NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 15th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 18 March 2022. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
This podcast episode came about fortuitously. Sophie Hope, collaborator with Owen Kelly on miaaw.net (that stands for “meanwhile in an abandoned warehouse”), the umbrella for “A Culture of Possibility” and other podcasts, shared the Porto Santo Charter with us, saying it would make a good discussion topic. François and I suggested we could all join the conversation, and as it turned out, Owen could make it at the appointed day and time (a little dicey: 10 am for me here in New Mexico; 5 pm for Francois in England; and 7 pm for Owen in Finland). But as you’ll hear, since we’re all somewhat obsessed with the topic of cultural democracy and policy, all four of us may all show up on a future episode.
For newbies to the subject, cultural policy refers to the statements and practices that guide an entity’s relationship to the management, development, and regulation of culture. If you google “cultural policy,” you’ll see tons of documents put out by global agencies such as UNESCO, international bodies such as the Council of Europe, the European Union, individual countries, states, counties, cities, or non-governmental organizations. In the narrowest sense (unfortunately the predominant one in the United States), they deal almost entirely with the funding of arts and culture; but the broader (and to me, better) policies also can appy to lots of related topics such as regulation, education, communications, preservation, digital culture, specific cultural rights, and on and on.
The underlying idea is that culture is an important and multidimensional aspect of society, and deserves to be regarded thoughtfully and nurtured with intentionality. Policy statements typically put forth values and priorities. Some are short, but many are highly detailed with pages of specific recommendations. As to how they are made and by whom, as well as whether and how they are implemented, we touch on such topics in this episode. Several examples are also linked in this blog, and we’ve also added links to the listing at miaaw.net.
Within this universe of cultural policy, what is the Porto Santo Charter? François explained: “It’s a document. Its title is Culture and the Promotion of Democracy: Towards a European Cultural Citizenship. It came out, as these documents sometimes do, from a Presidency of the European Union. For those who who aren’t familiar with it, the European Union has a rotating presidency. So each member state holds the presidency for six months, and in the first six months of 2021, the presidency was held by Portugal. The Porto Santo charter is an initiative arising out of that presidency that also involves a number of other member states and cultural institutions.
“That starting point is relevant in two ways, one good one, one not so good. The good one is that it gives it a certain amount of legal and political weight, it is an official document developed by a member state in the context of the presidency of the European Union. So that’s something that other states will probably feel they have to take some account of. The less good one is that it starts with a preamble. That means that it is written in that way in which states write documents: recognizing that, according to, cognizant of, we believe, and so on. And the document itself ends up being 14 pages long. The reason it’s interesting for us to talk about is because it is talking about cultural democracy and trying to move forward towards that principle that we in our different ways all hold to and have worked to advance. I have two questions: about its understanding of cultural democracy, and about how effective its proposals are.”
As did we all. Speaking for myself, Voltaire’s words echoed in my ears: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” The Charter fell far short for us, but we also recognized that it is significant and meaningful that the people who gathered in Porto Santo last year to create this document made a sincere effort to move from the problems of a top-down cultural policy to one that is deeply democratic. We just wish they’d gone a lot deeper.
I described my issues with the language. “Their definition of cultural democracy was pretty interesting. They gave it honor and positionality. If the charter were actually implemented in a very concrete and practical way, that would definitely be an advance for whatever country or countries did it. But when they talk about the different kinds of culture that have to be taken into consideration, the top one is ‘erudite’ culture, which totally tripped me out. Erudite is scholarly, researched and stuff like that, which is so not true. The top one is money culture, red carpets, red velvet curtains, the people who have clout. That felt like a ratcheting down of the truth to not step on somebody’s toes. And there’s a whole bunch of conversation in the cultural democracy sections about ‘audience development,’ and that concept is so antithetical to cultural democracy. There’s something that they don’t get.”
