This is my paper given as part of the Movement for Cultural Democracy panel at the Raymond Williams Society Conference in Manchester on 26th April 2019. It’s a mash up of some previous work but I think it is a succinct account of where my thinking is at about cultural democracy and working-class culture.

Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s  Drowning By Numbers , 1988.Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s  Drowning By Numbers , 1988.

Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers, 1988.


Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment.[1]

(T.S. Eliot, East Coker, 1941)

Is it possible to think about the present without thinking about the past and the future?

For Eliot in Burnt Norton (1935):

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Is it possible to think about contemporary challenges to the arts and our cultures without thinking about how and why austerity was imposed, about its ideological implications, about its history and its possible impacts on all our futures?

I was born and grew up in a town called Jarrow (and in neighbouring Hebburn).

Jarrow was, in the words of the town’s socialist MP at the time of the Jarrow March Ellen Wilkinson, a town that was “murdered”. That was in 1936.

I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s. The place was devastated. But we still had solidarity. We still had pride. We still had community spirit.

The rasping, chiming sounds and colourful, self-organised sights of our local juvenile jazz bands shines in my mind. I recently met a lady in a town in Durham and we made a connection when we remembered these bands. They were a common sight in working-class towns across the North East of England and beyond. They were part of working-class culture. They were about cooperation and sharing and making sure no one was left out and everyone was equal.

They’ve all gone now. Almost.

They practiced and met in local community centres and community halls. They’ve all but gone now too.

Archive footage of the Jarrow March, 1936.Archive footage of the Jarrow March, 1936.

Archive footage of the Jarrow March, 1936.

Working-class culture has been systematically, intentionally and savagely dismantled by the British establishment and now we are left with parody and nostalgia and concrete statues and black and white photos in long-forgotten books in libraries threatened by closure and grainy films without a home.

To take away one’s culture, our cultures, is to take away our identity and our pride and our solidarity. To do this and to also take away our homes, our jobs, our ways of living and being together, is nothing short of social cleansing.

What little democracy our forefathers and foremothers struggled so long and so hard to get – to be given – is now in danger of being eroded and taken away. Social cleansing is part of this process.

And I, for one, will not see those privileges and rights stolen now. We must think of our children and their children and their children’s children. We must not only reverse the asset-stripping of our communities and our rights, we must also fight for more rights, for equitable ways of living together, for a better world that addresses all the many pressing issues that face us – all of us!

Archive footage of Juvenile Jazz Bands, c. 1972.Archive footage of Juvenile Jazz Bands, c. 1972.

Archive footage of Juvenile Jazz Bands, c. 1972.

Do you remember the days when it was difficult to escape from the sound of massed kazoos, drums and glockenspiels?

Those were sounds of the juvenile jazz bands, which have largely disappeared from our communities but at one time their appearance at any outdoors event was almost mandatory.

These bands grew mostly out of industrial working-class communities, which funded and supported them.

The instruments were kazoos, drums, glockenspiels. Local organisers wanted the jazz bands to attract as many children as possible.

The bands were primarily formed to give local children something to do, something to belong to, with little or no barriers to participation.

The joining process was very relaxed as opposed to other youth organisations, which often involved initiation ceremonies.

The bands were about cooperation. Fancy uniforms made by the members’ mothers. If one mother had difficulty the other mothers always helped out, no child was ever made to feel different or that their uniform was not as good as someone else’s. Do we really cooperate nowadays?

“Everybody looked after you,” says Sue. “There was always a group of mums that could be relied upon.”

Uniforms were mass produced in a sort of housing estate cottage industry: blue material bought by the yard; gold braid by the foot. It was important that each band member was immaculately turned out.

Committees planned fund-raising and coordinated the running of the band. There was no structured hierarchy.

The band practiced twice a week in the local community centre. Why are our community centres now?

The competitions were virtually every weekend and were often big events that took up most of the day. Medals and trophies were the only rewards for these displays. The band was always proud when it did well.

Milk floats, coal trucks, grocer’s vans, commandeered for free. Likewise, bus companies offering free trips to competitions. People took care of each other. They visited new places together.

These marching bands evolved out of neighbourhoods where there still was something called community spirit, from a society of ordinary people that Margaret Thatcher infamously said, “did not exist”.

These were communities that knew how to entertain themselves and everyone knew everyone else on the estate. People then did not live behind closed doors but got out and organised these bands by themselves to occupy and entertain their children, it was the ultimate exercise in self-help and required nor expected any outside intervention.

