NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 30th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 21 July 2023. 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.
Click here to subscribe free to The MIAAW Monthly and stay informed about podcasts, resources, and ideas related to cultural democracy and community-based arts.
Every third podcast, François Matarasso and I talk to each about issues that are burning a hole in our brains. The fires are smoldering now, because we are rethinking.
François described himself as being deep into it: “There have been many changes in my own life, and also the work that I was doing on a big project during the pandemic and after it. It led me to think again about many of the things that I’d written in A Restless Art. I think what I wrote about theory in the history of community art, I’m reasonably comfortable with, but a lot of what I wrote about the practice, I now think differently about and that’s part of what the book is about.”
“In the second section of the book,” he continued, “I want to talk about some of the misperceptions that have got community art, participatory art, co-creation—whatever you want to call it—into its own kind of crisis. One of the misperceptions is the idea that policy makers, funders, and too many artists have that they can control how people will receive the work that they do. The whole funding system is now predicated in a way that it wasn’t when I started out with the idea that this project will produce outcomes and impacts that can be, in effect, sold to funders. You and I have discussed the ethical and political problems in that idea before, but there are also fundamental artistic problems in that idea, because it can’t be done. An artist cannot control how their work is received. Or recreated. Until we are more honest and clear about that, we’re going to be stuck in this logic.”
Lately, François had been writing about a topic that is foundational not only to our podcast, but to our work as a whole: cultural democracy, and why so many gatekeepers seem unwilling or unable to grasp the concept. The very day in June we recorded this podcast, François had blogged about it. So that’s where we started. I’ll give you a taste of our exchange.
“In your blog,” I asked, “you tell a story about talking to someone who is an arts bureaucrat, who’s in a position to say what the policy is and how the implementation will go. He says he doesn’t understand what cultural democracy is and you give him a concise explanation. And he says he still doesn’t understand. At some point you realize he’s teasing you, and then you try it again. I hear this all the time: ‘I don’t get it. I don’t get it. What do you mean? What is it?’ It really pisses me off and I’m going to tell you why.
“Because I don’t believe it. It’s not that they don’t get it. It’s a problem in what the French social scientist Lucien Goldmann termed ‘potential consciousness,’ which is if you believe something that contradicts what’s you’re hearing, it can’t come in. If I believe that God created the world and all the animals and everything in six days, then the theory of evolution is going to be ‘I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I don’t get it.’ This is a problem of human consciousness. We all have limited potential consciousness. We may be trying to open the book as much as we can, but some pages are already written on and we might not be able to let certain things in.
“These arts bureaucrats have internalized certain beliefs. A core one is ‘the democratization of high culture’ which was put forward as a contrasting paradigm to cultural democracy, in which you have this idea of what is the best in culture and you want to disseminate that more widely. So you bus schoolchildren to the museum, and you have string ensembles come into factories to perform. That’s democratization of high culture and where the lion’s share of funding in just about every Western nation and most of the others has has typically gone if there’s some kind of state-supported funding apparatus for arts and culture.
“It was once considered a liberalization and an opening out. If you read the history of European cultural policy, you hear people say that in World War II, all these people from all social classes went off to save Europe. When they came back, they didn’t want to tug their forelocks and just say okay to the powers that be; they wanted a voice. Those were the early conversations that led to the articulation of cultural democracy, people saying ‘me too, I’m a citizen, I sacrificed something, I deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to rule over me.’ But before they started saying that, the powers that be thought we will appease these people by giving them the bus tickets, the concerts, free opening days of museums.
“That’s been happening for 40, 50, 60 years. It didn’t work. It was supposed to increase the audience for all that stuff. In theory, working class people would be going to the opera and the symphony and the ballet in hordes now, because as children, they were taken there. But it didn’t change the audience profile at all. And, sadly true for policymaking systems in both our parts of the world, that failure of policy is no impediment to continuing it forever.