Owen agreed. “The very first sentence of the preamble, I took as a warning. It says ‘The Porto Santo Conference, a Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union initiative, proposes this Porto Santo Charter as a guiding map of principles and recommendations for applying and developing a working paradigm for cultural democracy in Europe.” And right there, I think there’s a large sense of not getting it, because this implies quite clearly—and later, when it starts talking about details, it’s quite clear that this implication is intended—it implies that this will be another top-down initiative, that Europe will get a cultural democracy policy, which will be implemented and trickle down to the people.
“For me, this is a complete impossibility and not only a complete impossibility, a complete misunderstanding. This is a charter that seems to me to have been developed by those large inter-country groups of arts professionals who gather around Europe to meet and theorize. And I do not believe that this will possibly be implemented, because I don’t believe it addresses the concerns of people that aren’t concerned about this document.”
For the three of us, these policymakers aren’t sufficiently aware of the values and biases embedded in the way cultural policy has been made by governmental and quasi-governmental groups. For us, the main constituency for cultural policy is all the members of the relevant communities. But as François pointed out, that lack of awareness is distorting. “The document says, ‘Cultural Democracy’ implies a new relational model between institutions and communities: culture becomes a platform where each person can participate and be responsible.’ In the heart of this concept, they’re placing cultural institutions and communities as equivalents. I don’t understand how a cultural institution can be an equivalent of a community. I find that the term, ‘participate and be responsible,’ extraordinarily condescending. The idea that somehow, it’s our job to be responsible towards cultural institutions, for the nature and quality of our cultural participation.”
“But there are further statements,” François continued, “along those lines in the recommendations at the end that I find, frankly, astonishing. This is a document by cultural producers. And they have been incapable in this instance, of disentangling their own interests, and their own perspective, from their interpretation of an idea, which they recognize has value and arguably, I would say, whose time came 50 years ago and has been growing ever since. They’re trying to play catch-up with an idea that some of them resisted for many decades, but trying to do it in a way that actually protects and recognizes the primary value of the cultural producer and the cultural institution. And that’s why for me, it’s another failure to get to grips with what cultural democracy really challenges us to do, which is to recognize the equality of that participation of all citizens in cultural life.”
That’s how the episode started out, and we went on to cover at least part of the waterfront. We talked about how policymakers regard culture, as “something bolted on, it’s something we might not be able to participate in. It’s something that we might miss if it goes,” as Owen said, as opposed to a complex, intersectional, integral, and inseparable aspect of human life. We also talked about the local roots of culture, that it’s a matrix and not something imposed. We shared ways that culturally democratic values were visible in thought and action far earlier than the Sixties, which is where the Charter located them in time. We talked about what cultural policy ought to include, Owen saying part of that should be, “where people get their information from, what information people can get, how people can make themselves heard, the structure of social media, all of those things are a distinct part of cultural democracy for me, more in many ways, than people’s abilities to put on plays or put on ballet shows.”
We also talked about alternative models, such as the Rome Charter, a concise and accessible document which François and others worked intensively on beginning in 2020. It is based on the understanding that “Culture is the expression of values, a common, renewable resource in which we meet one another, learn what can unite us and how to engage with differences in a shared space. Those differences exist within and between cultures. They must be acknowledged and engaged with. An inclusive, democratic, sustainable city enables that process, and is strengthened by it too.”
I mentioned that “Standing for Cultural Democracy” in 2016 was the last such thing I wrote, a compendium of policy proposals that departed from most cultural policy documents in that it included things like addressing the culture of punishment flourishing in the United States, home to the world’s largest prison-industrial complex.
We returned several times to the clarity and simplicity of Article 27 of United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the foundational text for all subsequent articulations of cultural rights: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.” In 1970 Rene Maheu, then Director-General of Unesco, said something just as key to our conversation as to the dialogue 50 years agod (though the gendered language is a bit dated):
It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man [sic], has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community—or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community—mankind)—it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation. … Everyone, accordingly, has the right to culture, as he has the right to education and the right to work. … This is the basis and first purpose of cultural policy.
Caetano Veloso with Karina Zeviani, “You Don’t Know Me.”