entire culture.

Cultural cleansing

For much of the past 200 years, Europeans have consciously or unconsciously accepted the idea that there are two kinds of art. On the one hand is the great work of the European canon – classical music, literature, ballet, theatre and visual art – which is supposed to transcend material values and have universal appeal. On the other is the wealth of art that most people actually create and enjoy – folk, jazz and pop, tv drama, films, stories, knitting, singing, photography, woodcarving – the list is endless because our tastes and enthusiasms keep changing as we do.  Since the emergence of the welfare state after the second world war, the first kind of art has been promoted and subsidised. The second kind has been tolerated or neglected, mostly left to the market and to voluntary action.

The power of quality 

This division is justified by the idea of quality. At face value, that sounds reasonable: naturally, as a society, we want to invest in the best. But quality is a very slippery idea, and easily abused. It can become a source of power and control. It can be used to silence criticism or even debate. Let me highlight a couple of ways in which quality is used in that way.

‘You don’t care about quality’ 

People who work in community art, or just outside the fine art world, are used to being told our work doesn’t meet the standards to be supported. Implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – we are told that we don’t care about artistic quality because we are concerned about social or political issues. It’s true that the work produced with and by community groups – people I see as non-professional artists – does not conform to the standards of work created by professional artists. But it is not a less good expression of that work. It is an expression of a different kind of art, with its own standards and values. It must be judged on that basis.  And it is always judged by the people involved and the audiences who see it. I’ve worked in community art for 40 years, and I have never met anyone who didn’t want to create the best work of which they were capable. The idea that only professional artists care about the quality of their work is false and self-serving.

‘You have no standards’

Another accusation levelled against those of us who question dominant ideas of artistic quality is that we are relativists, we believe there are no standards and that anything is as good as anything else. But if I don’t accept your standards without question, it does not follow that I don’t have standards of my own, or that I don’t think standards matter in the first place. I believe all sorts of things are better or more valuable than others, not just in art, but in ethics or politics too. Such values are part of what makes us human.  What I question is one person’s authority to impose their standards, without question, on another. It is a kind of cultural cleansing. 

Cultural democracy

During the 1960s, it was becoming increasingly hard to defend the established idea of culture represented by the fine arts. In 1976, the Council of Europe organised a conference of European ministers of Cultural Affairs in Oslo ‘to compare problems of cultural policy in relation to their shared acceptance of democratic values’. That meeting articulated a vitally important new idea: cultural democracy 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. That idea could be said to have paved the way for Norway’s recognition today that ‘The state’s responsibilities have thus been expanded from passively refraining from intervening in freedom of speech to actively facilitating it.’

A changing world

The idea of cultural democracy was a response to a rapidly changing world, in which the illusion of homogeneity – human and cultural – was increasingly difficult to maintain.  Millions of people – women, people of colour, gays and lesbians, ethnic minorities, disabled people and others – who had been marginalised or repressed for decades began to claim their equal democratic rights. Increasing education, prosperity and leisure combined with new technology to put the means of cultural production into the hands of more and more people. This is the world we live in. As the White Paper on the future of cultural policy recognises, ‘Society is transitioning from generally being one large community to many small ones.’ I agree with that, although I question how much that one large community ever existed in reality. 

There is another parallel between the Fine Arts and Nationalism: they are both intolerant of diversity.

Living with diversity

The academies and institutions that have acted as custodians of Fine Art since the Enlightenment have always been entangled with nationalism. They defend an idea of culture that simultaneously claims to be universal but somehow distinctively national. There is another parallel between the Fine Arts and Nationalism: they are both intolerant of diversity. Believing in a single, unchanging ideal, they are obliged to police their borders and control admission. They both ask: Where to you come from? 

Their challenge now is to adapt to a world where people come from many places and have complex identities and values. For cultural policy that presents a particular challenge. It is neither possible nor desirable to subsidise all forms of artistic expression. So on what basis do we decide what to subsidise? And having decided that, how do we choose the best of what we have decided to support?

A principle of cultural democracy

If we no longer subsidise classical music because it is intrinsically better than folk music, we might subsidise it because it cannot survive without that support. Folk music mostly thrives without state intervention, because of how it is created, learned, shared and performed and thanks to the commitment of non-professional and commercial actors. The cost of a symphony orchestra, and the relatively small market able to support it, makes it reasonable to argue that it should be protected by subsidy. But the rationale is protection of cultural diversity and freedom of speech, not the higher value of this form of music. 