“Along comes cultural democracy, saying yes, what you’re hearing from people—’we’re here too, we count too, we’re equal to you, what we care about matters, what we know matters, what we do matters, and we’re not going to just sit back and take it anymore.’ That’s the foundational impulse for cultural democracy. It’s a very simple thing to understand if your mind is open to it. Sometimes I’ve used a three word definition: pluralism, participation, and equity….The reason that they can’t understand the definition of cultural democracy, no matter how you define it, is that the words go into their ears and there’s a little gatekeeper in their minds. Words start to come up like ‘dilution.’ So it’s dilution. It’s ‘standards.’
“They think of the faces of their friends who run the Royal Ballet or whatever: what will happen to them, if they can’t get the special tool from France for the ballet costumes? It’s like one of those scenes in a science fiction movie where the hero talks a computer into melting down, and the rocket ship door opens. They haven’t had the rocket ship door open, but I’m never going to believe it’s because they don’t understand it. What I believe with utter conviction is that they will not allow themselves to understand it, because its implications will crash their minds.
We didn’t turn out to have a big disagreement, but François pointed out more than one important aspect I hadn’t mentioned:
“The actions that naturally flow from cultural democracy are less obvious than the actions that naturally flow from cultural democratization. Cultural democratization is part of the postwar welfare state. The welfare state says we need to give people access to health services, to education, to employment, and we need to give them access to culture. It’s not difficult for policymakers to think, ‘Okay, how do we do that? We build some new theaters in places that don’t have theaters. We open some galleries. We make ticket prices low.’ The actions that you do to achieve that goal are really quite easy. And crucially, they are similar to the actions that you’re doing in education and in health, because you’re building hospitals, you’re opening schools.
“The actions that you take in order to allow everybody to participate in culture on their own terms for their own purposes—which might be another articulation of cultural democracy—are much less obvious. They require some thought. They require some planning. Does that mean that everybody gets to go to art school? There is a wonderful organization I visited in Lyons in central France, which is basically a huge popular carpentry shop, where you can go and use machines, and there’ll be people will help you do it. You can do whatever project you want. Two completely contrasting ideas, but either of them could fit within the concept of cultural democracy. So that’s what I mean when I say that it is objectively a more complicated idea when you come to trying to translate it into action.
“But the other thing that I want to say is part of what is motivating me to return to the subject in another book. It’s a bigger problem which I became aware of, or which I understood more clearly, when I was working on the opera project and doing research. We’ve reached a point where neither of those ideas, neither the policy of cultural democratization nor of cultural democracy, is well understood by the people who are supposed to actually implement them. So the policymakers, the decision makers, sometimes they use that language but because they don’t actually understand or in your terms allow themselves to understand what it means, they are making policy through their actions, not by thinking things through and having a vision or an idea.
“For me, the key test of that is that I don’t see anybody who can say how society benefits from increased public spending in the arts. There’s an assumption. I don’t think it’s a wrong belief that the arts in Britain and in some other countries are woefully underfunded by the public sources. But that isn’t enough, you have to say what value will be created for society which is providing the funding, what value will be created by increasing that funding. That’s what I mean by the absence of policy. So what you have is just an incoherent set of initiatives and programs and actions supported by a performative rhetoric of strategy documents and visions and plans.
“For example, the UK government has outlined a plan for the creative industries. We could have another discussion about what what on earth that means, but this big plan says that by 2030, we will have created a million new jobs in the creative industries. Maybe 40 million people are working, I’m guessing. Suddenly, at a time when people in industry, people in hospitality, people in the services cannot find enough workers to do their work, you go, ‘we’re going to magic up a million new jobs in the creative industries in seven years.’ And the government is very proud that it is putting 77 million pounds of new money on the table to make this happen. So this is what I mean by a vacuum of policy. It is worse than a vacuum of policy because nobody even seems to recognize that there’s a vacuum of policy. There’s just people doing stuff. Yeah, funnily enough, it doesn’t get anywhere.”
We are pretty animated about all this. In the podcast, our cultural democracy discussion leads to a discussion of universal basic income; of whether there’s an us and them framework that distorts social power; of funding and compromise; of whether in retrospect we could have been a bit braver; of speaking truth to power and secretly wanting power to reward you for it; of privilege and its complexities. We hope you’ll listen!
“Looking Back,” Johnny Adams.