Many people may have dismissed the jazz bands, but they were perhaps one of the most visible signs of community and cooperation in an era when these same communities faced considerable economic and social adversity.

The struggle for cultural democracy is part of our fight back against those who have always sought to keep us down – who have always told us: “KNOW YOUR PLACE!”

I know my place: it’s called HOME. We all have homes of one sort or another. And home is where we start from. Not art galleries or spectacles or museums or whatever else we are told are “cultured” places. HOME. This is the place where we build our own cultures, our way.

As a co-organiser of the Movement for Cultural Democracy and a working-class community artist and art historian, I understand how the British state has always privileged some art forms over others; how it classifies some things “art” and other things “not-art”; how it decides on what is and what is not cultural and therefore “cultured”.

The clue is in the establishment’s firm commitment to “great arts and culture” and “excellence”. These terms (along with others) enshrine privilege and connoisseurship in the hands of the few; in the hands of an elite. They decide what is “great” and what isn’t. They are the guardians of “excellence”. Working-class people and people from anything outside their narrow, white, male-dominated, able-bodied, straight, Christian, middle-class cultural strata do not have a say. We’ve NEVER had a say!

The state uses narrow definitions to determine how tax-payers’ and lottery players’ money is “invested”. It decides on “cultural blackspots” and areas of “low cultural engagement” solely based on its previous investment decisions and on what it considers to be activities, practices and creative acts that are worthy of the term “art”, “culture”, etc. Its agents and its institutions reproduce these assumptions. And when it invests in places lacking in “cultural capital” it offers much too little, much too late. It also misjudges and belittles the many cultural and creative activities that already exist in these places of “low engagement”. Usually, but not always, it seeks to “civilise” these “uncultured” places and people by preaching the Gospel of Great Art and Culture from its Bible of Artistic Excellence.

This is how our current system operates. This is the preservation of elite arts and culture with a scattering of a sense that this vision of arts and culture needs to be democratised (the democratisation of arts and culture). The “democratisation” process is, at least for those at the top of the hierarchy, a sham, of course. For others lower down the Great Art and Excellence pecking order, it is a gift of enlightenment to be delivered to the “great unwashed” with a missionary zeal. For yet others, it’s a way of making money as mercenaries.

This is a fundamentally hierarchical system that suppresses, represses and oppresses working-class people and “others” people that do not fit their middle-class norms. The state we’re in is as far away from a cultural democracy as is possible to get. We have a representative democracy that ultimately is part of the monarchy. Hierarchy lies at the very heart of our way of being. We are told to participate but the level of permitted participation (a troubling word anyway) is always dictated from above. We are told to collaborate, but collaborate with whom and for what and whose purpose? Cooperation, solidarity, honesty and trust are in short supply.

It is time to wake up to what state-supported arts and culture looks like in 2018. It reflects the deeply unfair and oppressive system in which we live today. It is deeply privileged and hierarchical and it demeans any cultural forms that do not fit with those of the status quo – the elite. This isn’t new. It has always been this way.

Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s  Drowning By Numbers , 1988.Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s  Drowning By Numbers , 1988.

Screenshot from Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers, 1988.

It’s time to wake up to their game of Sheep and Tides.

These are statistics from Arts Council England’s 2017/2018 Annual Report.

Of the total funding available to Arts Council England, National Portfolio Organisations received 57% of Grant in Aid (money from tax-payers) and 61% of Lottery Funding. They also accessed significant amounts of the National Lottery funding available via Grants for the Arts.

Grants for the Arts – the fund available to individuals, small groups, etc. but also to National Portfolio Organisations and larger cultural institutions – received only 14% of National Lottery funding available to Arts Council England. In terms of Arts Council England’s overall expenditure, Grants for the Arts represented only 7% of its total investment in arts and culture in 2017/18. 93% of funding for arts and culture was not available for those at the bottom of the cultural ladder: a ladder already missing many rungs – rungs that are cultural activities not deemed so by Arts Council England.

This shows why a radical redistribution of funds is urgently required and why we need to work towards a cultural democracy. Why should certain artistic and cultural forms be privileged at the expense of others? Why should a privileged middle-class cultural hierarchy take so much money from not just lottery funds but also from central government coffers? Surely, we should be supporting those most in need in this country, not those with the most? Of course, an equitable and proportional balance of cultural activities should be achieved so that working-class cultures and cultural activities receive their fair share of money available. How this money should be used should be decided upon locally and by fair, transparent and accountable means supported by participatory democracy.