Much as environmental policy seeks to protect natural diversity by supporting vulnerable species and ecosystems, so cultural policy could protect artistic diversity by focusing on vulnerable and rare expressions.  The underlying principle is democratic, to ensure that everyone can participate in the cultural life of the community, as promised in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No judgement is made about the value of that participation: like freedom of speech, it is a value in itself.

Another approach to quality

So the foundation of cultural policy could be democratic participation, for all on their own terms, with intervention only where that is necessary to protect the diversity of art practiced. The music of Edvard Greig, a Sami Joik singer or a Kurdish rap artist could all be supported on the same principle of protecting cultural diversity. But how could we decide between one Joik singer and another? If we can’t support them all, how do we support the best? The answer is not to situate artistic quality in form, but in expression, and in doing so to recognise that all judgements about artistic quality are subjective, provisional and contingent. 

Alternative criteria of artistic quality

Twenty years ago, I suggested some criteria for artistic quality for the Arts Council in Ireland. The rationale can be found in A Restless Art (pp. 97-102), but in summary they are

  • Craft: the technical and artistic skill demonstrated by the work. Is it well made?
  • Originality: its relationship to the unique conditions of its creation. Is it true to the maker?
  • Ambition: its aspiration, scale and openness. Is it worth doing?
  • Resonance: its relevance to what people are concerned about. Does it speak to me?
  • Feeling: its non-rational effect and ability to linger in the mind. Does it move me?

It is not possible to be right about art

The critical difference between these criteria is that they don’t provide an answer, which will always be a subjective judgement. Instead they provide a basis for a conversation that is intended to help people understand better their different perspectives, experiences and judgements. We must abandon the idea that, where art and culture are concerned, it is possible to be right. It is only possible to know what we think and feel and believe, and to be open to what others think and feel and believe. It is possible, in doing that, to enrich and deepen our understanding of ourselves and each other. In doing that, in listening to each other talk about our values we are enacting some of the most important forms of democratic life.

A diverse cultural life is both an expression and a guarantor of a society’s democracy.

Cultural participation and democracy

The White Paper on the future of culture is an admirable document in many ways, but nowhere more than in recognising that culture is a territory for democratic participation. It is nonetheless a prerequisite that organisations and associations include groups and individuals who normally do not participate in the political system. This can help ensure that other forms of participation do not result in alienation and to make democracy more resilient. A diverse cultural life is both an expression and a guarantor of a society’s democracy. Sharing, debating and negotiating our cultural values is the essence of democracy itself. 

Human diversity is cultural diversity 

Human beings are different in many ways – age, colour, body shape, sexuality, health, the list is long. Most of the differences don’t matter. You don’t argue with someone because they’re tall. The differences in our values, expressed in our culture, do matter, because we disagree about them. We don’t all believe the same thing. We could argue about whether Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel Prize, but there is no truth to be found there.The criteria of artistic quality might help us have a really interesting conversation though, that contributes not just to developing our understanding but to creating that sense of community that is so central to human needs.

It might help us understand that cultural diversity does not need to threaten our sense of being a community if we are willing to negotiate rather than impose our cultural values. If we do expect to impose our cultural values, what right do we have to prevent other people from imposing theirs?  

Feeling at home

Human diversity, and therefore cultural diversity, is a reality. It is not something that has been chosen by anyone. If we are democrats, if we believe in the intrinsic worth and equality of human life, we must accept that people who are different from us have the same rights and duties as we do. There can be no correct level of diversity in a society and no correct proportion of diversity in a cultural programme. Like art, this is not a territory where it is possible to right.

But I would like to end by suggesting a simple test of how successfully a society is managing the reality of its own diversity.  It is this:

Does everyone feel at home? Do they feel able to express their cultural values on the same basis as everyone else?

‘Where do you come from?’ can be a threatening question, implying that you are not at home, that you need to justify yourself in ways and to degrees that others are not required to meet. Or it can be an invitation to share your heritage and your values, an expression of interest and trust, rooted in recognition that you belong. 

In the end, we are all at home, trying to make the best of this life on one planet. The challenge for cultural democracy is make that true.  

The image at the top this post is by Georges Jansoone, Wikipedia


  1. Thanks very much Francois. Brilliant sane lucid post. So necessary in these times of manipulative political polarization.
    John Fox MBE

    Liked by 1 person

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