Art Gets Over-Excited: A response to the Towards cultural democracy report #culturaldemocracy

This is the second of two blog posts examining recently published reports.  The first post focused on the civic role of arts organisations.  This post is a response to Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone and some of the other discussions that developed from its publication.

(Like last time, the blog title is inspired by a song.  This time it’s The Housemartins’ Five Get Over Excited, 1987.  Watch, listen and read the lyrics at the end of this blog post...)

Towards cultural democracy is a report that was commissioned by Kings College London and co-authored by Nick Wilson, Jonathan Gross and Anna Bull.  You can read the full report here.  I’ll first respond to the report before moving on to respond to some of the subsequent discussions and other responses generated by the report.

The report reflects the investigations of the co-authors and is built upon a collaboration with the BBC Get Creative campaign.  It is interesting to note that the Get Creative Steering Group are: 64 Million Artists, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Wales, BBC, Crafts Council, Family Arts Campaign, Fun Palaces, Voluntary Arts, What Next?, Creative People and Places, and Creative Scotland (p. 5).  This alliance of vested interests undoubtedly set the tone for the report.  This is evident from the opening paragraph of the Executive Summary (the very idea of a report extolling the virtues of cultural democracy beginning with an Executive Summary made me laugh out loud):

A vision of the future

Imagine a world in which opportunities to try a wide range of cultural and creativeactivities are available to all young people. From playing an instrument, to designing a website; from writing poetry to learning to breakdance. Imagine that this is made possiblenot only by classes at school, and visits to galleries, theatres and cinemas with parents,  but also because every neighbourhood is one in which young people and their familieshave easy access to information about cultural and creative opportunities nearby, free or affordable for all (p. 3).

 

Whilst I am a great supporter of cultural democracy, this report does not for me reflect the radical, political nature of cultural democracy.  In short, for me, the ideas described in the report are not those of cultural democracy which are perhaps best summarised in Beyond Social Inclusion Towards Cultural Democracy – a report by the Cultural Policy Collective written in 2004 but still relevant today.

It is not, however, my intention to discuss cultural democracy here.  Rather, I want to briefly raise my concerns about the core premise of Towards cultural democracy: it relies heavily upon the ‘Capabilities Approach’ of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (p. 5).  For example,

… it is only when ‘substantive freedom’ is realised in relation to culture – real, concrete freedoms to choose what culture to make, as well as what culture to appreciate – that people are genuinely empowered in their cultural lives.  It is this substantive social freedom to co-create versions of culture that we call cultural capability (p. 5).

The trouble is that the capabilities approach is essentially liberal.  It stems from the unholy alliance of the jumbled misreadings of both the father of capitalism Adam Smith and the father of socialism Karl Marx.  And, whilst highly influential with the UN and the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the capability approach fails, as Hartley Dean (for example) points out, to address “the realities of human interdependency; the hegemonic liberal conception of the public realm; and the extent to which capitalism's global reach is predicated upon exploitative relations of power”.  Indeed, the capabilities approach has been criticised because it “distracts from rather than assists the struggle to name and claim our human needs” (Dean, 2009, pp. 1-2).  That being the case, I argue that the capability approach in not only insufficient in meeting the radical demands of cultural democracy but that it is also incompatible with the key tenets of cultural democracy.

The report is, however, progressive in many ways, particularly in calling for a rethinking of cultural policy around broader notions of creativity and in its critique of Creative People and Places.  Nevertheless, it frequently plays it all rather safe, rather liberal.  This is unsurprising given that its eleven recommendations are aimed at “national cultural policy makers & funders” (pp. 7-10) and to “private trusts and foundations, local cultural policy makers, cultural organisations, individual cultural practitioners and cultural creativity initiatives” (pp. 10-11).  The discourse frequently refers to co-production, everyday creativity, cultural creativity, creative citizens and, most often, to capabilities.  For example,

This report therefore provides a new way to understand creative potential: the substantive freedom to co-create versions of culture. We call this cultural capability. This conceptual framework, and the empirical material which supports it, takes us beyond the initial, hugely important critiques of the deficit model. The idea of cultural capability – a substantive freedom that is socially emergent but individually exercised – not only enables new insights into how cultural creativity happens, it also helps identify a new direction for cultural policy: supporting the cultural capabilities of everyone. We call this cultural democracy, and it offers a clear and progressive path beyond the deficit model (p. 19).

Is this really a description of cultural democracy?  I think not.  This is another attempt to recuperate cultural democracy – to institutionalise it, to render it safe.

This becomes clear as the report progresses.  It claims that “creative citizens manifest behaviours often attributed to entrepreneurs (eg networking; innovation; risk-taking)” and that “young people – and mature students – could be trained and prepared for creative citizenship as part of their education” (p. 38).  Training people to become “creative citizens”?  No thanks!  It moves on to extoll the virtues of the Asset Based Community Development model (p. 57).  Again, no thanks!  Are these words that could really sit comfortably with the radical political discourse of cultural democracy? NO!

