January 04 2018

Cultural Democracy

Dr Loraine Leeson, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, explores the idea that art is a vital part of civilised society and should be a method of self-expression for everyone rather than the privileged few.

In November 2017 I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on Cultural Democracy for Suite212 on ResonanceFM. A newly configured Labour Party bringing with it a raft of politicised young people has led to renewed interest in the notion that culture is not, and should no longer be seen as, a domain for the privileged for access by the masses. A counter view is that we are all creative and cultural beings who have a right to individual and group expression, and indeed, that this is one of the factors that constitute a civilised society.

Workshop by The Common, a collective of students studying Art Practice and the Community at Middlesex University. Photo ©Kerri Jefferis

Art of the People

This is not a new idea. In the nineteenth century William Morris initiated an ‘art for the people’ movement, believing that the highest achievements of artistic genius involved the creative engagement of ordinary people. A century later Jennie Lee, arts minister in Harold Wilson’s 1960s Labour government produced the first white paper on the arts, A Policy for the Arts: First Steps, proposing that the arts should occupy a central place in British life and form part of everyday experience for children and adults. The Greater London Council (GLC) picked up on this in the 1980s when Ken Livingstone’s left-leaning government for London moved into County Hall. From a situation where an annual budget of £5 million had previously seen distribution amongst five of London’s ‘centres of excellence’, two of those millions were now re-directed into the newly instituted Community Arts and Ethnic Arts sub-committees. I was privileged to serve on the first of these as part of a panel of community arts practitioners and also to witness at first hand a transformation of the capital through a burgeoning of cultural events. London seemed to come to life with festivals and creative activities in which many who had not previously participated in the arts now played an active part. Sadly, this was short-lived. The policies of the GLC across the board had proved so popular that their success led to a backlash of extreme proportions from the right-wing Thatcher government. In order to stop the work of the GLC a whole tier of regional government was eventually abolished, with the result that, for many years to follow, the UK’s major cities were run by a chaotic collection of government agencies.

In the midst of all this The Shelton Trust published Culture and Democracy: The Manifesto for the 1986 conference Another Standard, organised in Sheffield to bring together community artists from across the world to debate cultural democracy and secure its place on a wider political agenda. This was in fact a central tenet of the community arts movement, which saw the realisation of the creative potential of each individual as a route to social transformation. This right to creative expression was later foregrounded in the Bill of Rights for the 1996 Constitution of South Africa following the abolition of apartheid. In this human rights charter freedom of expression, including artistic creativity, appears no less than eighth on the list following such fundamental issues as equality, freedom from slavery and the right to life.

Policy and Politics

The Conservative government’s Culture White Paper of 2016 nevertheless saw the arts mainly in terms of access, geographical parity, international standing and investment. It succeeded several decades in which the UK Art Council in its various manifestations has increasingly focused on access to the arts, seeing the role of non-specialists as audience, rather than promoting more widespread active participation. The recent reorganisation of the UK Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, has nevertheless proposed placing arts and culture at the heart of government. Its 2017 manifesto for culture A Creative Future For All proposes, for example, an ‘arts pupil premium’ to support cultural activities for schools and measures to support creative industries. However it does not say much more about how the pledge ‘to open up the arts to everyone’ will be fulfilled. To help inform the party’s cultural strategy, members of Momentum and Arts for Labour held workshops at the The World Transformed conference in September 2017. Through two sessions, Cultural Democracy 1 and 2, more than 200 people explored the politics, history and transformative potential of the arts and contributed ideas for a Manifesto for Cultural Democracy. Participants also voted on a set of key values that should underpin this, the three most popular being: democratising the power of arts and culture, the use of arts/culture to create transformational political change, and embedding creativity in society.

Arts for Labour

The first Cultural Democracy session at the conference also served as a re-launch of Arts for Labour, a group originally created in the 1980s by actors and celebrities to improve the wages of cultural workers and support the Labour movement. With an expanding membership that included arts practitioners and trades unions, it later took up the legacy of the GLC’s cultural policies under the leadership of the late Dr. Alan Tomkins. The organisation continued to campaign on cultural issues until the new millennium, after which it concentrated on archiving and reportage. However following a successful fringe meeting at the 2016 Momentum conference, it re-formed as a strategy group to inform, debate and respond to arts and cultural policy, re-launching at The World Transformed the following year. As its new chair I am keen to see how the ideas generated at this and the follow-up events that are planned to take place across the country, can interface with wider policy objectives to lay the groundwork for a radical shift in the way the arts engage with the lives of most people.

Spreading the Word

These ideas formed the basis of the panel discussion at ResonanceFM a few months later. Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, researcher and writer on new forms of democratic accountability, addressed amongst other things the legacy of socialist ideas about art, particularly those of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, and how these ideas have been re-configured by the New Left. Hassan Mahamdallie, playwright, author and previously an Arts Council Diversity officer, particularly looked at the issues through the lens of Arts Council policy since the 1980s. My own perspective was from the position of a practicing artist and academic with experience of the GLC’s cultural achievements. The full discussion is available online.

The notion of cultural democracy has also entered the world of academia. New research at King’s College London resulted in the 2017 report Towards cultural democracy: Promoting cultural capabilities for everyone, with fourteen practical recommendations for how cultural policy can move beyond the ‘deficit model’ of taking art to the people, but rather empowering more individuals in their cultural lives. In higher education Middlesex University has been leading the way with the UK’s first MA Art and Social Practice, which takes creative practice beyond the institution and enables students to engage with people in the wider social sphere. In 2018 the university will also be offering the first BA Fine Art Social Practice exit degree, which will encourage undergraduates to realise their artistic skills in the wider community.


Cultural democracy is not new, but rather an idea that has found a newly conducive context. This is much to do with the growing belief amongst younger generations that change is necessary and that they can and will make it happen. It is also perhaps a confluence between a budding socialist agenda for the UK and the dissatisfaction of so many cultural practitioners over a longstanding retrenchment in public funding for the arts that has sought to control rather than nurture. We should not underestimate what cultural democracy is up against regarding the debilitating effect that increasing privatisation of the arts has been making on this sector. Its ongoing corporate capture indeed seems to be going from bad to worse with the recent appointment of a member of the Murdoch family to Arts Council England’s National Council. It will be up to those who understand that a society stands or falls on the creativity employed by all its citizens to turn this around and enable the democratic values held so dear in societal terms to also enter the sphere of creativity and culture.

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