Towards cultural democracy?

Musicologist, pianist and activist Ian Pace has collated a set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy in the Guardian, commenting on a report that I co-authored on ‘everyday creativity’. These responses take a critical view of the central idea of the report, that cultural policy should move further towards supporting everyday creativity, and suggest that there are a variety of dangers with this approach. I have responded below to some of the comments.

Several commentators make comparisons between a shift towards ‘everyday creativity’ and arts policies under fascist regimes. They draw on historical examples from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany relating to the problem of addressing elitism in the arts via democratisation, and include an accusation that this kind of policy shift would be ‘Stalinist’. While I think using historical examples to make a comparison can be helpful, it’s noticeable that these comments leap straight to fascism rather than considering any other, less extreme, examples, such as the Greater London Authority’s leftist cultural policy in the 1980s. This leap is the equivalent of suggesting that any form of economic redistribution leads to communism. By contrast, Stella Duffy gives the example of Fun Palaces, an organisation that has minimal central organisation and takes very different forms in local areas. Some Fun Palaces might draw on ‘elite’ forms of art such as literature while others might make space for more participatory forms. Rather than fascism, this is an example of extreme localism, its opposite.

In the responses, there are also questions raised about how quality and taste can be arbitrated within cultural democracy, and concerns about how such a system could produce good quality art; if everyone is making culture, isn’t there going to be a shift towards populism with cultural funding being governed by audience ratings and popularity? For example, Bjorn Heile argues that:

The question is how quality is defined. There is silence on this here, but I guess   what is implied in the text is: ‘that which involves or pleases the greatest number of people.’

A second concern is, won’t this produce an awful lot of bad art, and no good art? Michael Morris states:

[T]here’s no reason to think democracy in art will lead to better art; and it’s not obviously a goal of art itself that everyone should be a part of it – even if that’s something we all might want for other (most obviously political) reasons.

These comments contain the assumption that democratising culture leads to abandoning aesthetic judgement. However, studies of non-mainstream culture show that there are complex and sophisticated judgements of quality taking place within subcultures. These very discussions about what constitutes ‘better art’ have to be part of the cultural democracy that we are seeking. ‘Good art’ is not predefined, but assessed through ongoing debates. These comments point to a fear of ‘populism’ which seems to be equated to commercial culture. This is a simplistic idea which overlooks the vibrancy, creativity, and critical discussions that are going on all the time in different creative subcultures, whether Harry Potter fan fiction, evangelical church music, cos-play conventions, or the British composers’ awards.

The comments also mention cultural organisations’ outreach and education programmes as evidence that existing cultural policy already supports everyday creativity. For example, Eva Moreda Rodriguez argues that:

Every orchestra, opera, museum, writers’ centre etc. etc. in the country has a       thousand outreach programmes where children and adults can “do” things for themselves.

These kinds of programmes tend to involve a different kind of cultural participation to the ‘everyday creativity’ we are arguing for. Outreach and education programmes vary greatly in their content and scope, from organisations that genuinely have a two-way engagement with local people and provide meaningful opportunities, to those that still work in a model of what one participant in my PhD research described as ‘music for the poor people’ – a colonial model of bringing culture to people who are assumed not to have any. While most outreach officers will not (I hope) hold this attitude, they may still be at odds with the rest of their organisation as they try to serve the communities they work in while the overall artistic direction of their organisation does not take any notice of their work (see O’Brien and Durrer 2015). Outreach and education officers cannot be expected to be the sticking plaster that makes ‘great art’ accessible to the 92% who, according to the Warwick Commission on Cultural Value, do not regularly engage with it.

This brings me to a focus on what I call the ‘institutionalisation’ of culture – how culture is organised in society, how groups run their activities, how they get money, who knows about them, and who values their work.  Looking at the ways in which cultural participation is organised allows us to make sense of some of the critiques that are made by Pace and others. For example, Pace comments that ‘one should be wary of viewing ‘community’ as necessarily a wholly benevolent or benign thing’; communities can create divisions and barriers as well as overcoming them. In this, Pace is correct, but he could have gone on to say that currently, the arts contribute to reinforcement of the ‘echo chamber’ of white middle-class opinion and worldview. By contrast, writers such as Bev Skeggs have shown how different cultures and ways of life exist in the UK that are not reflected or even necessarily acknowledged by those who make policy. Working class cultures can be very different to middle class culture, but the latter is much more visible, and is therefore taken to be the unspoken norm. Cultural policy is, therefore, already reinforcing existing historic divisions of class and race, for example by giving money to those forms of arts that organise themselves in the ways which are recognised by the state. In our report we discuss the example of BAME arts and cultural participation groups, which tend to operate on a local and short-term basis, for example coming together to organise an annual mela then disbanding till the next year. These, as well as ‘community-facing’ South Asian arts practices, as Jasjit Singh describes them, are not visible to funders such as Arts Council England. As a result, they don’t garner funding in the same way as groups that have the resources, knowledge, and interest in organising in ways that are recognised by the state. Cultural policy has to recognise that existing arrangements for how culture is organised prioritise certain groups and certain forms of art over others.

Pace goes on to suggest that both the market and community-based art (by which I assume he means the everyday creativity we describe in the report) is ‘unlikely’ to produce ‘a critical art, which can deal with uncomfortable and unsettling phenomena, represent non-populist and minority perspectives, and look beyond the existing world (and existing societies) towards what might be, not just what has been.’ He is wrong to say that the market or everyday creativity cannot produce critical art; for example, Anahid Kassabian’s (2016) writing on African American women making their own web series shows these women expressing a critical consciousness (including new ways of using sound in film) through grassroots cultural production. This example shows how critique may be occurring in ways that are not recognised, or even known about, by white middle-class culture.

Arts Council England has made a progressive move with its ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ which requires the process of creating culture to involve a diverse range of people as well as expecting the audiences and performers to be diverse. I would like to see this idea pushed further, leading to more experimentation and cross-genre collaboration in cultural production. I would also like to see this policy address class as well as other forms of inequality. Class inequality is not included in the Equality Act 2010 so it is usually missed out of ‘diversity’ metrics, but as Dave O’Brien and colleagues’ (2016) research has shown, the ‘class ceiling’ in the arts, especially in music, is possibly the biggest form of inequality that exists. But one way to make the Creative Case for Diversity work in practice is simply to support opportunities for more people to create culture, and for cultural policy to recognise the wide range of cultural creativity that is already taking place.



Durrer and O’Brien in Maguire, J.S., Matthews, J. (Eds.), 2014. The Cultural Intermediaries Reader. SAGE Publications Ltd, Thousand Oaks, CA.


Kassabian, A., 2016. “You mean I can make a tv show?”: Web series, assertive music, and African-American women producers, in: Hawkins, S. (Ed.), The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender. Ashgate.


Neelands, J., Belfiore, E., Firth, C., Hart, N., Perrin, L., Brock, S., Holdaway, D., Woddis, J., 2015. Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. University of Warwick.


O’Brien, D., Laurison, D., Miles, A., Friedman, S., 2016. Are the creative industries meritocratic? An analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey. Cultural Trends 25, 116–131. doi:10.1080/09548963.2016.1170943


Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable. SAGE, London.




Towards cultural democracy?

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