To conclude, as the report (unsurprisingly given their involvement on the BBC Get Creative Steering Committee) that “Get Creative, Fun Palaces, Our Cultural Commons and 64 Million Artists” offer insight into a future vision of cultural democracy, is, for me, absolutely astounding.  Whilst these initiatives are well-meaning and well-supported, they do not represent cultural democracy in any way, shape or form.  To suggest otherwise is to get over-excited at best; to misrepresent and depoliticise cultural democracy at worst.

 

Fun Palaces leader Stella Duffy wrote an article Excellence in the arts should not be defined by the metropolitan elite in The Guardian in which, building upon the Towards cultural democracy report, she concluded that:

If we want cultural democracy, genuine culture for all, elitism must make way for creativity and community-led culture. We need to offer everyone not only access to the products of creativity, but access to the means and processes of creativity – only then will we have an inclusive culture for, by and with all.

Unlike the report, Duffy’s article is full of empty phrases and sentiment but mirroring it, the article lacks any radical edge or real relationship to cultural democracy.  As mentioned above, we must move beyond inclusion – way beyond the problematic ideal of inclusion - if we are to fully conceive of the radical potentialities of cultural democracy.  (Who gets to “include” the “excluded”?  What are people being included in?  What if people don’t want to be included? Etc.)  In short, the inclusion agenda is essentially normative.

However, I feel it is important to note that, whilst much of the discussion and comments on Ian Pace’s blog page in response to Duffy’s article (and to a lesser extent the report) is sensible and well-argued even if, at times, verging on the elitist, some of the assertions about her ideas being close to fascism and Stalinism are, quite frankly, ridiculous.  That said, it is an excellent resource featuring a wide range of responses to the notion of cultural democracy (even if many are from within the music sector).

The best response to some of the harsher criticisms of Duffy’s article in The Guardian and to some issues raised about the report came from one of the report’s co-authors, Anna Bull in her blog post Towards Cultural Democracy?  Bull’s addition of a question mark is perhaps suggestive of a hint of uncertainty that may have been airbrushed from the final report by over-optimistic editors.  Whilst she is rightly critical about some of the comments linking Duffy’s (and thereby the report’s) intentions (and the concept of “everyday creativity”) to fascism and Stalinism are stretching the argument somewhat, Bull, in response, argues that Fun Palaces “is an example of extreme localism” – the “opposite” of nationalist extremism.  The notion of “extreme localism” is, however, itself problematic.  (It made me think of The League of Gentlemen, “We didn’t burn him!”)

Nevertheless, I largely agree with Bull’s response, particularly her criticism of the limited potentialities of gallery/ museum education and outreach programmes, and her critiques of elitism and institutionalism.  However, I do not have the same faith in Arts Council England’s “Creative Case for Diversity” as Bull.  It is inherently top-down and, as such, incompatible with the notion of cultural democracy.

All in all, Towards cultural democracy and the ensuing debate around it, everyday creativity and cultural democracy reveals how greatly contested the field of art and culture remains.  The elite and the purists defend high art and art-for-art’s-sake.  The democratisers all too often conflate shallow ideals which remain far closer to the democratisation of culture than cultural democracy.  This is to be expected because the reports are all commissioned by those with vested cultural and political interests, with positions and initiatives to protect.  Most of the participants and intended audiences are, likewise, part of the establishment or at least part of the existing art world (even if notionally slightly more marginal than the high art institutions).  The result is inevitable: Top-down edicts and the appropriation (often naively) of radical political concepts such as, in this case, cultural democracy.  A backlash is therefore inevitable because they do not really want radical cultural or political democracy.  They want “creative citizens” with enhanced (i.e. liberal or neoliberal) “capabilities” that fit within a (slightly more democratic) modified status quo.

The Arts are, once again, getting over-excited in their spurious claims and clunky appropriation of political ideals they do not understand or, for that matter, subscribe to.

THEY want Fun, Fun, Fun…

 

The Housemartins, Five Get Over Excited, 1987 (From the album The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death)…

 

Fun, fun, fun

(Jeremy)

Me, me, me

(Fifi)

Take, take, take

(Jeremy)

Fun, fun, fun

 

James Dean posters on their wall

(Five killed in the car-crash)

What a sad little end to it all

(Five killed in the car-crash)

Last seen having lots of fun

(Five dumped in a river)

Barefoot and on the run

(Five dumped in a river)

 

I am mad from Scandinavia

I want a guy in the London area

He must be crazy and Sagittarius

'Cause I'm Leo and I'm hilarious

 

Fun, fun, fun

(Jeremy)

Me, me, me

(Fifi)

Take, take, take

(Jeremy)

Fun, fun, fun

 

Last seen drinking Daddy's own beer

(Five poisoned over dinner)

Singing Abba's, 'Mamma Mia'

(Five poisoned over dinner)

Drop dead watching Thunder birds fly

(Five get over excited)

Poster on their wall says, 'Why?'

(Five get over excited)

 

I am guy from Camden Town

My hair is curly but I gel it down

My clothes are black but my bread is brown

I'm really into early Motown

 

Fun, fun, fun

(Jeremy)

Me, me, me

(Fifi)

Take, take, take

(Jeremy)

Fun, fun, fun

 

Feigning concern, a conservative pastime

Makes you feel doubtful right from the start

The expression she pulls is exactly like last time

You've got to conclude she just hasn't a heart