Because the problem is much more serious than these figures suggest. Of the 7% of government funding available to artists, community members, small groups, and arts institutions of all sizes via Grants for the Arts, a huge proportion of the £71 million allocated in 2017/18 went to institutions, rather than artists or other non-constituted groups. This needs fully analysing but looking through the quarterly data provided by Arts Council England shows clearly who gets most.

What we see in England (and I am confident that this is reproduced in relatively similar ways in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is the almost total institutionalisation of arts and culture.

There’s no money for community groups to collectively organise their own cultural activities. There’s no money for self-organised carnivals, festivals, juvenile jazz bands, and the myriad of other cultural activities not deemed to be worthy of government assistance, should they want it (they may not of course, and that’s fine). There’s little or no money from local councils cut to the bone by imposed Tory austerity. There’s no democratic decision-making for local people. There’s no cultural democracy.

This must change, and it must change NOW!

We all learn and experience and express ourselves through cultural activities (whether “high” art or “popular” cultures and subcultures). Our creativity leads us to everyday revolutions that change our ways of being and living in our everyday cultures.

So why do we privilege artists to “engage” people in projects or “work” with people in ill-defined and misunderstood “social” spaces or places?

Which side are we on?

We are privileged. It’s how we use that privilege that matters. We must recognise that our cultural practices are powerful and that we are influential. We must use our influence positively to bring about real and lasting change – radical change.

This is not the time to be instrumentalised by the state, by local authorities, by corporations, by NGOs, by those with vested interests in developing or profiting from our present neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of a neo-colonial Western culture propped-up by art and proliferated using the slow violence of a “socially engaged art” that pretends to be about cultural democracy but is actually its antithesis.

We must not be mercenaries or the missionaries for a divisive state-sanctioned, exclusive, elitist and extremely limited hegemonic “culture”.

We can be mediators, but only if we recognise the privileged position of being able to mediate, and only if we do this with humility and when we do this ethically.

We can be mobilisers working as part of a broad movement of movements for radical social and political and economic change that embraces and cherishes everyone’s cultures and everyday cultural activities.

We can help bring down the citadels.

We can challenge status quos.

We can call for the decolonisation of our racist Western culture.

We can call out those who proliferate inequity, selfish individualism and greed.

We can stand together with those who are denied the privilege given to us.

Are we truly using our privilege to help bring about truly radical acts?

Human relationships, radical action and democratic grassroots participation must happen in our everyday lives.

We need a Revolution of Everyday Life: revolutions of everyday lives.

As artists, we can help bring about a revolution of our everyday lives, of everyone’s lives and ways of being and living.

We can help people self-organise, cooperate and reignite our understanding of ourselves as individuals who are stronger collectively.

Screenshot from Men Without Hats’  Safety Dance , 1982.Screenshot from Men Without Hats’  Safety Dance , 1982.

Screenshot from Men Without Hats’ Safety Dance, 1982.

Cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful. But it has never before been harnessed so nefariously in the name of “social work”, now disguised as a false and undemocratic appropriation of cultural democracy.

We must say NO! We must remember our roots; revisit our histories. We must understand how and why our arts and cultures have been separated from our everyday lives.

We must be wary of those who seek to enforce their values upon our creativity or denounce our cultures as inferior to “official” cultural activities.

The qualities of radical acts exist in the form of aesthetic experiences not shallow, monolithic Kantian aesthetics and a racist, technocratic one-dimensional culture based on selfish individualism and “free market economics”.

Still from  Poverty Safari: About The Author  - A short film by Steven Reynolds, 2017.Still from  Poverty Safari: About The Author  - A short film by Steven Reynolds, 2017.

Still from Poverty Safari: About The Author – A short film by Steven Reynolds, 2017.

Our everyday acts and our everyday cultures transcend instrumentalism.

Our everyday lives take must not be determined by institutions – artworld or otherwise.

We are to them like dandelions. We are weeds.

Yet, whilst they regard themselves as fragrant roses, safe within their walled gardens, we know that old roses, old cultivars, grow weak with age. We know that, as dandelions, as wildflowers, we are vigorous and hardy and that we can grow anywhere – whether inside or outside the false boundaries of their garden.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

[1] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’ in Four Quartets, 1941.

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