Has Arts Council England got cultural democracy wrong? Steven Hadley and Eleonora Belfiore argue for a more thorough questioning of existing hierarchies.
Writing recently about the work of the Creative People and Places (CPP) scheme, Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, stated: “We are engaged on what might prove to be one of the most significant cultural journeys of our time.” For the former capo dei capi of Tate, and friend of Elisabeth Murdoch, the work of CPP continues the direction of policy travel established after the Second World War with the founding of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. As such, he considers CPP part of a move towards greater democratisation and ever larger audiences for the arts.
The language used in CPP projects and reports charts a shift from marketing the arts in ‘cold spots’ to everyday creativity and, potentially, cultural democracy. As Alison Jeffers argues in her book Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (that she co-wrote with Gerry Moriarty), ideas of cultural democracy have “continued to play a vital, if often unrecognised, role in thinking about the relationship between art and people”.
The extent to which CPP (in total or part) could be considered a manifestation of cultural democracy is debatable
Yet in reality, the extent to which CPP (in total or part) could be considered a manifestation of cultural democracy is debatable. The ideas of culture and democracy which Serota promotes are not quite as straightforward as he seems to think, and the tensions around them are as old as the Arts Council itself.
The term ‘cultural democracy’ has recently acquired new capital via a range of publications, events and research activity. As if to prove this point, this November the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference will address the theme of ‘Culture, Democracy, and the Arts: Rights Here, Right Now’. The conference recognises the need to address the relevance of cultural democracy to cultural policy today and to learn from historical understandings of proponents of cultural democracy.
Similar ideas are also evident in the work of the Movement for Cultural Democracy, a coalition of organisations, groups and individuals seeking cultural democracy in the UK. An overtly political campaign with roots in the now defunct pressure group Arts for Labour, it formed after The World Transformed festival in Brighton in September last year and has since launched the draft Manifesto for Cultural Democracy.
This calls for the establishment of a new national arts fund (funded by an art market transaction tax) and a new public publishing house, alongside a recognition and re-prioritising of values designed to address the power imbalance in the cultural sector.
Art for the community
Given the renewed interest in the ideas and practices of cultural democracy and their potential to address longstanding issues of cultural policy, it seems clear that, as Owen Kelly, a key figure from the community arts movement, has recently argued, arguments about cultural democracy still resonate. But for Arts Council England, they are not unproblematic.
A key focus of Kelly’s work was a critique of cultural authority, particularly as regards the right to say what was, and was not, ‘art’. More specific was his attack on the idea of the ‘great tradition of European art’ as a practice which “takes the taste of one (bourgeois) group of people and presents them as the natural taste of civilised people everywhere”.
Kelly argued not for an extension of the concept of the arts to encompass more activities from more people in more places, but rather its replacement. This radical, political project called for “many localised scales of values, arising from within communities and applied by those communities to activities they individually or collectively undertake”.
This is quite different from the statement made by Nick Serota when he inquires: “What if, for instance, CPP drives a major change in social attitudes to culture? And begins to change the way that our other National Portfolio Organisations [NPOs] develop and channel their activities in programmes that are more fully owned and directed by their communities.”
The above statement assumes that NPOs are a constituent part of what cultural democracy means. That the existence of a portfolio of arts organisations based (to a greater or lesser extent) on the ‘great tradition’ is a necessary requirement. Serota’s conceptual planning here seeks to use CPP as a tool for the democratisation of culture, not cultural democracy.
Looked at from the perspective of cultural democracy, we might re-phrase the quote as follows: “What if, for instance, CPP drives a major change in social attitudes to culture? And begins to change the way that our arts subsidy is distributed so that National Portfolio Organisations are no longer relevant to programmes that are more fully owned and directed by their communities.”
Alongside other important debates around cultural democratisation, such as live-to-screen, the challenge for UK cultural policy remains avoidance of what Sir Roy Shaw, former head of the Arts Council of Britain, referred to as “throwing out the precious arts baby with the social bath water”.
A two-tier system
If, as Nick Serota would have it, CPP is part of the onward march of the democratisation of culture, then it runs the risk of creating a two-tier system in the arts sector. ‘High art’ for the culturally engaged, and creative participation for the ‘hard to reach’ and reluctant attenders. Real opera for those living in large cities, and cinema screens for those elsewhere. To paraphrase Sir Roy, the idea that CPP might act as a counterbalance to the ongoing project of the democratisation of (high) culture could be said to offer little substantive difference to a form of cultural apartheid.
The need to fully embrace the reality of this debate, and its potential repercussions for the subsidised arts sector, requires us to go much further than co-opting community engagement into a perpetuation of the status quo. There can be no true exploration of cultural democracy without the acknowledgement that hierarchies of cultural value have always been, and always will be, bound up with questions of power and authority.
Steven Hadley is an academic, writer and consultant in the arts and cultural sector and an Associate Consultant with The Audience Agency. Eleonora Belfiore is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Loughborough.
This article is based on Cultural democracy and cultural policy, published in Cultural Trends.
The Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference is to be held from Thursday 1 to Saturday 3 November at the University of Manchester.