An online resource center for the study of cultural policy
from the perspective of cultural democracy
“Cultural policies reflect the fact than [humanity] today is faced with the choice
between seeking a purblind and despairing escape in nihilism,
or resolutely confronting the future.”
— Augustin Girard with Genevieve Gentil
Cultural development: experiences and policies,
2nd ed. (Paris: Unesco, 1983), p. 186
The rubric “cultural policy” describes, in the aggregate, the values and principles which guide any social entity in cultural affairs.
A policy statement can be simply an individual resolution– such as “I intend to avoid sexist language in my writing.” But most commonly, policies are more complex, summing up an organization’s values and decision-making criteria.
Cultural policies are most often made by governments, from school boards to Congress and the White House, but also by many other institutions in the private sector, from corporations to community organizations. Policies provide guideposts for those making decisions and taking actions which affect cultural life.
Cultural policy is sometimes made explicitly, through a process defined by an agency charged with this responsibility. For instance, a ministry of culture or arts agency might draft a policy articulating its goals and operating principles in supporting theater companies in various regions. Very often, however — and most often in the case of the United States — cultural policy is not formally defined. Instead, what we have are the cultural effects — sometimes unforeseen — of social action.
For instance, consider the “urban renewal” phenomenon. Urban redevelopment policies were intended to solve problems of decaying infrastructure, substandard living conditions, crime and overcrowding. But they also had profound effects on the quality of cultural life in our urban centers, by erasing the cultural lives of neighborhoods that were redeveloped, eliminating meeting-places, landmarks, and other things that gave each distinctive flavor, along with the human infrastructure of community organization and relationships.
This kind of de facto cultural policy, amounting to the “side-effects” of social action taken without consideration of cultural impact, can always be deduced from the actions taken by a state or organization.
Augustin Girard of the Studies and Research Department of the French Ministry of Culture put forward this definition of cultural policy in his book Cultural development: experiences and policies, a seminal work in this field:
A policy is a system of ultimate aims, practical objectives and means, pursued by a group and applied by an authority. Cultural policies can be discerned in a trade union, a party, an educational movement, an institution, an enterprise, a town or a government. But regardless of the agent concerned, a policy implies the existence of ultimate purposes (long-term), objectives (medium-term and measurable) and means (men [sic], money and legislation), combined in an explicitly coherent system.(Girard, pp. 171-172)
Just as culture is all-encompassing, cultural policy incorporates a broad range of measures taken to develop cultural life. Many policies with profound cultural impact are made by decision-makers who’ve hardly given cultural considerations a thought — decisions about transportation, for example, or the federal budget. In a truly democratic society, the cultural impact of policies like these would be considered alongside economic and political impacts — the role of public transportation in encouraging or discouraging cultural participation, for instance, or the larger cultural impacts of our sacrosanct military-industrial subsidies.
Today, most policy-makers haven’t made the paradigm shift that would bring culture fully to their consciousness. When government agencies in the industrialized world define cultural policy, for instance, they generally limit themselves to the most specialized expressions of culture: media and communications, the arts, education, and in some countries, sports. The measures taken to implement policy are quite varied. Grants to artists and institutions are common approaches, as are public service employment programs, building and maintaining cultural facilities, encouraging and financing historic preservation, and regulating the airwaves. All are explored further elsewhere in Webster’s World of Cultural Policy.
Recognizing the “Right to Culture”
The “right to culture” has been a key foundation of cultural policy. In 1948, soon after the United Nations was established, its members declared a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” which asserted that
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.
Rene Maheu, Director-General of Unesco (the UN’s cultural arm) at the time, amplified on this right at Unesco’s International Conference on Institutional, Administrative and Financial Aspects of Cultural Policies in 1970:
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. (Girard, pp. 182-183)
It is this recognition of the “duty…to provide…the means of [cultural] participation” which underlies the active stance public authorities around the world have assumed in recent decades in order to secure the public interest in cultural development.
Historical Roots of Cultural Policy
The ideas which have informed cultural policy come from many sources — from traditional practices in diverse societies, from philosophers and theoreticians, from accounts of history and utopian speculations.
Courts, churches, legislatures, and patrons have for many centuries made decisions about whether, why and how to support work in the arts and cultural facilities; about the language and religion of a society; and about such issues as proper dress and behavior. Philosophers and historians have had a good deal to say about the conduct of a society with respect to culture. In every society and every period of history, people have made choices about the culture they would build, how to express their aspirations and fears, how to embody their values in rituals and celebrations. But the concept of a special socio-cultural responsibility for democratic governments is a relatively new invention. The idea of cultural policy as such came into currency after World War II.
In the discourse which has since ensued, the idea of cultural democracy has emerged as the major innovation in cultural policy. Cultural ministers throughout the world became interested in the idea because of their alarm over social trends that are being felt globally: the proliferation of electronic mass media, urbanization, “modernization,” along with the individual alienation and deracination which accompany them. Taken together, these phenomena have come to be known internationally as the “Americanization” of culture. These factors coalesce to breed a pervasive social passivity dangerous to democracy, eroding traditional cultural activities, and replacing them with mind pap like I Love Lucy in forty-seven different languages, emanating primarily from U.S.-based cultural industries.
Of course, these same forces have been at work far longer within the United States than anywhere else — for so long, some would say, that most of us are oblivious to the domestic cultural imperialism that dominates our national culture. It is therefore unfortunate that this discussion was conducted in terms of “Americanization,” as it tended to obscure the deep domestic effects of this complex of cultural forces in the United States and, eventually, to excite U.S. opposition to Unesco altogether (as discussed in the Webster’s World sections on U.S. policy and on International Organizations).
Whenever this topic is raised, you’ll find people defending the U.S. against the charge of cultural invasion with the argument that nobody’s forcing people into the cinemas — everyone wants our art, clothes, food, and television quite simply because they’re the best. Meanwhile, our own regional, local, and minority traditions are endangered by the same unfettered commercial culture. We stand to gain a great deal by involving ourselves in this global discussion, for the light it can shed on how to keep the multiplicity of our own cultural traditions alive.
Cultural Policy Around the World
The challenges to democratic cultural development outlined above are global, but they manifest in different ways from place to place, depending upon local social and political conditions.
For developing societies, the crucial question has been how to preserve and extend indigenous traditions, which root them strongly in the past and provide their deepest sources of energy and inspiration; and at the same time, to take what’s best from the industrialized world without being inundated by it. Most developing societies have been struggling to overcome a long history of cultural colonization — the fact that their theaters, libraries, and airwaves are dominated by the cultures which colonized them centuries ago. But they want to avoid retreating to mere nostalgia, creating an equally artificial culture which has nothing to say to the real conditions of contemporary life. They want to find the best ways to shape modernization when it comes. For instance, in the developing world, it’s often not a question of how to reshape existing broadcasting systems, but how to develop mass media in the first place.
For industrialized societies, the challenges are at once similar and different. For instance, when cultural policy-makers in Europe first began their post-War program of “democratizing high culture,” they tried many different approaches: blockbuster museum shows were promoted like movies, to draw big crowds; ticket-subsidy programs were designed to lure less affluent people into the concert halls; or artists were bused out to perform for captive audiences in schools and hospitals; to name a few examples. But no matter what was tried, the segment of the population which voluntarily participated in prestige arts activities remained the same: a very small percentage of the public, highly educated, financially well-off, and middle-aged or older (just as in the United States).
Facing the indifference and hostility of the vast majority of their populations — sometimes referred to as “non-publics,” to indicate their disinterest in establishment culture — European policy-makers reinterpreted their own roles. They began to see themselves as needing to address the many cultures within their societies, not simply promoting the traditional “high art” culture favored by wealthy patrons in the past. Instead of focusing on how to lure people into established arts institutions, these cultural ministers turned to a set of much broader social questions:
- How can we begin to overcome the already-entrenched alienation of modernization?
- How can we retrieve and preserve relevant traditions?
- How might we facilitate cross-cultural communication, even cooperation?
- How can we help animate community life?
It was at this stage that cultural democracy emerged as the leading edge of cultural policy in Europe, at least in policy-makers’ rhetoric. From the mid- to late-’70s, it looked as if cultural democracy would become the primary strain in European cultural development. But with Thatcherism in Britain and other strong right-wing voices affecting the cultural policy dialogue, there’s been a lot of retrenchment since. These trends accelerated through the Nineties, with governments throughout Europe and around the world “privatizing ” functions formerly considered essential aspects of the public cultural commonwealth.
Means of Promoting Cultural Democracy
Among the primary means devised to realize the aims of cultural democracy is community animation.
In many community animation projects, an artist-organizer uses both artistic and organizing skills to help the members of a community discover and express their own cultural identities and exercise control over their own cultural development. Other kinds of cultural workers have also worked as animateurs of cultural life, to use the French term by which the practice is known in international circles (where animation is often called animation socio-culturelle or, adopting the British form, “socio-cultural community development”). Many examples of animation practice are described in Webster’s World of Cultural Action and in the Guide to the Cultural Landscape.
Much attention has also been paid by post-War policy-makers to the problems posed by the proliferation of electronic mass media:
- How to encourage and sustain democratic media?
- How to ensure media literacy, to enable people to use the media for democratic expression, rather than being held helplessly in their thrall?
- How to encourage and sustain live, participatory, face-to-face cultural activities in societies saturated with mass-distributed product?
Among the experiments which have been tried are community TV studios where community groups are helped to produce programs about their own perceptions and concerns, which are then broadcast on local TV and sometimes nationally, thus linking efforts to promote active participation directly with the otherwise pacifying forms deployed by mass media. Variations on this theme exist in many countries. Examples are featured in Webster’s World of Cultural Action and in the Guide to the Cultural Landscape.
A basic aim underlies most efforts to implement policies of cultural democracy: that the primary task in cultural development is to support the means of cultural production and dissemination, not its ends. This can be a hard point to grasp, since the public arts-funding system in the U.S.has been modelled after the conventional forms of private patronage. Most of its money goes to support end-products: an artist applies for a grant to compose a particular piece of music, or an orchestra applies for a grant to perform it. And since there’s been very little money set aside for these purposes — less than $1 per capita on the federal level — competition for money in the United States (both public and private) is fierce, and most applicants don’t get any.
The cultural democracy alternative is to support the means of cultural participation: making facilities, equipment, materials, education, and jobs widely available, so that everyone who wishes is able to participate. It’s the difference between maintaining a public library (the most democratic of existing cultural institutions in this country) and having a system whereby the most determined readers apply for funds to purchase volumes for their own private libraries, with just one out of every ten or twenty of them getting to buy books.
The Climate for Cultural Democracy
There are many obstacles to seeing the goals of cultural democracy realized. What’s most important for advocates of cultural democracy is to keep the big picture in mind.
The writer Carlos Fuentes has characterized ours as an era of “cultures as the protagonists of history.” Around the globe, everywhere we look, we see evidence of cultures refusing to buckle under to the homogenizing influence of the imperial powers, be they political or corporate. The century now ending has seen the appearance of an ever-growing number of independent states, increasing visibility of ethnic and cultural groups within states, and a global revolt against the technocratic and anti-humane values of western-style development. This big picture — both global and historical — is essential to keeping one’s hopes up for cultural democracy in this last depressing decade of the 20th Century.
There is plenty of evidence to justify discouragement, however. “Ethnic cleansing” and genocide, racism and oppression, are as much a part of our cultural legacy as our abilities to love and nurture one another, embracing and celebrating our many differences.
Clearly, cultural democracy is a vital theme of our epoch. The question is whether we will be able to recognize and engage with it in our own lives and work, whether it will be a good idea that didn”t get over or a way to make positive change.
More Webster’s World Pages on Cultural Policy
Webster’s World of Cultural Policy features much more information about cultural policy, and these presentations will grow further, in response to your interests and those of other Webster”s World users.
Explore what’s here, and let us know if you have questions or suggestions to help shape future additions:
- Further Study in Cultural Policy
- Basic Concepts of Cultural Policy: Modes and Means
- Issues in Cultural Policy
- Resources for Additional Study
- Cultural Policy in The United States of America
- Current Trends in U.S. Cultural Policy
- Cultural Policy in US History
- Cultural Policy Proposals
- A Comprehensive Cultural Policy for the State of California (1978) — 86K, all text: written by Adams & Goldbard and never enacted, due to circumstances amusingly related by Arlene Goldbard in her Author’s Preface (23K, all text), this is the only overall state policy yet proposed in the U.S. to our knowledge.
- Cultural Democracy: A New Cultural Policy for the United States (1988): a proposal for national cultural policy prepared for the Institute for Policy Studies by Adams & Goldbard
- The Global Picture: Cultural Policy Abroad
- Culturelink’s Cultural Policy Data Bank on the Web. Culturelink’s Cultural Policies Data Bank summarizes cultural policies in dozens of countries around the world.
- The World of Cultural Policy summarizes Don Adams’ observations on current trends in international cultural policy discourse, based on his experience at UNESCO’s latest World Conference on Cultural Policies in Stockholm.
- International Organizations